Our Kind of Work

Canadian Theatre Review, 154.013, 2013

Our Kind of Work: The Glory Days and Difficult Times of 25th Street Theatre, written by Dwayne Brenna, is the first full-length documentation of the life and times of Saskatoon’s first professional theatre company. As such, it offers insight into the challenges faced by an upstart company far away from what can be considered the major theatre centres in the country. Founded in 1971, the Twenty-fifth Street Theatre (now Twenty-fifth Street Theatre Centre), is best known for Paper Wheat, a collectively conceived documentary montage on the history of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which toured nationally (1978—1979) and became the subject of a National Film Board documentary in 1978. The company is also well known for serving a mandate of producing and promoting grassroots theatre. It has premiered the plays of a range of Saskatchewan writers, including Ken Mitchell, Don Kcrr, Connie Gault, Dianne Warren, Mansel Robinson, and nationally recognized playwrights such as Brad Fraser, Linda Griffiths, Jim Garrard, and others: pioneers and adventurers who would go on to shape the Canadian theatrical landscape. What is not necessarily common knowledge is the extent of the difficulties that were endured throughout Twenty-fifth Street Theatre’s existence in order to maintain an environment, outside of a major theatre centre, in which new scripts and forms of spectacle might emerge.

Brenna’s chronicling of Twenty-fifth Street Theatre’s activity and ongoing struggle through its formative years (1972-1983) presents readers with a strong sense of the role the company played in the advancement of Canadian dramatic literature as well as its influence on the development of alternative performance models. As a former actor with Twenty-fifth Street Theatre and a long-time member of the Saskatoon theatre community, Brenna is thoroughly invested in preserving the company’s legacy and provides specific detail tracing Twenty-fifth Street Theatre’s development over time. He captures the sense of optimism in the company’s beginnings as a university theatre company and the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the young actors that drove the (initially) single-project collaboration forward. Brenna’s portrayal of Andras (Andy)Tahn—co-founder, long-time artistic director, writer, director, and producer—depicts a complicated personality that was in parts mercurial visionary, soul of the company, and agitating force with funding agencies. He offers his perspective on the company’s at times chaotic journey, with gentle humour and genuine admiration for Tahn’s efforts on behalf of Twenty-fifth Street Theatre. The book is peppered with reviews, media commentary, and photographs that illustrate the range of theatrical forms that Twenty-fifth Street Theatre members explored as they sought to define and forge a company identity: collectively conceived performances, collaborations with Paul Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille, collaborations with a variety of local and national playwrights, and an ongoing practice of premiering work by new playwrights and new work by established playwrights. In this portrayal of the company’s creative activity, Brenna identifies dozens of theatre artists—actors, directors, and writers—whose careers were jump-started or advanced through their involvement with Twenty-fifth Street Theatre.

As was the case with many alternative theatre companies, creative output did not come without a cost. This is made abundantly clear as Brenna presents the myriad of artistic and financial challenges that plagued Twenty-fifth Street Theatre at every stage of its development. He cites difficulties that included the lack of appropriate rehearsal and performance pace, tempestuous relationships between actors and directors, tenuous relationships with funding bodies that often resulted in fnancial hardship, and an at times unforgiving spectatorship; these became contributing factors in the forging of Twenty-fifth Street Theatre’s resilience. These situations are discussed in a sympathetic but unvarnished manner that exhibits the fighting spirit of the company.

In his introduction, Brenna describes the atmosphere of one of the venues used for The Laffin Jack Rivers Show, in which he performed. The performance, a mix of song and dialogue set in a small-town beer parlour, played at the Union Centre in Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan). On other occasions the performance was .staged in actual bars and nightclubs. There is a clear sense of the performers’ connection to the audience—working-class labourers—and a conscious understanding of performance’s roots in popular culture. John McGrath’s notion of “theatre of popular culture ... [as] a political act” (qtd. in Brenna 15) and a means to rattle the status quo, is used to explain Twenty-fifth Street Theatre’s artistic stance. Brenna suggests that in Canada, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, this “political act” played out in a resistance to imported culture and the engendering of a post-colonial theatre culture. In an indirect way, he highlights all the fundamental elements—personal investment, a connection with popular culture, and the struggle to nurture a uniquely Canadian theatre—that made Twenty-fifth Street Theatre’s work so relevant and important.

As part of her discussion about the growth of indigenous theatre in Canada in 1980, Diane Bessai made a strong case for the importance of “localism” and regionalism in the development of a strong national identity. Although she was not directing her comments at the work done by Twenty-fifth Street Theatre, she might have been:

Clearly then, localism and various forms of collective creativity are important in themselves to the initiation of indigenous theatre exemplifying a dynamic relationship integrating actor, director, writer and audience. Yet inasmuch as this type of work energizes new and special interests in the theatre, so does it also provide a proper environment for a new dramatic literature whose chief strength also lies in its regional origins. (17)

At present, the Twenty-fifth Street Theatre Centre is not an independent theatre producer, serving only as a home base for the Saskatoon Fringe Festival. Continuous cycles of artistic and financial issues in an economic climate lacking in generosity toward arts organizations, as well as difficulties relating to the location and retention of space for rehearsals and performances, necessitated the decision for the company to cease active production in 2000. Our Kind of Work: The Glory Days and Difficult Times of 25th Street Theatre is a testament to the importance of contributions made to the development of alternative theatre in Canada by company members and support staff during their active years. Brenna’s observations and commentary not only serve to pay homage to Twenty-fifth Street Theatre but also provide a reminder of the groundbreaking work done in small centres across the country that contributed to the advancement of Canadian theatre at a national level.

What makes Our Kind of Work: The Glory Days and Difficult Times of 25th Street Theatre an especially important and necessary work is perhaps best illuminated in the context of Moira Day’s introduction to West-words: Celebrating Western Canadian Theatre and Playwriting. Day notes that “[t]he relationship between the prairie provinces and the rest of Canada is a complex ambiguous one defined by a history of geographic isolation and evolving social, political, and economic tension" (xi). This tenuous relationship is nowhere more evident than in the documentation of theatre development and experimentation in Canada. The theatrical work emerging from the Prairie provinces (both in past decades and in the present) has been less visible in the Canadian theatrical landscape than work from other regions. It can be argued that the pioneering efforts of many companies, across the country, during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s have been under-represented in theatre documents prior to the increased use of digital archiving in the early twenty-first century. Still, this phenomenon appears to be more prominent in areas outside large centres of theatrical activity, and there are identifiable gaps in the study of genealogy in Canadian theatre. In some cases lost information is irretrievable. In these times of rapid transmission of information and ease of documenting company work, it is up to those who recognize that this has not always been so to search the landscape for gaps in the terrain and to take action. This is exactly what Dwayne Brenna has done. — Claire Borody

Works Cited
Bessai, Diane. “The Regionalism of Canadian Drama.” Canadian Literature 85 (1980): 7-20. Print.

Day, Moira J., ed. West-words: Celebrating Western Canadian Theatre and Playwriting, Regina, SK: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2011. Print.

Claire Borody is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Winnipeg and co-editor of Canadian Journal for Practice-based Research in Theatre (CJPRT)

Saskatoon Star PhoeniX, November 12, 2011

There was a recent article in a national Canadian newspaper about Montreal's Theatre du Nouveau Monde turning 60 and how it had managed to stay afloat through scandals, protests and fluctuating finances.

The main point of the article seemed to be that the various artistic directors over the years had to balance their own artistic visions - sometimes quite controversial - with the need to appeal to a wide enough audience to put people in the theatre and pay the bills.

This article captured precisely what Saskatoon's 25th Street Theatre was up against through its "glory days" as laid out by University of Saskatchewan drama professor and actor Dwayne Brenna in his book Our Kind of Work.

If you remember such plays as The Sibyl, A Virus Called Clarence, If You're So Good, Why Are You in Saskatoon, The Ziggy Effect, Cold Comfort and, of course, Paper Wheat, to name a few, and if you remember attending plays at the big house at the corner of Clarence Avenue and Eighth Street, in Saskatoon, and eventually at the Saskatoon Theatre Centre at 20th Street and Avenue H, then you will recognize many of the names, actors, plays and critics in this account of 25th Street's years from 1972 to 1983.

In his introduction, Brenna declares that the "creation of a theatre of popular culture is, in essence, a political act. It assumes that there are other valuable forms of entertainment besides those which appeal to an educated elite. It gives power to the grassroots population by giving it a voice." He then points out that Canada in the '60s and '70s was "inundated with the theatrical entertainments of their colonial masters in Europe and the United States," giving examples from Edmonton's Citadel Theatre and the University of Saskatchewan Greystone Theatre in 1970 that show scarcely a Canadian presence.

Onto the Saskatoon scene came Andras Tahn, a talented graduate of E.D. Feehan High School who enrolled in the U of S drama program. He watched a group of actors who were "[d]issatisfied with the local theatre scene," and who had "decided to create their own theatrical entity and to produce work that interested them." This group, Theatre Project, produced one play, a translation of Woyzeck, and Tahn saw its hard work and short run as emblematic of "the sorry state of theatre in Saskatoon."

Tahn and a local folk musician named George Elder decided to from a collective of local artists of all stripes and came up with the name 25th Street House. They got off to a rocky start, actually renting the Centennial Auditorium (now TCU Place) to put on Tahn's three-act play Miklos and Kristina, and from that misfire falling back onto traditional fare and alienating their radical anti-colonialist supporters, then working into gradually growing seasons of Canadian plays.

Various hits and misses culminated in the unqualified success that was 1977's Paper Wheat, a play that, with its local research, local voices and collective creation, gloriously fulfilled Tahn's mandate of a grassroots artistic expression.

"The phenomenon of Paper Wheat catapulted 25th Street Theatre into the national consciousness," but that wasn't enough to ensure it long-term success. It couldn't find a permanent theatre space, eventually and uneasily sharing a building with the upstart professional company, Persephone, with which it also had to compete for grants. The company tried subscription series, it scrapped them; it tried controversial subjects, it tried to replicate its success in Paper Wheat and it fought huge battles with its funding agencies, with the critics and within its own tent.

Through all these storms, Tahn, either at the theatre's helm or taking a brief break, held to his vision of a Canadian theatre producing Canadian plays, even when quality plays just couldn't be found and the company was digging itself into a huge deficit. Boards of directors quit, plays were cancelled, the Saskatchewan Arts Board threatened and Tahn, through the early '80s, held his ground. In 1983 he resigned.

With Gordon McCall taking over the troubled theatre, Brenna signs off, but not without a salute to Tahn's vision, a company that provided "a much-needed forum for writers"; the creation of "a body of acting and directing talent that would have a resounding effect on Canadian theatre"; and a company that "provided a response to the mainstream theatre that had become entrenched in many Canadian cities."

Brenna's history is minutely detailed - complete with dates, attendance figures and individual critic's responses - and lovingly written by a man who cares about theatre in this city. As both an acute history and a cautionary tale, Our Kind of Work is instructive and entertaining as it casts a light on that crucial balance needed to sustain a theatre. — Bill Robertson