The History of Prairie Theatre: The Development of Theatre in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan 1833-1982


291 pages
Contains Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88924-121-X





Reviewed by Terrence Paris

Terrence Paris is Public Services Librarian at Mount St. Vincent
University in Halifax.


Ross Stuart, chairman of the theatre department at York University and former editor of Canadian Theatre Review, should persuade all his readers that the history of theatre in Canada is not merely the history of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. Community theatre in the prairie provinces has involved more people and presented more plays than any place in Canada. Academic credit for practical theatre studies, advanced degrees in theatre, and summer theatre schools have ensured knowledgeable and enthusiastic participation. This spirit has persisted from the early days of the touring companies. The British actor Sir John Martin-Harvey, who began touring the West in 1914, remarked that “in Chicago, with its million inhabitants, a week of Oedipus produced $6,090 — a similar week in little Winnipeg produced $11,500.” Edmonton, during the same period, had more stock companies than any American city of comparable size. Even in the lean years from the thirties to the sixties, theatre was kept alive by amateur companies and by drama educators. Regina’s “Mrs. Drama,” Mary Ellen Burgess, directed, taught, broadcast, organized, administered, and adjudicated; her devotion to stagecraft sent her as far afield as Nova Scotia.

Related to chronic worries about imminent financial crisis were the inconstant fortunes of regional playwrights. As early as 1880 local writers like Frank Clarke were creating plays about community life — The Big Boom satirized the collapse of real estate speculation in Winnipeg. Regional themes soon gave way to pirated Broadway hits and to the basic repertoire imported from Britain and the United States. Folk playwrights like Gwen Pharis Ringwood found support from amateur groups; her plays anticipated the popular collective creations of the Twenty-fifth Street Theatre which, by the 1970s, could attract healthy box office receipts.

Stuart’s inventory of companies, productions, and actors seems exhaustive. He presents the facts and avoids opinions and theories. There are a few anecdotes about personalities and controversies, but not enough to enliven the sober narrative. There are no illustrations. Footnotes are not provided to link quotations in the text to the sources listed in the extensive bibliography. All the plays referred to in the text are listed in a separate index.


Stuart, E. Ross, “The History of Prairie Theatre: The Development of Theatre in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan 1833-1982,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,