The 14 plays that changed everything for Canadian theatre

Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor offer up their Canuck theatre favourites

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Tomson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing made Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor's list of Canadian theatre essentials. (Facebook)

This article is an excerpt from the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists. It was written by Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor, who are two of Canada’s leading actors, playwrights and directors. Their work has been performed by theatre companies across the country. They have collaborated on several productions, including Here Lies Henry (1995), Monster (1998), Cul-de-sac (2002), House (2010) and Who Killed Spalding Gray? (2014).

When we were asked to submit a list of essential Canadian plays and playwrights, we were honoured but we also knew we were in trouble. How on earth could we come up with a finite list with so many indispensable, dazzling works to pick from? So we focused on the word essential: plays that had influenced us; had impacted other writers, actors and directors; had brought attention to Canadian theatre from outside Canada; and, in some cases, plays that broke new ground. Also, we only considered plays at least 10 years old (it requires some marinating to become essential). Finally, we wouldn’t include anyone from our immediate circle, just to be fair. It was not easy distilling it down to 14, but the list had to end somewhere or else it’s not a list so much as a book…hey, there’s an idea!

 

Fortune and Men’s Eyes by John Herbert (1964)

An extraordinary play, and subsequent movie, exploring homosexuality and violence in a men’s prison. While serving six months for possession of marijuana, Smitty becomes the sexual subordinate of Rocky, who occupies the top of the prison food chain. The play draws on Herbert’s own experience doing time following his conviction for dressing in drag in 1947 under the “same-sex sexual activity laws” that were only repealed in 1969. Although Herbert’s work is now the most published play in Canada, back in 1967 no one here would touch this modern masterpiece with a 10-foot pole. New York’s Actors Studio didn’t pass up the opportunity, however, and promptly workshopped it with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight starring as Rocky and Smitty, the same illustrious acting duo who went on to light up the screen in Midnight Cowboy. Herbert lived in Toronto and wrote several more plays, but this one was the game-changer, lifting the lid on a previously unspeakable topic and the harshness of prison life.

 

Les Belle-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay (1968)

This was the play that marked a changing of the guard in Quebec theatre, and maybe even Quebec society. In the play’s language, and in his choice of subject matter and characters, Tremblay brought the Quiet Revolution to the stage. He approached the subject of class in an honourable way. His characters were working-class people, they were intelligent, and he deeply respected them.

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