The 14 plays that changed everything for Canadian theatre
Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor offer up their Canuck theatre favourites
This article is an excerpt from the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists. It was written by Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor, who are two of Canada's leading actors, playwrights and directors. Their work has been performed by theatre companies across the country. They have collaborated on several productions, including Here Lies Henry (1995), Monster (1998), Cul-de-sac (2002), House (2010) and Who Killed Spalding Gray? (2014).
When we were asked to submit a list of essential Canadian plays and playwrights, we were honoured but we also knew we were in trouble. How on earth could we come up with a finite list with so many indispensable, dazzling works to pick from? So we focused on the word essential: plays that had influenced us; had impacted other writers, actors and directors; had brought attention to Canadian theatre from outside Canada; and, in some cases, plays that broke new ground. Also, we only considered plays at least 10 years old (it requires some marinating to become essential). Finally, we wouldn't include anyone from our immediate circle, just to be fair. It was not easy distilling it down to 14, but the list had to end somewhere or else it's not a list so much as a book...hey, there's an idea!
Fortune and Men's Eyes by John Herbert (1964)
An extraordinary play, and subsequent movie, exploring homosexuality and violence in a men's prison. While serving six months for possession of marijuana, Smitty becomes the sexual subordinate of Rocky, who occupies the top of the prison food chain. The play draws on Herbert's own experience doing time following his conviction for dressing in drag in 1947 under the "same-sex sexual activity laws" that were only repealed in 1969. Although Herbert's work is now the most published play in Canada, back in 1967 no one here would touch this modern masterpiece with a 10-foot pole. New York's Actors Studio didn't pass up the opportunity, however, and promptly workshopped it with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight starring as Rocky and Smitty, the same illustrious acting duo who went on to light up the screen in Midnight Cowboy. Herbert lived in Toronto and wrote several more plays, but this one was the game-changer, lifting the lid on a previously unspeakable topic and the harshness of prison life.
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Les Belle-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay (1968)
Creeps by David Freeman (1971)
"Groundbreaking" barely covers it. Creeps was the first play to ever feature stories about people with disabilities and the dysfunction bred of the silence and denial they frequently face. The original production was part of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre's first season and included incandescent performances by John Candy and Frank Moore. Freeman demonstrated how the personal could be converted into artful, incisive social commentary that touched us all.
Ten Lost Years by George Luscombe (1974)
Ten Lost Years began life as a book, an oral history of the Great Depression as told by its survivors to author Barry Broadfoot. It was published in 1973, and the next year, Luscombe, along with writer Jack Winter and musician Cedric Smith, brought the book to the stage of Luscombe's groundbreaking Toronto Workshop Productions. Onstage, Ten Lost Years was a complex collage of storytelling and music, and the words spoken by the 10 actors came directly from the pages of the book. Luscombe was a pioneer of this kind of documentary drama that told stories about the Canadian working class. Critic Jack Kapica wrote in the Montreal Gazette that Ten Lost Years "packs an emotional wallop long unmatched in the annals of Canadian theatre." Over a two-year period, more than 66,000 Canadians saw the play in the course of 42 weeks of touring in all 10 provinces.
Mercer Family Play Cycle by David French (1972–88)
A transplanted Newfoundlander, French never strayed far from the rich vein of family lore and tradition he mined to create these classics, including Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately. David French created the Canadian equivalents of Tennessee Williams's characters with their haunting, visceral, essential take on leaving home, politics, love and the eternal drama of families.
Maggie and Pierre by Linda Griffiths and Paul Thompson (1980)
There was so much to admire in this two-act monologue about the tortured relationship between Canada's brainy but aloof prime minister and his young flower child wife. Linda played all three roles, two of which were men. It was exciting to see Linda's voice emerge, and exciting to see the gender bending. It took courage for a woman to take on a man's role, especially a man everyone in the audience already knew. Perhaps most amazing of all, the play actually managed to make Canadian politics sexy.
The Crackwalker by Judith Thompson (1980)
Dragon Trilogy by Robert Lepage (1985)
This is the play that brought Robert Lepage to the attention of the world. It was incredibly ambitious: nearly six hours long, in four parts, and spanning 80 years, it traces the interwoven lives of two girls from Quebec City, a Chinese immigrant laundryman, and an Englishman who arrives in Quebec to open a shoe store. It asked a lot of audiences, but it was worth it.
Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp by Blake Brooker (One Yellow Rabbit) (1987)
Where to start with these canny Calgary disruptors, One Yellow Rabbit? Satirical, hilarious, original, adventurous — a play that takes you on a musical journey of B-movies, European cabaret traditions, the history of fascism, and Canada's own Holocaust denier Jim Keegstra. Every bit original and inspiring, this play raised the bar for us all. Thank you, One Yellow Rabbit.
Toronto, Mississippi by Joan MacLeod (1987)
Like Judith Thompson before her, MacLeod used her own experiences as a social worker to shape her writing in Toronto, Mississippi, a play exploring the realities of mental disability, family dynamics and the creative capacity of an Elvis impersonator. MacLeod, however, invokes a tender, more lyrical voice to expose the complexities of people's lives and the determination to transform them in the face of adversity. With 11 plays and numerous awards to her credit, MacLeod has created a small universe of wonderful, fascinating characters with whom you can empathize, people you'd feel lucky to share a dinner table with.
7 Stories by Morris Panych (1989)
The play opens with a man in a suit standing on the seventh-storey ledge of a building, about to jump. Suddenly a window flies open, and a sucession of inhabitants prattle on about the ups and downs of their own day, seemingly oblivious of the life and death scenario playing out before them. Provocative, cynical, whimsical, absurdist, Morris Panych has defined contemporary Canadian theatre in tone and form. He's written 30 plays, directed 90 more, and lived or had work produced in virtually every province — a true Canadian all-star.
Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway (1989)
Irreverent and totally refreshing, Dry Lips was a much needed change-up in Canadian theatre storytelling. It told a tragicomic story of men on the Rez protesting an all-girl hockey team, drawing criticism and controversy for its portrayal of Native men's attitudes towards women. Highway's choice to use humour as his weapon to talk about enduring universal struggles and inequity was brave and inspiring. The play catapulted Highway into Canadian theatre history, becoming the first play written by a Canadian to get a commercial production at Toronto's esteemed Royal Alexandra Theatre.
'da Kink in My Hair by Trey Anthony (2001)
Eight black women drop their guard and dish at a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto. Trey Anthony's brilliant mashup of singing, drumming and dancing hit all the right notes. The heartfelt, funny and relatable triumphs and trials of these women's lives, captured perfectly in Anthony's dialogue, fed an audience hungry for something they weren't getting anywhere else.
Excerpted from The Book of Lists. Canadian edition copyright © 2005, 2017 by Ira Basen and Jane Farrow. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.