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Studio Theatre: The Stages

Bv Gordon Peacock

Stage One: Eight Years in a Quonset Hut

In the beginning Robert Orchard, founder of Studio Theatre had no great plans for the future. All he wanted was a theatre of his own on the campus, a theatre that would present a full winter season of good plays to a potentially large Edmonton audience that had seen no theatre for several years.

That first season opened in the fall if 1949 with Pirandello's Henry IV in a tiny 149 seat theatre, converted from two Quonset huts left over from the influx of post-World War II student veterans. This remained the theatre's imperfect home until 1957 when the huts were demolished to make way for the Cameron Library.

Orchard had never heard the old saying, "if you want to close your season in a week, then open with Ibsen", for he not only opened that first season with a play that the majority of the audience had never heard of, he followed it with a production of Sophocles' Antigone and set it in ancient Crete!

While Edmonton's stages were deserted in 1949, certainly there was a cadre of dedicated theatre workers itching to produce and perform, and Orchard enlisted most of them. The most seminal of these was Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, the inspirational teacher, director and actress. Elizabeth was his constant supporter during the first five seasons. She cajoled, bullied and wooed the necessary theatre and resource people, and audiences, to the precarious enterprise. Playwrights Elsie Park Gowan and Gwen Pharis Ringwood wrote and acted. Artists Geo Glyde and Norman Yates designed sets, costumes, even programs and posters. From the faculty came such actors as Henry Kriesel, Herbert Coutts, Bob Folinsbee, and David Panar. City actors, many professionally trained or with a wealth of experience, also contributed.

The success of the first seasons encouraged Orchard and his successors to see the Theatre's function as a much larger one than presenting a season. By the third season a commitment was made to include at least one new play every year, a promise not always kept, but the impressive record of new productions and Canadian premieres outshines any other theatre in Western Canada even today. Canada Council was still a dream in those first eight years and any contribution to the theatre came from a reluctant Bursar underwriting the season's deficit, or from gifts of money and time from enthusiastic theatre workers. A summer production was added in 1951, using summer school students as stagecraft help and in smaller roles. The classic farce Charley's Aunt, and the romp An Italian Straw Hat were indicative of the lighter plays selected for summer audiences.

Not only new plays but provincial touring became an added facet of the season. Widger's Way, a new play by Gwen Pharis Ringwood, toured Northern Alberta in 1952. MacBeth and The Tempest had local tours, and Othello got as far as Victoria as an entrant in the Dominion Drama Festival in 1953. When Bob Orchard resigned as artistic director in 1955, Gordon Peacock was appointed and he was joined by Frank Bueckert who took over the duties of production manager. Frank Glenfield, who was theatre administrator, left at the same time as Orchard and was replaced by Joy Roberts White.

It was Joy who introduced the first black tie opening nights that Edmonton had seen in a long time, managing to convince patrons that a leaky Quonset hut set in a muddy field was the perfect spot to parade one's finest. Indeed her buffets were famous. Some patrons may still remember Charles Laughton (who was here to present Don Juan in Hell in the Stock Pavilion) at the opening of Braggart Warrior demolishing almost all Joy's supply of imported cheeses (donated by a local merchant). Whatever was lacking in material matters was made up for by ingenuity and by enthusiastic community and campus support.

One evidence of the latter was the request by President Andrew Stewart, in reply to one of Orchard's desperate pleas for more money, that he might be able to convince the Board of Governors if they saw a production at the new theatre. A performance of MacBeth was scheduled a few days before the official opening. Disaster struck in the form of a set not nearly finished and a phone call to Dr. Stewart telling him to call off the Board as the play could not be ready two days hence. Three hours later two new stagehands appeared-President Stewart and his eldest son complete with carpentry tools in hand. Everyone worked all that day and the set was finished in time, the Board saw, approved, and the extra support was granted!

STAGE TWO: Two Presidents and a Dean

Dr. Stewart was the first important administrative supporter of the Studio Theatre. President Walter Johns was the second. He gave his unswerving support, even to the point of always paying for tickets for himself and Mrs. Johns. It was during his term of office that the drama division (later department) offered the BA in drama. Later it became the first drama department in Canada to offer a BFA in acting and design, and a MFA in directing, design and playwriting. The introduction of these programs began to change the face of the Studio Theatre season as more and more it began to serve the campus and the student body and less the city and province. The theatre was intended to be a practical workshop for the University students of theatre and as the teaching programs grew in strength and size, the content and character of the season imperceptibly began to reflect the demands of the thriving student programs.

Ten years before the institution of the BFA programs in 1968, the Quonset huts were torn down, and for a time it appeared that the theatre would have to close. But just in time for the 1958 season, Dr. Herbert Coutts, dean of education, offered the drama division and Studio Theatre a new home in the auditorium of the Education Building, making space in his already overcrowded building. This extraordinary offer came as a godsend. Along with Walter Johns, Herbert Coutts has always been a lover of theatre and he was able to show, this in a most tangible form.

The next decade was one of change for Studio Theatre; while the format was still the same, the character of the productions began to change.

A University of Alberta Alumni group was formed to offer at least one play a year in the season. Some of the prime movers here were also the major drama teachers in the city - Donald Pimm, June Richards, Walter Kaasa, Alice Polley, John Rivet and Tom Peacocke all had thriving high school drama programs. A French language play was included in each season. The French department provided the actors and the director, the Studio Theatre the sets, costumes, and administration. This happy collaboration continued until the late 1960's. Once in a while a production in German was also included. New forms of playwriting also appeared, spearheaded by the poet playwright Wilfred Watson. Three of his major works were presented during the decade.

The Torches outdoor theatre began a regular summer season of plays in 1962. In a courtyard behind the Education Building, a permanent stage setting reminiscent of Jacques Copeau's ideal stage was erected and seating for 250 was provided on the grassy enclosure. Here from late June to August a regular season of plays was presented. Although it was not an equity theatre everyone was paid — a startling departure for Edmonton theatre.

Tom Peacocke, who joined the Drama Department staff in 1961, took over as artistic director of The Torches, a post he held until its closing in 1972. After the Studio no longer saw The Torches as a priority project, a group of students reorganized the theatre under the name of Barter Theatre and it continued for another six summers.

When the Faculty of Education moved to a new building the Studio Theatre and drama department expanded and a spacious reading room on the third floor became the experimental Theatre Upstairs. Here a second season of special events, readers theatre, classroom productions, experimental and new works saw life. Theatre Upstairs was discontinued when the drama department — other than the Studio Theatre — moved into Stage I of the Fine Arts Centre in 1973.

Unfortunately the second stage of the Centre with its promised new theatre, art gallery and concert hall is still to come.

STAGE THREE: The Professional comes to town

There had been several abortive attempts to form a professional theatre in Edmonton before the advent of The Citadel in 1967, but it was the growth of The Citadel and all the smaller professional theatres that followed that had the greatest impact on the Studio Theatre in the 1970s.

At the same time the University and the drama department grew enormously in a very short time. The team of Bueckert, Peacocke and Peacock that had guided the theatre for almost a decade was joined by 15 new faculty in a period of five years, 1967 to 1972. Bernie Engel (directing), Leonard Feldman (design), John Terfloth (theatre history and directing), Margaret Faulkes (creative drama), Mark Schoenberg (directing), James DeFelice (theatre history and directing), Bill Meilen (dialects), Jacqui Ogg and Wally Seibert (movement), Jeremy Dix-Hart and Gloria Perks (voice and speech), Gwen Keatley (design), David Barnet (collective theatre), and David Lovett (design) were all in that first wave and their impact on the style of production at Studio Theatre and on theatre in Edmonton was significant.

Fewer city actors were appearing in the productions, now being used more and more as a training ground for student actors and designers. Visiting professional guest artists became much more an accepted part of the season and graduate directing and playwriting thesis productions had a regular place in the season.

The new professional theatres began to accept the responsibility for a season of plays for general entertainment. Many of these theatres dedicated to experimentation and new works were started by faculty or graduates from the drama department.

While Studio Theatre has never lost its sense of mandate to produce the new or the untried, by 1975 it had become primarily a showcase for student work in the professional training programs. When James McTeague became chairman of the drama department and artistic director of Studio Theatre in 1977, he inherited a season that was 80 percent student work. Non-student productions appeared in each season, usually in collaboration with a professional organization. From 1974 to 1978 the Studio Theatre seasons also included three of the winners of the Clifford E. Lee Playwriting Competition.

A theatre that had always had a pride in production and innovation now began to develop an even greater pride in the graduates of the training programs. These graduates were forming their own theatre companies, teaching at universities, directing, designing and acting from Victoria to Halifax.

Lope de Vega once described the basic necessities of a theatre as, "two boards and a passion". The two boards are still in place and we trust that the passion will be there for at least another 33 seasons of Studio Theatre.

The preceding history (here condensed) and David L. Lovett's drawings originally appeared in a booklet produced by the Department of Drama to commemorate the University's 75th year.

Published Spring 1983.

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