Wagonstage Theatre celebrates half a century of bringing performances to Calgary kids

Wagonstage, the touring theatre ensemble created by the drama department at the University of Calgary, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

U of C drama department troupe started with shows in city parks in 1971

Lana Skauge, John Ghitan, Judy Allen, Gayle Murphy, John Poulsen performed 'Copetown City Kite Crisis' written by Rex Deverell, and directed by Rick McNair as a part for Wagonstage in 1979. (U of C School of Creative and Performing Arts)

The touring theatre ensemble created by the drama department at the University of Calgary celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Wagonstage Theatre launched in 1971 and has been touring and bringing theatre to young people around the city and southern Alberta ever since — and it's were playwright Clem Martini cut his theatre teeth. 

Over the years, he has acted, produced, directed and written for Wagonstage. On Monday, he joined The Homestretch to share the history of the theatre company and his fondest memories. 

Martini, a drama professor at the University of Calgary, said Wagonstage officially launched in the 1970s but it was unofficially putting on shows well before then. 

Wagonstage performers Vicki Stroich, Carrie Innes, Curt McKinstry and Katie Sanders perform Future of the World in Sande by Clem Martini and directed by Larry Smith for kids at Calgary's Olympic Plaza in 1998. (U of C School of Creative and Performing Arts)

"The very first performance was, I believe, in '66, but it wasn't called Wagonstage. It was on a truck, it was truck theatre. It was invented by Victor Mitchell, and they went around and they performed theatre in parks," said Martini.

But then, in 1971, the city's parks department joined forces with the U of C and Wagonstage was born.

"An actual wagon was dragged into city parks, and the University of Calgary students performed on that wagon to young people around the city," he said.

Wagonstage performers Genevieve Bourdon, Andrew Oberhoffer, Amanda Hall and Bradley Altoin perform Gilly Goes West by Donna Turner and directed by Brian Dorscht in 2005. (U of C School of Creative and Performing Arts)

Half a century later, Martini says the actors no longer perform on a wagon, but the concept remains the same. 

"Now it travels around in a van, and this year it's performing at a container theatre. There's three actors. They perform outside and it looks remarkably like it used to," he said. "They're young, game, talented actors who are in costume and performing in all kinds of weather — hot and cold — to young people who are sitting on the ground avidly watching."

Martini, an award-winning author, said he fondly remembers his time as a 21-year-old member of the company in 1977.

"We performed three shows and we performed four times a day in all kinds of weather, not only all over the city, but we went down to Strathmore, up to Red Deer and we drove in a very hot and eventually very smelly van," he said. 

Wagonstage performers Sarah Bannister and Oderin Tobin perform Jumpy and the From by Meredith Taylor-Parry and directed by Sarah Bannister in 2017. (U of C School of Creative and Performing Arts)

"But, you know, it was fantastic. It was a fantastic experience, one of the best experiences of my life."

Martini said the most rewarding part of being a Wagonstage performer was the chance to introduce theatre to many kids in the province. 

"We brought theatre to kids who in some cases had never seen a show, never seen an actor and were amazed. They would watch the show and sometimes come back three times," he said.

"Sometimes they'd stick around just to ask questions like, 'how do you learn all those lines? Do you just go from here to Hollywood?' Every kind of question imaginable. It was magic. It was really magic."

Wagonstage actor Amber Billingsley performs in Bev the Builder written by Maggie Kwong and directed by Jovannie Sy during a show at Calgary's containR, a pop-up arts and culture hub and stage, in the summer 2021. (U of C School of Creative and Performing Arts)

This summer, the troupe is performing two short plays, written, designed and directed by students in the master of fine arts program and performed by undergraduate drama students.

Each show is 30 minutes and, according to Wagonstage, "jam packed with masks, puppets, juggling and physical comedy."

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch.


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