Alumnae Theatre: part of Toronto’s theatre history

A little blast from the [fairly recent] past:  Alumnae company member/tireless songwriter/performer Kat Leonard (catch her doing Madonna songs at Theatre Passe Muraille tomorrow night!) just forwarded me a July 2007 article she wrote for the now-defunct website playsonthenet.com.  It really highlights Alumnae’s important role in the theatre history of Toronto, and  I’m proud to be a part of this wonderful organization.  Here’s Kat’s article:

Alumnae Theatre: The Women Speak

 

“There has to be a history written of this club,” said Herbert Whittaker, onstage at an Alumnae Theatre retrospective. Helen Dunlop immediately responded to the call. “Herb, I’ve been saying that for the last 10 years. I want to take it on.”  So Helen set up the History Project Committee, which currently consists of herself, Amy Gautier, Catherine Spence, Norma Crawford and Francess Halpenny; all members of The Alumnae Theatre. Their mission: a 250-page book outlining The Alumnae Theatre’s history from 1919 to 1999.

What is the Alumnae’s history and why is it so significant? I explored this question with some of the ladies of The Alumnae as we gabbed over pumpkin loaf on a brilliant July afternoon.

An abbreviated version of what promises to be a wonderful archival story of Alumnae’s contributions to Canadian theatre is as follows.

The Alumnae Theatre started as the Dramatic Club of the University College Alumnae in 1919 by a small group of women graduates of University College interested in theatre. Their first productions were held at U of T’s Hart House Theatre—one play a year.

The Alumnae club eventually outgrew Hart House and went through many workshop spaces including a converted synagogue, which included a house with tenants. Their box office was operated out of their own homes. The Alumnae persisted through the emergence of various professional theatre companies: the Stratford Festival in 1953 and, later, Tarragon, Factory, Theatre Passe Muraille, The St. Lawrence Centre and, of course, the huge entity of the Ed Mirvish enterprises. When the professional theatres started to develop, Alumnae wondered where it would fit in and how they would attract people. Would there still be a place for an amateur or semi-professional company? Alumnae’s ambition and innovation would keep them adaptable to the evolving theatre scene. In fact, Alumnae has been a major contributor to this evolution.  Herbert Whittaker, drama critic and director, who played a significant role in raising the sights of Alumnae’s goals, coined the members of Alumnae Theatre the “Aluminum Ladies” because they are flexible yet durable.

By the early 1970s, Alumnae had situated itself into its present home, the old fire hall. It has a main stage that holds 140, a studio space that holds 90 and a couple of ghosts to spice things up.  The Alumnae Theatre had an impressive reputation from the start and had glowing reviews in the press.  In the mid 70s Urjo Kareda wrote, “This is the group, more than any other, which re-worked Toronto’s theatrical atmosphere”, and, “The Alumnae is a stunning, startling example of a mass, collective, unified will… their intelligent, visionary approach to program building is an object lesson.”

The Alumnae’s mission has always included the production of Canadian content that is original, new and daring. They believe in taking risks. Francess Halpenny has been a member since she graduated from U of T in 1940. She has seen a lot of change and observes that, “it was important to keep up an essential program, doing plays that were worth seeing, things that people wouldn’t necessarily see elsewhere.” Through the years Alumnae has given its audiences just that. It has also been an arena for its members and participants to develop their craft, learn skills and gain experience while making friends and having fun.

As well as the personal lives and careers of numerous individuals, Alumnae has affected the municipal and provincial theatre scene. Arguably the most notable of Alumnae’s contributions to Toronto theatre is the New Ideas Festival, first conceived by members Molly Thom and Kerri MacDonald. This festival truly is a creator’s festival; it is not about the finished product but the process of development and experimentation. It is also a major source of member recruitment.  The festival is for new writers, writers who want to try something new, actors who wants to direct, and many other wonderful combinations. A lot of people find their introduction and pathway to success into the theatre community through the New Ideas Festival. Although it was created so that focus could be made on creation as opposed to commercial success, ironically, the festival continues to be a great commercial success for Alumnae.

What makes an independent, non-funded, volunteer-run theatre achieve such success and longevity?  The Alumnae owes a lot of its success to the development and maintenance of a great and strong camaraderie. I think the women explain best.

Rosaleen Sherrard (long-standing member) says, “I think one of the many special things about the Alum is this tremendous fellowship of the women.”

Vivien Fiersen (long-standing member) says it’s the sense of being on a real team that makes Alumnae so great. Everyone plays all the roles. It’s a group effort and a web of relationships. She says, “Even the producer has to take out the garbage.”

PJ Hammond (long-standing member and past president) is grateful    that people will thank you for working so hard on something even when it goes wrong; your efforts are appreciated and you’re respected. She says, “That keeps you coming back again and again.”

Helen Dunlop (long-standing member and part of The History Project) explains that, “Not everybody wants to be a star. People come because they want to act, but a lot of them because they want to be a part of the theatre. And so this provides a blend and a meld and a lack of competition I think is quite unique.”

Andrea Romaldi (past New Ideas Festival producer) realized quickly that, “even though this is not a professional theatre in the sense that we are not funded, we don’t get paid, it’s all volunteer-run– and partly because of that condition– there’s a lot of aspiration here to do really good work. Even though we’re not a professional theatre, we behave like professionals.”

Tabitha Keast (an active member) says that, “because of its history as one of the first theatre companies in Toronto when theatre was just starting in the city– in the country for that matter– it’s always sat on the fence between professional and community.  It’s a bit of a hybrid, I think.  A lot of people on their path toward becoming a professional use it as a place to gain experience, experiment and grow. It is about fostering either someone’s new ability or giving experienced people the opportunity to share their skills with others. It’s an excellent bridge.”

Francess Halpenny attributes Alumnae’s success to the fact that there exists no jealousy and petty internal squabbles. “For some magical reason, which I think is related to a sense of serious purpose, we’ve managed–  although we’ve had our squabbles—we have not been riddled with any kind of internal upset. That’s an important attraction.”

PJ Hammond adds that, “part of that, I think, too, is that as much as there is a sense of pride and a sense of duty in what you do for the club, there is not a sense of ownership. It is OUR company. The club is the umbrella that we all are under but there is no ownership of that club.”

For the past 10 years The Alumnae Theatre has had a consistent approximate membership of 120 talented individuals. It is still driven by an all-female membership.  Men are welcomed and appreciated for their invaluable contributions to productions, but the administration and major decision-making is done by the women. Some notable male contributors held dear to the women in this room are Herbert Whittaker, Michael Spence, Les Japp and David Priddle.  Every five years or so there’s a discussion amongst the women regarding the fact that the men add to the success of Alumnae and yet they’re not given membership. PJ Hammond explains that, “Personally, for me, I have a bit of a problem with it except that then I come here and I love it so much that I don’t want to change it. It is part of what sets us apart from other companies. There is no doubt that the men are enormously helpful and we never forget to thank them.  But we make the decisions and we decide where the club is going. And that, I think, is important to us.” The men seem to be happy with their involvement.

The future of The Alumnae Theatre projects more of the same: a risk-taking and supportive arena to enjoy and experiment in theatre. Francess Halpenny predicts that, “As long as we keep up that, I think there will be a spot for us. There will be people coming in and out, who do things and move on, and then the core people for whom this is not going to be a career but for whom it’s going to be their life interest.”

It is evident that The Alumnae Theatre has made a unique and enormous impact on the development and progress of Canadian theatre. It is also clear that countless individuals within this community have made enormous personal and professional triumphs as well as serious friendships through the theatre.  The History Project promises to be a remarkable chronicling of Alumnae within the tapestry of the Canadian theatre scene.

For more information on the Alumnae community and membership, visit www.alumnaetheatre.com.

 

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