Passe Muraille: A National Theatre for the World and All of Us

the farm show
Last Monday evening I sat at Theatre Passe Muraille with a capacity crowd for the Opening Night of The National Theatre of the World’s newest season for Impromptu Splendor. As part of Naomi Wright’s inaugural Play Reading Series former Theatre Passe Muraille Artistic Director, Paul Thompson sat down with original cast member Ann Anglin to tell stories about the development of Theatre Passe Muraille’s seminal collective creation The Farm Show (1972). Anglin and Wright read scenes from the play with a panel of other readers and then, original Farm Show cast member Miles Potter and theatrical marvel Raoul Bhaneja joined Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram (two of the three founding members of The National Theatre of the World; Ron Pederson is currently sharing his immense talents with Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton) to improvise a new Canadian play in the style of The Farm Show, entitled The Suburbia Show, which was devised from brief interviews with audience members and a strong dose of improvisation, and much gleeful harkening back to the conventions and experiences that made The Farm Show so unique in Canadian history.
Judith Rudakoff, author, dramaturg, professor, playwright and critic in the theatre once wrote, “You have to maintain the connection to the people who made history in order to keep it alive” and I think that this is an imperative truth for our community. I learn more from listening to Paul Thompson speak, whether he is giving a public speech or sharing stories over drinks, than I have from reading any essay or pouring over any dusty old book (as much as I love essays and dusty old books), Thompson never fails to inspire and enlighten me about the theatre of the past and the theatre of the future.
Theatre Passe Muraille means “theatre without walls” because its founders, Paul Thompson among them, were part of a Canadian theatrical revolution which sought to tear down the walls of convention, the strict, traditional ideas of what theatre “should be” and to dare to create something new in a country that was being utterly dominated by shows from Broadway and the West End and the plays of the classic theatrical canon. Theatre Passe Muraille, along with Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre and CentreStage and Toronto Free (which would merge in 1988 to become The Canadian Stage Company), brought the concept of Canadian plays being the basis of Toronto’s theatre tradition to light in the early 1970s, inspiring a wave of playwrights from across the country to work toward allowing Canadian dramatists a strong and vibrant home from which to tell their stories; a fight that is still being waged in some cities to this day.
Thompson speaks about the climate of Canadian Theatre in the early 1970s as being an exciting, dynamic period of transformation and innovation. He says that there was an amazing pool of young talent, among them Miles Potter, Eric Peterson and David Fox, who couldn’t make a living or couldn’t justify trying to make a living doing theatre. He says that there was a huge assortment of talented people in this city and that they were all being underused; some were trying to fit in at the Stratford Festival, but found the work there to be unfulfilling, or that they simply wanted the opportunity to try something else, to create something new, to expand their artistic horizons and to leap into unchartered waters. The 1960s and the 1970s were a political time of social change, where young people especially demonstrated that with determination and passion, progress was achievable. These young people stood up bravely for what they believed in, not by clicking a button, but by actively seeking to make a difference in the world; a world that was far from perfect, a world that must have seemed to have insurmountable obstacles behind every corner from violent racism to sexism to classism and homophobia– a plethora of boxes waiting to contain any sort of independent thought or liberal idea. Making a Canadian theatre, in the grand scheme of things, could have seemed insignificant, but the founders of these five theatres would not be deterred. They knew of how important it was for Canadians to have their own tradition, their own canon of plays, playwrights and other artists, to embrace the culture that is ours, our stories, our experiences, what makes us unique and special, to ask the questions that are pertinent to our lives, in our time, within our borders, and to encourage all Canadians to create a communal experience with us for our hearts to meet their hearts in the most visceral of ways.
When I am fortunate enough to hear Paul Thompson speak, I am continually struck by the similarities I see between the theatre community in 1970 and the theatre community right now. I look around me and I see a gigantic pool of the most incredibly talented artists who are being underused. I see actors molding themselves in order to “fit in” at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals far more than I see the Stratford and Shaw Festivals blossoming outward to embrace a different type of mold. I see Canadian Stage, Factory Theatre, Tarragon Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille having grown into their respective middle ages, settling into the familiar and creating walls and traditions for themselves. I do see brilliant Canadian productions still coming out from these institutions, I see Canadian Stage bravely heading in a strange, new direction, I see brilliant actors being given magnificent opportunities to create, but I also see frustration, I see despair, I see cynicism, I see resignation, I see exhaustion, I see fear, I see actors leaving, I see discontentment, but what I don’t see enough of is the spirit revolution.
It is clear to me that it is time, once again, to break down walls. It is time for us to reclaim control of our theatre community and to make it a place where we are creating the art that we want to create. It is very clear to me that we need to do what Paul Thompson did with The Farm Show and instead of catering to the expected audience, to go out and to find a way of enticing an entirely new audience into our theatre. It is clear to me that we should be excited because we are so obviously on the brink of something gigantic. Look around you, look at the accomplishment of the Canadian Theatre Community this past year, look at all the uproariously multitalented artists who live and work right here, and look at all the people who dream of greatness, not just for themselves, but for all of us. I don’t know why we’re so exhausted; I don’t know why we feel so defeated, why we feel so small and insignificant in a way that our compatriots from the 1970s must have somehow surmounted. I don’t know why we’re not buoyed up by feelings of inspiration and empowerment and why we’re not running through our theatres feeling invincible. But, we’re not and we SHOULD
Paul Thompson once told me that the National Theatre of the World and Impromptu Splendor seemed to him to be the next generation of what he had started forty years ago at Theatre Passe Muraille. A theatre without walls. A theatre that brought a new audience into the theatre. Something new, something bold, something exciting. I think that this community, at its very heart, exemplifies this spirit too; we have to, or else we would have given up when things became difficult. I know that things in the Canadian theatre are not perfect, but shouldn’t that be exciting for us? If a desire for something more forty years ago gave us Theatre Passe Muraille, Tarragon, Factory AND Canadian Stage, what is the incredible legacy that WE will leave our children? Despite the fact that we are not perfect, every day I feel blessed to have the opportunity to go into one of the theatres in this country, because it is my privilege and my honour and my job to do so, to witness a wide array of different works of art that make me so very humbled and so very proud to work among you. You inspire me. You fill me with light and with courage and with haunting visions of art that will stay with me for an exceptionally long time. Some of Canada’s theatre artists have made such a momentous impact on me that I can honestly say that my life has been touched, has been changed, sometimes dramatically, from having one experience or another, from being invited into a specific vision of the world, seeing something mesmerizing, terrifying or gorgeous and just being immersed all the time in so many thoughtful perceptions and so many shared experiences, personalities and ideas.
I think it is time for us all to passe muraille, to knock down the obstacles that inhibit us from realizing our full potential, that keep us separated from our greatness. We can all be the theatre heroes of tomorrow. Don’t look for the door; walk right through the wall.

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