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“Where PUC Came From: A Set of Recollections” (2007) 

By Tom Hendry, founding member of PUC/PGC

Over thirty years ago, among those of us interested in promoting opportunities for Canadian playwrights, action-oriented alliances began to be formed, plans made on the basis of mutually shared dreams, organizations to be envisioned. By the autumn of 1971 the PUC forerunner, Playwrights Co-op, was waiting for funding so it could begin publishing and distributing new Canadian plays.

The funding came through in late 1971 and by January of 1972 the first scripts were printed and in the mail to prospective producers in Canada and elsewhere. Before this could happen, a lot of other challenges had to be comprehended, analyzed, understood and met. Above all, those who wanted something to happen had to put aside personal differences and work together. I was lucky enough to be involved at various times, in various places with the work of getting everyone involved, securing agreement as to where we wanted to go and on the best way to get there. This is how I remember things happening: incrementally.

During the mid-sixties, when I was Secretary General of the Canadian Theatre Centre, I noticed that very few Canadian plays in the English language had ever been published. To make a start on repairing this omission, I proposed to my Board that CTC should begin a modest publication and distribution program involving interesting new Canadian plays in English and French, plays which had not yet found a publisher. The Board agreed, CTC advertised its intentions and in due course numbers of scripts began to arrive at the CTC office. To weed out the unpublishables, on the advice of Jean Roberts, I hired Timothy Findley and William Whitehead as play readers cum editors. 

We never did get going on the French-language side of things because the Canada Council, our funder, insisted on okaying the French-language scripts prior to publication. The Council, it appeared to us, was unreasonably nervous about becoming identified with the publication of separatist material, of which there was undeniably a good deal in those days in the plays coming out of Québec. Our Board viewed their requested publication veto as censorship and understandably cancelled the French-language publication program. Too bad.

The Council put no such restrictions on the English-language program and eventually, on the basis of Tiff and Bill’s strong recommendation and a Board committee’s approval, we brought out, in 8 x 11 mimeograph format, a number of Canadian plays. Among them were George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark, and Ann Henry’s Lulu Street. We sent the scripts to all CTC member-theatres, to the Dominion Drama Festival and to all national Centres of the International Theatre Institute, of which CTC was the Canadian Centre. It was the first step, on the part of the artists themselves, in letting Canadians and others outside our borders in on the secret that Canadians were writing and producing their own plays. The scripts had some kind of impact: when Clifford Williams left the Royal Shakespeare Company to come here to head up Theatre Toronto, back in the Sixties, he told me his only contact with this country was reading those scripts at Canada House.

By the end of the Sixties, a lot of things had happened. At Expo in 1967, CTC had held an enormous international colloquium called The Design of Theatres. At that meeting, people like Kenneth Tynan, Jerzy Grotowski, Arnold Wesker and Joe Buenaventura from all over the world had predicted the Seventies would belong to small developmental theatres nurturing new plays and new writers, new directors and new actors dedicated to the work of creating new national repertoires. A lot of young Canadian theatre artists came, listened, discussed and were impressed with what everyone was saying. By 1970, Factory Lab Theatre, with an all-Canadian repertoire policy had begun and was soon to be followed by Tarragon Theatre with a similar outlook. Theatre Passe Muraille had abandoned its initial preoccupation with off- Broadway hip and the international avant-garde and was also becoming all-Canadian. (VERY TORONTOCENTRIC)

The crux of the dilemma facing writers then was this: the big English Canadian theatres, the regionals and the festivals, had virtually no interest in producing Canadian work, except here and there plays for young audiences. The small theatres had almost nothing in the way of financial resources. For most, doing Canadian work was a genuine labor of love involving near-clerical vows of poverty that promised never to change.

At the end of 1968, I left CTC to take up an invitation to become Literary Manager (dramaturge) of the Stratford Festival. There, I learned early in February, my first task was to write a musical based on The Satyricon. The writer who was supposed to do book and lyrics had backed out at the last minute; tickets had already been sold. There had to be a production. Rehearsals were set to begin in May for a June opening.

Somehow Stanley Silverman, the composer, and I got a script and songs ready on time. The show opened on schedule and was the success de scandale and success fou of the season, playing nightly to standing room only audiences. Even I had to stand whenever I wanted to see it. 

Kitty corner from the Avon, where Satyricon was playing, in a converted store was the Canadian Place Theatre, a new group doing new Canadian work by its mostly written founders, Martin Kinch, John Palmer and Larry Kardish. They knew I had sent a donation to the Futz defense fund ( the Toronto producers of this innocuous and whimsical off-Broadway success were on trial in T.O. for presenting an obscene play) and on the strength of this John Palmer asked me to become their star defense witness. It seemed that the Stratford Morality Squad had threatened to close them down because of the nature, language, nudity and other content of their plays. After that, I went to their openings where I always sat, amid a scattering of cast relatives and friends, with the head of the Morality Squad, Mark Anthony. True, that was his name. At the intermission I’d assure Mark he couldn’t get a conviction since I would be testifying in their defense and he would go happily home. 

After the 1969 summer in Stratford we all – except for Mark Anthony – kept in touch and I began going back to Toronto a lot to see shows like Vampyr, Charles Manson aka Jesus Christ, Creeps, Sacktown Rag, etc. I could feel the energy that was powering all this new work, shoestring budgeted though it might be. At Stratford. I was not a happy camper. There were bright spots: I read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in typescript and bought the stage rights from Michael Ondaatje in order to make a school tour of the show in Ottawa. Alas, the teachers in our nation’s capital turned it down as dirty, filthy and debauched, the same year it won the Governor-General’s Award. My only really lasting achievement at the Festival was in persuading Jean Gascon to acquire the old rink as a Third Stage venue for unconventional material. There, a couple of years later, I saw Neil Munro become a mainstream star as Billy the Kid. In the winter of 1970-71, I moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake where Judith Hendry was working as Director of Shaw Festival Marketing and Communications. 

In the late spring of 1971, David Gardner, then Theatre Officer of the Canada Council, called a meeting to be held in early August at Stanley House, the Council’s Gaspé think- tank, involving a lot of the usual suspects then active in trying to get more Canadian plays on our stages. David chaired the meeting and among the rabble-rousers present were writers Carol Bolt, Jean Morin, George Ryga, Jack Gray and myself. Others in the cast included producers James Domville and Marc Gélinas plus Suzanne Finlay of CBC-TV, Peter Hay of Talon Books, Arthur Ballet of the U.S. play-developing O’Neill Foundation, Renée Paris, an agent based in Vancouver. 

David began the meeting by suggesting things were better than ever for Canadian playwrights and getting even better by the day. Asked to respond, I said that things were terrible for every aspect of creation for the stage in English Canada, that the whole area of creation and its practitioners was viewed at best by the mainstream theatrical leadership as a poor and undeserving relative, not as the single most important person in the entire Canadian theatrical family. Carol Bolt was even more vitriolic but George Ryga somehow managed to top Carol in scorn and dismay, no mean feat on his part. 

The Québecers present agreed that there were differences in degree of alienation between creation and mainstream but that the outlook for theatrical innovation, while better than in the ROC, was pretty bleak.

What to do about it? We proposed quotas – 50% Canadian work on all federally- supported stages was a popular suggestion – since we’d all seen what the Canadian music quota on radio had done for composers and performers of Canadian work. Nothing came of that but Canada Council did begin, on its grant application forms, to ask theatres which of the plays they’d be doing were Canadian plays. More productively we prepared a wish list of needed but not yet existing institutions: a publishing, distributing and royalty-collecting organization à la Samuel French or Dramatists Play Service; more small theatres all across the country dedicated to Canadian work and enthusiastically encouraged and supported by the Canada Council; developmental centres, outside of the metropolitan theatrical communities, where playwrights could work with experienced directors, dramaturges and actors to develop their works. 

We prepared a report – a how-to-do-it kit called, I believe, A Curious Enterprise and when we left Stanley House we all had homework to do to further The Cause. Mine was to research and write a study of how Canadian plays presented in “mainstream” theatres. What I found was that Canadian plays were hits more often than not with Canadian audiences. In Halifax, Arthur Murphy was more popular than the likes of Neil Simon; in Vancouver George Ryga far outsold Terence Rattigan; in Winnipeg, Len Peterson and Morris Surdin’s musical Look Ahead! was a holdover success and so it went wherever I looked. These findings, which I published in Saturday Night magazine, contrasted oddly with the views of most English Canadian artistic directors who, in general, saw Canadian work for the stage as “rubbish”. Far from rubbish, Canadian stuff was close to being guaranteed hits, wherever produced in Canada. Even at Stratford!

En route home from the Stanley House meeting, I stopped off at the O’Neill Foundation in Connecticut where Arthur Ballet introduced me to John Guare whose latest play was being workshopped there, to Martin Esslin, head of BBC Drama and Edith Oliver, off- Broadway critic for The New Yorker, both of whom were serving as volunteer dramaturges. By the time I left I had ideas about a Canadian facility a lot like this one.

Back at Niagara-on-the-Lake, I approached Brian Doherty, founder of the Shaw Festival and a Canadian playwright with Broadway credits from the Thirties and Forties about the Festival co-hosting a second meeting of playwrights to discuss the ideas that came out of Stanley House, to recruit believers to The Cause and to keep the ball rolling. In late August, the second conference was held with a very large attendance compared with Stanley House. At this conference a playwright named Laura Ferrier asked me if I’d heard about L.I.P. a new Federally-sponsored Local Initiatives Program. Apparently LIP gave out money to people with good ideas for putting people to work. As soon as the conference was over, I drove to Toronto, found the LIP office and sat down with two bureaucrats named Beaumont and Torlone. What was on my mind? 

I told them a bunch of us – unemployed but gifted directors, actors, writers, designers – wanted to found a theatre to produce only new Canadian plays. What do you call this new theatre, they asked, sharpening their pencils. I hadn’t thought that far. I liked Toronto New Theatre but Jonathan Stanley already owned that name. I told them we called it Toronto Free Theatre. Why free? It was to be a community resource, like a public library. By not charging we would avoid all the marketing agony. We would live on whatever LIP could give us. How much would we need? $ 120,000 to employ a company of twenty for a year at $ 100 per week each plus an expense allowance of $ 16,000. Sounds good, they said, writing it down. Do you have any other good ideas. 

Thanks to Stanley House, I certainly did. A lot of unemployed playwrights were ready to get together to publish and distribute all the scripts they were getting produced these days. How much? I divided $ 120,000 by two and added $ 5,000 for luck. $ 65,000, I said, staff of ten plus expenses. Sounds good, they said, What’s it called? I tried to think of something classy and progressive and idealistic. We call it Playwrights Co-op, I told him. It’s sponsored by the Toronto Playwrights Circle. You’ve heard of them? They both nodded and wrote down what I’d said. They gave me some papers to fill out and said everything should be ready to go by December. About this free theatre business, said Mr. Beaumont. Yes? What about it? You call it that, nobody will come. Why? This is a mercantile society, Beaumont told me, something that has no cost has no value. People don’t go to things that have no value. I said, if you’re in the States and you have the choice of a toll road or a free road that’s just as good and just as quick, do you go on the toll road because the other has no cost and therefore no value? He’s got a point, Mike, said Mr. Torlone. PS: in early June the bureaucratic twosome showed up at the Free to make sure we were in business. We were full that night but I found them a couple of seats. At intermission I said, You see, they came, it’s like this every night. Jammed. 

Beaumont had an answer: What do you expect? It’s free, for Christ’s sake! Torlone winked at me. 

Cutting back to the chase: 

I walked out of the LIP office with $ 185,000 in the bag, $ 185,000 I hadn’t dreamed of having for The Cause an hour before. Carol Bolt couldn’t believe our good luck. Neither could Martin Kinch and John Palmer. Only a few days previously, after a lot of coaxing the Canada Council had offered us $ 3,000 to $5,000 to help get us started. Not only the Co-op and TFT came out of LIP: the remarkable Vera Cudjoe’s ground-breaking Black Theatre Canada started there, so did a lot of first class children’s theatre groups, and Open Circle Theatre, and Global Village Theatre and many another. Amazing how much you get for a couple of million, which is about what LIP pumped into the theatrical blood circulatory system here in Toronto over two or three years. That money is still paying dividends. Why are a lot of our actors here such naturals for movie work? Jeff Bowes says to a great extent it’s because as a group they honed their craft in the relatively small rooms that became our theatres, rooms where a natural intimate style of acting is an absolute necessity. But I digress. 

The final negotiations were in early December at a time when I had to be out of the country on urgent business. As a result, Carol Bolt looked after the finalizing of the Co-op contract, Judith Hendry took care of the Toronto Free Theatre contract. In January, we at TFT began work on our first Toronto season. Three plays by John Palmer, Larry Fineberg and me. We were to open the first of June, just two years after the opening of The Satyricon. In January, Carol wangled free office space for us out of the Toronto Library Board. As soon as the phone was installed we called Vancouver to invite Herschel Hardin, whom we all admired, to accept Membership Card Number 1 in the Playwrights Co-op. A big silence after the invitation was broken by Herschel: I’ll join if you move the whole operation to Vancouver. So much for solidarity! 

Just prior to receiving the first big cheque, we had another incredible burst of good fortune. Darryl Sharp, a writer and editor a lot of us knew came back from England where he’d been working in publishing. We managed to convince him to go to work for the Co-op as publisher for the $100 weekly we were allowed by the LIP people to pay each of our staff members. In Darryl’s first year, the Co-op published 100 new plays. In those days our only criteria for publication suitability was this: the play had to have been produced somewhere by somebody in front of some sort of public audience. At the beginning we wanted a historical record of what was being seen, a record that was as complete as possible. 

We had disbanded the Toronto Playwrights Circle and most of us Carol, John Herbert, myself, Len Peterson etc. – went on the Board of the Co-op. The Co-op in turn led to Playwrights Canada and Playwrights Press. How were we able to start in high gear and keep going despite funding and other snafus? Dumb luck.

Once when we were horribly broke, a water pipe burst on the floor above us and reduced to pulp our entire inventory. Our manager made a claim, with the lost scripts listed at sale price, not cost price and for some reason, the insurance company paid the entire claim. This gave us the working capital to really get into business and stay in business. I was on the Board for all but one of the first ten years serving as president, frequently treasurer, sometimes secretary. Cut back to the Stanley House wish list: 

A couple of years after the Co-op got going, the Banff Centre called and invited me to come out and head up their then-dormant playwrights’ program. I mailed them a copy of the Plan for a Playwrights Colony I had written out as soon as I got home from my visit to the O’Neill Foundation. The plan was expensive but to my surprise Banff agreed and in 1974 Doug Riske and I co-founded the Banff Playwrights Colony. That enabled me to tick off the third of the pressing items on our Stanley House wish list. It really helps if you want to get to a particular destination to have a reliable road map. But this piece isn’t about Banff, it’s about all the incremental permutations and mutations between the Playwrights Circle of 1971, the Playwrights Co-op of 1972, the later Playwrights Canada etc., etc., etc. 

At Stanley House we had estimated it would take ten years of hard work, constant lobbying and determination to replace the somewhat colonial “mainstream” in, for example, the arts and entertainment sections of the Toronto papers. Because of a few lucky breaks, and thanks to the energy and ability of our playwrights and directors and actors and designers, it only took five years. By the mid-seventies, it was obvious we needed some sort of union-patterned watchdog organization to police relationships between our playwrights and the many theatres now wanting to produce their works.

Because it seemed to most of us inappropriate to place this important and specialized responsibility in the hands of ACTRA or the Writers Union, both of whom were interested in having us come in with them, we decided to continue on our own and so the Guild was born.

Because of its position and relative strength, the publishing/distribution entity looked like a comfortable place in which to lodge a lot of the nutsy-boltsy stuff you must deal with rapidly and competently if you want to run a decent Union. It was natural for a lot of the Guild folks to feel this way; after all, the membership of the two organizations was practically identical. Both belonged to the same members. Lines of demarcation between the spheres of activity of the two organizations began to blur. Be that as it may, the publishing and distributing people had a huge amount of work on their hands and rarely, if ever, enough in the way of resources to get the job done satisfactorily, which may have made them needlessly unsympathetic to Guild needs.

Eventually the time came when too much energy was being wasted on turf wars and hassles between the Guild and the Co-op and to avoid ongoing civil strife, we merged the two organizations, and never looked back.

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