Committing Theatre revisits Canada's radical theatre roots

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Committing Theatre
How theatre artists have intervened in and engaged with political struggle from the mid-19th century to the present

Alan Filewod's Committing Theatre begins with a single event from June 1919. Unable to get a response from his government about how the upkeep of city properties are impacting his private garden, a man goes to City Hall and presents the Mayor of Vancouver's secretary with a bouquet of flowers picked from properties that adjoin his. The bouquet is covered with caterpillars.

This is an important refrain throughout the book. Filewod starts before the 1920s radio sermons of Social Credit founder and eventual Alberta Premier William Aberhart, and takes us all the way to the current Toronto-based practices of Mammalian Diving Reflex's Darren O'Donnell. Throughout, Filewod keeps returning to the caterpillar episode he considers an example of what Bertolt Brecht would later call gest, "a theatricalised action that embodies, enacts and watches a social critique."

Reading much this expansive history of Canadian political theatre sitting in and around Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in NYC, I couldn't help but speculate that these occupations of public spaces have something in common with the man who walked into Vancouver City Hall a century ago. Both are frustrated with a perceived injustice their government will not listen to, and both are determined to express this frustration through a non-violent gesture that exists physically in the real world. Both the Occupy protests and the man with a bouquet of caterpillars commit a consciously theatrical act.

Like the Occupy movement's anarchist horizontal anti-leadership structure, Commiting Theatre refuses to accept a "hierarchical" "pyramidial" understanding of power relations, one that finds the greatest value in professionalized and institutionalized programming at the top of the pyramid. "Because Canadian arts organizations exist in financial crisis and desperately attempt to retain declining audiences, their programming becomes increasingly conservative as they become more institutional." For Filewod, "the dramatic canon is an operation of power, not of aesthetics or national culture" that leads to the fact that "most radical theatre goes unnoticed by the professional theatre establishment."

Committing Theatre contributes new facts and context to some of the more noteworthy groups in Canadian political theatre: two chapters cover the work of Depression-era theatre artists that created two major political theatre troupes, The Progressive Arts Club and The Theatre of Action. Widely referred to as "The Workers' Theatre" movement, these groups moved from Soviet-inspired agit-prop presentations that toured south-western Ontario, to polished NYC's Group Theatre-informed productions of pro-union plays by Clifford Odets.

The book is dedicated to lifetime theatre activists Oscar Ryan and Toby Gordon Ryan, whose memoir Stage Left is regarded as the core text covering of the work of these artist/activists. However, Filewod questions Gordon Ryan's assertions that the Workers' Theatre, whose most famous work Eight Men Speak, concerned the arrest an imprisonment of Communist Party leader Tim Buck and seven other men in the Kingston Penitentiary, was not controlled or influenced by the Communist Party and its politics.

Filewod attributes Gordon Ryan's assertions that the role communism did not play in to funding and directing their activities to the culture of fear created by McCarthyism in the post-war period. However, Gordon Ryan's husband and artistic collaborator Oscar Ryan held a significant leadership role within the Communist Party, as did Eight Men Speak co-director and performer, Ed Cecil Smith, who went on to command the Mackenzie Papineau Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Ultimately, Committing Theatre is a text that highlights important, relevant and impactful works. Works like these are not ones green-lighted by major institutions struggling to retain aging subscription holders nor can they be funded by arts councils with an anti-radical funding structure. The book is an impressive overview of our cultural history in the tradition of Augusto Boal that reminds us to look for the theatrical and political not only in our theatres, but in our lives and the world around us.Michael Wheeler

Michael Wheeler is an artist, activist and Co-Artistic Director of Praxis Theatre. Beginning Dec. 1 he directs Jesus Chrysler by Tara Beagan at Theatre Passe Muraille, based on 1930s Toronto political theatre activists: director Eugenia "Jim" Watts and Governor General Award-winning poet/agit-prop creator Dorothy Livesay.

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