Canadian diversity and theatre culture

By: Elie Ngoy

Published on: September 07 2022

Photo: Ludovic Migneault (Unsplash)  

Performing arts and theatre culture have always been a pillar of Canadian culture. In historical terms, many indigenous peoples performed rituals and dramas as part of sacred ceremonies and traditions. These dramas and rituals were performed hundreds of years before the European settlers arrived.  

European theatre came to Canada with Sir Humphrey Gilbert and “a little company of mummers” in 1583. This set the tone for the rich theatre culture that defines Canadian culture today. At the time of this venture, the protestant and catholic churches were not fully supporting the theatre trend, likening the entertainment to brothels.  

However, as norms began to change, theatre culture grew and expanded into central and Atlantic Canada. Plays became a prominent form of entertainment, and they were performed anywhere they could be set up, such as in local taverns and pubs. It was not the norm to cast females at the time, so male actors performed many original plays.  

In 1789, significant steps towards mainstream growth began with soldiers in Halifax building the famous Grand Theatre, and it officially opened with a production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. After its initial successes, more theatres would be built across Canada.  

The first theatre built for the public in Canada was the Theatre Royal in Montréal, Canada. Many of the first professional theatre companies that began touring in Canada performed at this location—paving the way for Canadian cinema, drama, and performing arts as a significant symbol of Canada.  

Fast forward to today, theatre culture has played an enormous role in the life of Canadians, and it has allowed us to celebrate our great diversity. In various cities such as Toronto, Montréal, Ottawa, London, and Vancouver, theatres solely dedicated to the development of pieces by and about Canada’s diverse cultural population were established, such as Black Theatre Workshop (1972), Teesri Duniya Theatre (1981), Cahoots Theatre Projects (1986), Obsidian Theatre Company (2000), fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company (2002), and  Neworld Theatre (1994). Visible minorities finally had a new and empowered outlet to tell their stories through the artistic opportunities of the creative arts. This latest push for diversity also allowed Canadian theatre to develop many new forms, styles, and reports that were unlike the conventional European works of Shakespeare.  

Photo: Robin Gislain Gessy (Unsplash)  

One of the richest forms of Canadian theatre is the works of First Nations Theatre—which has managed to reach a broad audience throughout the country. Tomson Highway, Monique Mojica, and Daniel David Moses are some of the great pioneers and ambassadors of First Nations theatre, and they have helped this form of theatre to grow throughout the country. 

In Canada, we also have a rich indie theatre culture. Numerous graduates around the country have opened up workshops and theatre companies with the exclusive mandates of championing inclusiveness and diversity. You can find these works at the local university theatres that often have played with free admission or a low cost of entry, a perfect family outing!  

To experience the great culture of Canadian theatre, please visit your local theatre and support the work of local artists, directors, and playwrights. Here are a few theatres throughout various cities for all those who may be interested:  

Theatre is a fantastic way to learn about Canadian culture and diversity. Not only is it a unique opportunity to spend with friends and family, but it is a pathway to understanding a lost art in the generation of on-demand cinema and digital video. Many playwrights and actors/actresses may work year-round to prepare for complex productions; this is also a fantastic opportunity to show support for your newfound community!  

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