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Looking Beyond the Page: An Anti-Canon of Essential Canadian Theatre and Performance

rocks voaden

Herman Voaden’s Rocks

by Jordan Tannahill

Below is a Facebook note I wrote several days ago on the ways in which we remember and assign value to plays in Canada. In the note I suggest an ‘anti-cannon’ of 100 performance works not easily captured on the page.

The list tends to favor my region and era of exposure. As such, I encouraged commentators to contribute their own suggestions. So far the response has been enthusiastic, but almost entirely Toronto-centric. My hope is this blog post will help extend the reach and dialogue to others across the country who might be interested in a crowdsourced Canadian ‘anti-cannon’.

A few days ago I was honoured with first place in the Herman Voaden Playwriting Competition for my play Late Company. While I believe the award serves the important function of supporting the writing of new dramatic text in our country, it also provided me the opportunity to reflect and question the ways in which we assign value to plays.

Herman Voaden was, himself, an early pioneer of experimental theatre in English Canada. His works of ‘symphonic expressionism’ were some of the first and most ambitious multidisciplinary performances in our contemporary theatre, in which sound, light, choreography, choral work, and even early forms of multimedia projection were given equal weight and importance as the text. Many of Voaden’s published texts are arguably shadows of the performances they attempt to capture – not ‘well made plays’ by any stretch of our contemporary definition.  It is ironic to consider Voaden himself may never have won his namesake award.

This spurred me to consider which plays in our country are canonized. It is perhaps only natural that the plays that exist most effectively and wholly as published texts are the ones that find their way most often into textbooks, university reading lists, lectures, and ‘Best Canadian Play’ lists. This past week I decided to sit down and consider which works of Canadian theatre and performance have been neglected or overlooked from the canon, based on (among other things no doubt) the difficulty of conveying their totality on the page.

Below this note are 100 suggestions for an ‘anti-canon’ of English Canadian theatre. An additional 30 titles have been listed for French Canadian theatre, shorter due to my lack of knowledge and exposure to it. I hope my colleagues in Quebec will help add to it. These are pieces that are historically and artistically resonant not because of their dramatic texts but for the total live event they presented. It is, by nature of the impossibility of the task, a woefully incomplete list. Many of these performances occurred before I was born. Many I never saw. But their impact, what is passed down through documentation, oral tradition, and the influence felt/seen in the work of subsequent generations of artists, has informed my selection. I acknowledge that this list is completely informed by my own biases and knowledge (and lack thereof) – it does not intend to present a complete narrative but rather a jumping off point for further conversation. It is something to be debated and added to. Hopefully there may be some interest among my friends and peers to do so.

PLEASE NOTE: After input from contributors across Canada, particularly those from Quebec, I chose to separate English and French Canadian works to recognize their distinct linguistic and cultural traditions. Also, I have included two small ancillary lists (performance art/interventions and theatre for young audiences) for further inclusivity and points of discussion.


Electric Company

Phobophilia (2007)

2b Theatre (Christian Barry, Steven McCarthy, Michelle Monteith)
Revisited (2005)

Alianak, Hrant
Lucky Strike (1978)

Alton (Kate), Manson (Ross)
The Four Horseman Project (2007)

Aluna Theatre
Nohayquiensepa (2011)

Anna Project, The (Suzanne Odette Khuri, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Banuta Rubess, Maureen White)
The Is For You, Anna (1985)

Arden (Leslie), Cascio (Anna Theresa)
The House of Martin Guerre (1993)

Arsenault, Nina
The Silicone Diaries (2009)

Atkins, Damien
Real Live Girl! (2003)

Augusta Company, The
86: An Autopsy (1995)

Barrow, Daniel
Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry (2008)

Bettis, Paul
The Rule Plays (1970-80s)

Bluemouth Inc.
Something About a River (2004)

Boca Del Lupo
My Dad, My Dog (2008)

Brassard, Marie
Jimmy (2001)

Brebner, Morwyn
Music for Contortionist (2000)

Brooker, Blake / One Yellow Rabbit
The Land The Animals (1991)

Brooker (Blake) with Martini (Clem), Miles (Clem) / One Yellow Rabbit
Ilsa Queen of the Nazi Love Camp (1987)

Brooks (Daniel), Verdecchia (Guillermo)
The Noam Chompsky Lectures (1990)

Burkett, Ronnie
The Memory Dress Trilogy (1994 – 2000)

Core members of The Workers Theatre

Core members of The Workers Theatre

Canadian Workers’ Theatre (Oscar Ryan, E. Cecil-Smith, Frank Love, Eugenia Watts and Mildred Goldberg)
Eight Men Speak (1933)

Catalyst Theatre
Nevermore (2008)

Chafe, Robert
Under Wraps (1997)
Afterimage (2009)

Clarke (George Elliott), Rolfe (James)
Beatrice Chancy (1999)

Clements, Marie
Burning Vision (2003)

Cod on a Stick (1973)

Company of Sirens
The Working People’s Picture Show (1985)

Debajehmujig Theatre Group
The Best Medicine Show (1996)

Die-Nasty Troupe
Die-Nasty (1991 – present)

Druick, Don
Where is Kabuki? (1991)

Dyba, Kenneth
Lily, Alta (1986)

Earle, Chris
Radio: 30 (1999)

Electric Company, The (Kim Collier, Jonathon Young, Kevin Kerr, and David Hudgins)
Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla (1996)
Tear The Curtain! (2011)

emergency exit
trilogie (2005)

Froelich, Peter
Simpl (2003)

Gall (Brendan), McPhaden (Mike), Roberts (Rick), Tepperman (Julie)
The Gladstone Variations (2007)

Garnham, Ken
Beuys Buoys Boys (1989)

Gilbert, Sky
Drag Queens on Trial: a courtroom melodrama (1994)

Gilmour (Dean), Smith (Michelle)
Chekov’s shorts (1999)

Gorlin (Wendy) and Panych (Morris)
The Overcoat (1998)

Griffiths, Linda (with Maria Campbell and Paul Thompson)
Jessica (1986)

Gray, John
18 Wheels (1976)

Hines, Karen
The Pochy Plays (2004)

Hinton, Peter
The Swanne (2002-2004)

Hollingsworth, Michael
Clear Light (1973)
The History of the Village of the Small Huts (1982-2012)

Hummer Sisters, The (Janet Burke, Jennifer Dean, Deanne Taylor)
Hummer for Mayor: Art vs. Art (1982)

Jain (Asha), Jain (Ravi)
Brimful of Asha (2011)

Kane, Margo
Moonlodge (1990)

Keilly, Jillian
The Cheat (1996)

Krizanc, John
Tamara (1981)

Ledoux (Paul), Young (David)
Fire (1999)

Liitoja, Hillar
The Last Supper (1993)
Poundemonium (1993)

Luscombe, George / Toronto Workshop Productions
Hey, Rube! (1961)

mandiela, ahdri zhina
dark diaspora… in dub (1991)

McCurley, Jon & Friends
Double Double Land Land (2009)

Mercer, Rick
Charles Lynch Must Die (1990)

Miller, Rick
Bigger Than Jesus (2003)

Mills, Sonja
Dyke City (1994)

Moore, Mavor
Spring Thaw (1948)

Mummer’s Troupe
They Club Seals, Don’t They? (1978)

Mump and Snoot
Flux (2003)

Newton, Alistair
The Pastor Phelps Project (2008)

Nightwood Theatre
The True Story of Ida Johnson (1979)

O’Donnell, Darren
Pppeeeaaaccceee (2003)
Haircuts by Children (2006 – present)

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

Old Trout Puppet Workshop
Famous Puppet Death Scenes (2006)

One Reed Theatre
Nor the Cavaliers Who Come With Us (2006)

Ouchi, Mieko
The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) (2003)

Parsa (Soheil), Quirt (Brian)
Aurash (1998)

PME-ART (Caroline Dubois, Claudia Fancello, Jacob Wren)
Families Are Formed Through Copulation / La famille se crée en corpulant (2005)

Platform 9 Theatre Collective
White Trash, Blue Eyes (1989)

Primus Theatre
Alkoremmi (1991)
The Night Room (1993)

Radix Theatre
Instruments of Torture (1994)

Reaney, James
Colours in the Dark (1969)

Salutin, Rick (with Theatre Passe Muraille)
1837: The Farmer’s Revolt (1976)

Schafer, R Murray
Patria (1966-1990)

Sears, Djanet
Afrika Solo (1987)

Seremba, George
Come Good Rain (1994)

Small Wooden Shoe
Dedicated to the Revolutions (2009)

STO Union –  Ross (Nadia), Wren (Jacob), Wright (Tracy)
Revolutions in Therapy (2004)

STO Union – Cave (Diane) and Ross (Nadia)
The Alistair Trilogy (1995)

Tepperman, Julie
Yichud (2010)

Theatre Columbus
Fertility (1987)

Theatre Junction
On the Side of the Road (2009)

Theatre Replacement
Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut (with Theatre Rumble) (2007)

The Chop – Itai Erdal in collaboration with James Long, Emelia Symington Fedy & Anita Rochon
How To Disappear Completely (2011)

Thompson, Judith
Enoch Arden in the Hope Shelter (2006)

Thompson, Paul and collective
The Farm Show  (1972)
I Love you Baby Blue (1974)

The Turtle Gals - The Scrubbing Project

The Turtle Gals – The Scrubbing Project

Turtle Gals, The
The Scrubbing Project (2002)

Tunooniq Theatre
Changes and In Search of a Friend (1986)

Verdecchia, Guillermo
Fronteras Americanas (1993)

Voaden, Herman
Hill-Land (1934)

Walker, George F.
Rumours of Our Death  (1980)

Williams, Alan
The Cockroach Trilogy (1980)

young.anitafrika, d’bi
the sankofa trilogy (2005-2010)

Carbone 14 Le Dortoir

Carbone 14’s Le Dortoir


Archambault, Francois
15 secondes (1997)

Barbeau, Jean
Ben-Ur (1971)

Blackburn (Marthe),(Marie-Claire), Brossard (Nicole), Gagnon (Odette), Pelletier (Pol), Théoret (France)
La Nef des sorcieres (1976)

Carbone 14
Le Dortoir (1988)

Caron (Jean-Francois), Champagne (Dominic), Messier (Jean-Frédéric), Rafie (Pascale)
Cabaret neiges noires (1992)

Champagne, Dominic
La Répétition (1990)

Choiniere, Olivier
Le Bain des Raines (1998)

Dalpé (Jean-Marc) and Haentjens (Brigitte)
Nickel (1983)

Danis, Daniel
Cendres de cailloux (1992)

Dupré (Louise) and Haentjens (Brigitte)
Tout comme elle (2006)

Garneau, Michel
Héliotropes (1993)

Gauvreau, Claude
Les Entrailles (1940s)

Germain, Jean-Claude
Les enfants de Chénier dans un autre grand spectacle d’adieu (with Le Théâtre de Même Nom) (1969)

Gratien, Gelinas
Les Fridolinades (1938 to 1946)

Laberge, Marie
Pierre, ou la Consolation (1992)

Lamarche, Gustave
Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (1942)

Robert Lepage's Lipsynch

Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch

Lepage, Robert
La Trilogie des Dragons (1985-86)
Les Sept Branches de la Rivière Ota (1996)
Le Project Anderson (2005)
Lipsynch (2008)

Brassard (Marie), Lepage (Robert)
Le Polygraphe (1988)

Le Théâtre Euh!
A bas le plan Trudeau! (1978)

Le Show des femmes de Thetford Mines
Si Cendrillon pouvait mourir! (1980)

Monty, Michel
Accidents de parcours (1993)

Théâtre des Cuisines
Nous aurons les enfants que nous voulons (1974)

Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes
A ma mere, a ma mare, a ma mare, a ma voisine (1978)

Théâtre L’Eskabel
Les Troyennes (1999)

Théâtre Sans Fil
Le Grand jeu de nuit (1992)

Pelletier, Pol
JoieOcéanOr – a trilogy (1992-1997)

Porte Parole
Sante (2003)


Ten seminal works of Canadian performance art/intervention-based performance

Belmore, Rebecca
Vigil (2002)

Campbell (Colin) and Dragu (Margaret)
I Am Already Changing My Mind (1982)

Dempsey (Shawna) and Millan (Lorri)
The Dress Series (1989-1996)

Dobkin, Jess
Fee For Service (2006)

Fletcher (Kenneth) and Wong (Paul)
Bruise (1976)

General Idea
The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant (1971)

Kantor, Istvan
Blood Campaign (late 1970s – 2000s)

Laing (Jeremy) and Munro (Will)
The Pavilion of Virginia Puff-Paint (2006)

Mars, Tanya
women-and-power series (1984-1990)

Randy & Berenicci
As The World Burns (1977)

And because plays for young audiences seem to be so frequently omitted from these lists, here are ten seminal works for young people arguably driven by elements beyond text

Axis Theatre Company
The Number 14 (1998)

Children of Kush Arising

Children of Kush Arising

Black Theatre Workshop
Children of Kush Arising (1994)

Boyle (Shary), Fellows (Christine)
Everything Under the Moon (2012)

Canadian Stage Hour Co.
i.d. (1989)

Craig (David S), Morgan (Robert)
Dib and Dob and the Journey Home (1999)

Ducharme, Hélène
Baobab (2009)

Lebeau, Suzanne (1979)
Une lune entre deux maisons 

Massingham, Andy
Rough House (2005)

Northey, Michael P.
Cranked (2012)

Taylor, Drew Hayden
Raven Stole the Sun (2007)

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  1. Oh, I preferred it on Facebook! I think it’s a shame that a list that, for once, looks at theatre beyond the words on the page is now divided it in two based on language. Like the importance of the Canadian playwright, the separateness or distinctness of English and French performance in the country can be overstated.

    For instance, before Paul Thompson created the Farm Show etc, he directed a translation of Quebec collective creation pioneer Jean-Claude Germain’s Diguidi Diguidi Ha! Ha! Ha at TPM. There’s a line there.

    That was the Trudeau 1970s, I suppose, but I still think it’s useful to consider there might be a continuing conversation between collective creations in the two “solitudes” that leads to the emergence of Robert Lepage, who was raised in a bilingual household, and who creates multilingual, international shows. Lipsynch, for instance, which was co-created with Rick Miller who, more influenced by Lepage than any theatre artist, ends up on the English Canadian side of the list with Bigger Than Jesus. Porte Parole ends up on the French side for Santé, but what if we picked Seeds for the list?

    Granted, much of this influence flows from French –> English, but it’s more complicated. I’d argue that Montreal and Vancouver have in the past decade had more of a conversation in terms of performance than either of those two cities do with Toronto.

    Anyway, the list is still great! What’s missing, I think, is circus (and dance).

  2. Patrick Goddard says:

    I would be very curious to see this list amalgamated and in chronological order…

  3. Sean Dixon says:

    The Night Room was 1993. Alkoremmi was 1991.

  4. @Kelly – My thought about Lipsynch was it was in many languages, I just saw it in English when it was at The Bluma as part of Luminato in Toronto.

    @Sean – adjusted The Night Room and added Alkoremmi. Also, here’s a link to the conversation we had on Twitter about the list. (our conversation was ephemeral there, but by linking it here it becomes more permanent.)

  5. Jordan Tannahill says:

    Hey Kelly, great point about the overstatement of the English/French divide. I made the decision due to my concern the original list favoured English Canada too heavily while feeling there were too many important omissions when both lists were combined. Perhaps a single, unified list of 150 will be the final result of all this? Your point, along with Sean’s on Twitter, really strikes at the problematic heart of ‘canons’ (what is and isn’t included and why), which is something I’m very interested in.

    Also, I just wanted to bring forward the suggestions made on the Facebook note by contributors:

    Carnew, Jason / Rose, Eric
    One (2010)

    Lucas, Steven
    BREATH(e) (2002)

    Independent Aunties
    Breakfast (2010)

    Theatre Rusticle
    April 14, 1912 (2007)

    Alexandrowicz, Conrad
    The Wines of Tuscany (1996)

    Stitch (2010)

    Zuppa Theatre Co.
    Five Easy Steps (to the end of the world) (2010)

    McKee, Philip
    LEAR (2013)

    Public Recordings
    300 Tapes (2010)

    Verdecchia (Guillermo) and Youssef (Marcus)
    A Line in the Sand (1995)

    Native Earth Performing Arts
    Native Images in Transition (1982)

    Ondaatje, Michael
    Coming through Slaughter (1980)

    Witkin, Stephen & Miller, Joey
    Eight to the Bar (1980)

    Toronto Free Theatre
    The Fits (1976)

    Gass, Ken
    Winter Offensive (1977)

    L’orchestre D’Hommes-Orchestres
    Perform Tom Waits (2010)

    Brandenburg (Erin) and Taylor (Lauren)
    Reesor (2007)

    Kantor, Istvan
    axiom/e axiomachine (2001)

    Long (James), Youssef (Marcus)
    Winners and Losers (2013)

  6. alisa palmer says:

    I agree with the goal of that compilation of 150 mixing English and French, movement and text. The more we can move beyond binary oppositions and head toward complex compositions, the better. Meanwhile, I love the list. Worked on some, saw many more and can hardly wait to see what comes next in theatre, including what lies ahead for you and perhaps even with your work at the School. Given the theatre is such an ephemeral form, I’m so glad to see that you’re bringing the past forward. It’ll help us all avoid reinventing the wheel. Again. And congrats on the Voaden.

  7. Vladimir Pajovic says:

    Since 2003 (year when I moved to Canada) my two best Canadian performances were Lepage’s ‘Eonnagata’ and Birdland Theatre ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ – therefore my 2 strong suggestions.
    Totally agree with comments regarding non-division list.
    And if I may ask – what is so ‘canonic’ in ‘Every Time I see Your Picture I Cry’?
    And why ‘Tear the Curtain’ and not ‘Studies in Motion’ of Electric Company, since you even posted a picture from second one?

  8. @Valdimir – The Electric Company picture situation is my bad as the blog uploader. I mistakenly thought Studies in Motion was on the list – and since I worked on Tear The Curtain this site has already had a million pics of it over the years so I was trying to mix things up.

    I also moved here in 03 and remember Birdland’s Last Days as the first indie show that really rocked me – but I think it may have also swept the Doras so I’m not sure if I would anti-canon it. Maybe that has nothing to do with the criteria though….

  9. Jordan Tannahill says:

    The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is an American play by Stephen Adly Guirgis

  10. Vladimir Pajovic says:

    @Jordan – I was thinking about that, but again we have here performances based on Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’, Shakespeare’s Lear, Chekhov … my understanding of ‘Canadian Theatre’ in this case, was toward the quality of direction of the performance staged in Canada, not playwright’s origin. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    @Michael – your point of Doras has sence. Still, I think, the choise of rustic Distillery district building as a venue, switching stages from corner to corner, from rotating scaffolds to hole in the wall. etc. etc. is enough to pass “the difficulty of conveying their totality on the page”. For the same reasons, I would gladly see ‘Children’s Crusade’ (Luminato, 2009) on the list, but that’s an opera and (so far) not applicable.

  11. Jordan Tannahill says:

    @Vladimir – Interesting thought re: authorship vs interpretation. With this list I am considering original Canadian performance works, of which adaptations (like The Overcoat) are included. Productions of foreign plays where the original script is used and in which the playwright is credited – as was the case with ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ – have not been considered. However, ‘Eonnagata’ is a great suggestion as is ‘Children’s Crusade’ (hopefully someone better qualified than myself could suggest an opera list!)

    Regarding the inclusion of Daniel Barrow’s ‘Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry’, I found it to be a revelatory performance, bridging the worlds of visual art and theatre. It’s impact and merit is arguably supported by it winning the 2008 Images Prize and Barrow being honoured with the 2010 Sobey’s Art Award. I have also tried to represent artists from various regions across Canada and I believe Barrow to be one of the most important performance creators from Manitoba. In terms of why ‘Tear the Curtain!’ rather than ‘Studies in Motion’, I guess it is simply a matter of personal taste.

  12. Jordan Tannahill says:

    And I should add, thank you so much for your interest and input!

  13. Vladimir Pajovic says:

    @Jordan – you’re very welcome!

    re: ‘Tear the Curtain’ – my mistake; I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Simply, I concluded, according to photo in blog, that Michael meant on ‘Studies’, what he afterall explained above. Both performances should be on the list, by any means.

    As for Daniel Barrow, he is quite an interesting visual artist (and certainly deserves those awards for visual aspect of his work), however a terrible performer. The idea, concept, and animations of that show were quite original and catchy (contemporary achievement of mixing visual arts and theatre is definitely my cup of tea), but listening for full hour somebody’s too monotone, a way too tired voice, with total lack of pitch variety, resulted that we audience couldn’t maintain any interest in his story. With such (language) expression it is a bit difficult to consider seriously this performance in any kind of essentiality. Sorry.

    But enough of trolling – one more show got to my mind, however totally forgot the name. It was presented last year in Harbourfront “StudioTheatre”, for very short term (4 or even 1 night only) about people who discreetly have affairs in a hotel room, with a young man with body painted in silver, is slowly moving around the room. Maybe you know what I’m talking about.

    and am ready for opera input 🙂

  14. lucy simic says:

    I love this list of pieces that together help illustrate the development of the non literary-based theatre in Canada. It is a very different path with a completely different process and various methodologies. Although I cannot remember a specific show; as a young Vancouver artist (working with Radix Theatre) I was inspired by the work of Rumble Productions and Ruby Slippers.

  15. Jacob Zimmer says:

    Jordans’ list is amazing and inspiring in it’s breadth – so much so that it pulls toward completeness. It’s a great list – and like all great lists, it’s subjective and incomplete.

    Perhaps we can each make our hundred? Or a concerted effort to make canadian theatre on Wikipedia a “stub” subject.

    There would be much overlap and agreement and (just as exciting) specificity about our lives and where we’re from – Irondale, Jest in Time and Chestnut Tree are makers who changed everything for me in Halifax in the early to mid 90’s.

    As much as being “representative” of Canada is an impossible (harmful?) liberal fantasy – my hundred couldn’t stay in Canada, since as much as I’m very much of this country, my influences includes the back and forth (Jest in Time without Montanaro or Marceau? Irondale Halifax without Irondale NY or Brecht?)

    Now, how about we take all this energy and try to get York and UofT to release and update the 100 plays for PhD students. That’s more the dangerous list – the list that makes more claims on power.

  16. Holger Syme says:

    I have a bunch of questions, here.

    As a teaser, though, can I query the distinction between text-driven work and work that matters because of its liveness or its event-like character? I agree that this distinction often seems central in Canadian (and really, internationally, English-language) theatre, but I see no reason why it should be. A performance is a performance is a performance. There is no inherent reason (beyond, well, author’s rights) why a highly crafted “literary” play should not be capable of being transformed into a ravishingly kinetic, present, and utterly live performance in ways that have little to do with the text, and couldn’t have been predicted based on a reading of that text. So it strikes me that excluding shows (or most shows) that are billed as the staging of a particular playwright’s work perpetuates a false dichotomy that I wish we could get over haste-post-haste.

  17. Holger Syme says:

    Er, also, briefly donning my English-professor-pedant-hat: cannons kill, canons bequeath eternal life (or a good shot of historiographical formaldehyde). Not the same thing.