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An image from Boom, a 1980 25th Street Theatre stage production about the effects of the uranium industry on a Northern Saskatchewan Métis family. (Photo: 25th Street Theatre)

USask drama alumni celebrate 50 years of 25th Street Theatre

The influential Saskatoon theatre company is holding its 50th anniversary celebration at USask

News

By Chris Putnam

For its 50th anniversary, Saskatoon’s oldest professional theatre company is coming back to where it all began.

25th Street Theatre will host its 50th anniversary celebration at the Henry Woolf Theatre on USask’s Saskatoon campus on May 9.

“The Department of Drama on campus is integral to the story of how this company was founded,” said Drew Mantyka (BFA’20), 25th Street Theatre’s co-interim projects and operations manager.

The theatre company, known for its experimental original plays and for organizing the annual Saskatoon Fringe Festival, began in 1972 as an artist collective founded by a group of USask Department of Drama students. It officially incorporated in 1974.

In the years since then, hundreds of USask drama graduates have been involved with the company. In fact, nearly every member of Saskatchewan’s theatre community has a connection with 25th Street Theatre, whether it’s through the Fringe or through 25th Street’s own shows.

“Fifty years is a long time in Canada, especially for an arts organization. So (25th Street Theatre) has always had to work really hard to remain here, and that takes the work of everybody in the city that cares about theatre,” said 25th Street Theatre board member Clare Middleton (BFA’02). “We’re too small to not work together.”

Drama alumni seated in Henry Woolf Theatre
Drew Mantyka (BFA’20) and Clare Middleton (BFA’02) are graduates of the USask Department of Drama now working with 25th Street Theatre. (Photo: Chris Putnam)

In the early 1970s, the students who founded 25th Street Theatre—including original artistic director Andras Tahn (BA’72)—were pushing back against a local theatre culture that focused on established American and European plays.

“Around the same time, there were a whole bunch of theatres across the country starting to say, ‘Let’s do our own thing. Why are we trying to do what other people do? Why don’t we tell our stories?’” said Middleton.

25th Street Theatre was founded with a mandate to produce original local plays. It was a turning point for Saskatchewan’s theatre scene. 

“It was really the first kind of populist, grassroots theatre in the province that specialized in doing Canadian plays and more specifically, Western Canadian plays,” said USask drama professor emeritus Dr. Dwayne Brenna (BA’77, MA’83, PhD).

Brenna is the author of the 2011 book Our Kind of Work: The Glory Days and Difficult Times of 25th Street Theatre, a Saskatchewan Book Award-nominated history of the company.

Producing original plays is a risky business, and the company flirted with bankruptcy more than once. But it found a loyal audience of Saskatchewan theatre lovers who were excited to see themselves represented onstage for the first time.

25th Street Theatre became known as a pioneer in another Canadian theatre movement. It was one of the only companies in the country to specialize in devised theatre, or collective creation—a process in which a creative team starts a production without a script and develops one through collaborative research and improvisation.

25th Street’s most successful devised creation was arguably the most famous play ever to come out of Saskatchewan: 1977’s Paper Wheat.

“The play was about the founding of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and the whole cooperative movement, which you wouldn’t have thought would have made a great play. But 25th Street injected into the play all of those sort of popular culture elements that had characterized its productions in the past. It had juggling. They hired champion old-time fiddle player Bill Prokopchuk. There were songs, dances, skits acted by the cast. It was really a play meant to tug on everything that Saskatchewan audiences liked—particularly rural audiences,” Brenna said.

After winning over Saskatchewan playgoers on a provincial tour, Paper Wheat launched a national tour, becoming a surprise hit in cities such as Toronto and Montreal.

Shot of Paper Wheat audience
Image from a 1982 tour of 25th Street Theatre’s most famous production, Paper Wheat. (Photo: 25th Street Theatre)

More successes followed at 25th Street Theatre: some of them devised creations and some from scripts by up-and-coming Canadian and Saskatchewan playwrights. An important piece of the company’s legacy, Brenna noted, was fostering a Saskatchewan playwriting industry where virtually none had existed before.

“Suddenly, playwriting was a thing you could do and you could get produced at 25th Street Theatre.”

In 1999, because of financial pressures, 25th Street Theatre chose to stop producing its own plays and shifted its focus to the Saskatoon Fringe Festival, which it had been organizing since 1989. 

Even without its own productions, 25th Street Theatre remained a beacon for USask drama students and new graduates.

“A lot of my peers, and myself included, would walk out of (the Department of Drama) and immediately walk into a Fringe production because that can launch you into the rest of what you want to do,” said Mantyka. “So 25th Street was still that voice, that place where you could go and try your luck. Try to get your feet wet. Try to see what works and what doesn’t without the safety blanket of the drama department over your head.”

In 2019, under the new leadership of its current artistic director, Anita Smith, 25th Street Theatre resumed producing its own plays. It is offering a three-show season this year, ending with The Art of French Cooking by Saskatchewan playwright Madeleine Blais-Dahlem (BA’67, MA’71 BEd’86).

The Art of French Cooking is showing at Emrys Jones Theatre at USask from May 4–12.

As 25th Street Theatre continues to find its footing in a changing theatre landscape, the company intends to keep creating.

“We’re going to hopefully continue making the kind of work that 25th’s always been known for—which is right at that cutting edge, pushing forward what things can be, and super relevant to right here and what we’re doing in our community,” said Mantyka.

The 50th anniversary event will be held at 5:30 pm on Thursday, May 9, in the Henry Woolf Theatre, John Mitchell Building, at USask. To attend, RSVP to 50thanniversary@25thstreettheatre.org.


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