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Persephone Theatre

Saskatoon’s main professional theatre was founded in 1974 by the Wright sisters, Janet and Susan, Saskatoon actresses who had already made a name for themselves in Canadian theatrical circles elsewhere, and by Janet’s husband, Brian Richmond, who was to become the theatre’s first artistic director. It was by design that its founders named this theatre in the heart of the Saskatchewan prairies “Persephone,” for she was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of fertility and the fruitful earth, with a fondness for things agricultural. A theatre so named would be capable of growth and change, like the changing seasons of Saskatchewan, reproducing classic and new plays alike. To finance such a venture, the founders conceived a subsidized regional theatre, keeping the cost of tickets at a minimum to attract audiences, while maintaining a high standard of production. Funds have been raised from several sources: box office, Canada Council grants, Saskatchewan Arts Board, City of Saskatoon, local foundations, unions, companies, and private donations.

The choice of the three plays for the 1974–75 inaugural season was significant and defined the kind of company it was hoped Persephone would become—presenting excellent theatre, chosen from as wide a spectrum as possible. Accordingly, those plays were a recent American hit, The Hot L Baltimore, by Lawford Wilson; a classic, A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen; and a Canadian musical premiere, Cruel Tears, by Saskatchewan author Ken Mitchell.

In its early years, Persephone faced many of the problems associated with establishing a first-rate theatre. In the first eight seasons, between 1974 and 1981, there were no fewer than six artistic directors, until finally in 1982 the Hungarian-born Tibor Feheregyhazi was appointed to that position, where he has remained, giving the theatre remarkable stability for over twenty years. With his profound knowledge of theatre, his zest and enthusiasm for this difficult art, as well as an extraordinary gift of choosing playwrights and plays wisely for a Saskatchewan audience, Persephone has enjoyed a long succession of profitable seasons. The list of playwrights includes classic and contemporary, with plays ranging through tragedies and comedies of the standard repertoire, musicals, and contemporary Canadian productions. As a result, season ticket sales have grown from 1,250 in the early years to 2,851 recently.

Another early problem was that of finding a suitable venue for performance, rehearsal, construction of sets, properties and costumes. Its first season was at the Mendel Art Gallery and the second at the University of Saskatchewan’s Greystone Theatre, before moving in 1976 to the St. Thomas Wesley Church Hall on 20th Street West. However, when the church hall could no longer be insured as a safe venue for theatre, a new space had to be found. Negotiations were thus started with members of Westgate Alliance Church to purchase their building in the Mount Royal district for $360,000, an additional $150,000 being needed for renovations. These amounts were realized from canvassed public donations as well as contributions by the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

Special projects have involved a national playwriting competition, to which seventy scripts were submitted, and the formation of a youth theatre program, with its own artistic director and a tour co-coordinator, which took plays and workshops to centres throughout Saskatchewan and provided classes for children and young people during the summer months. With a dedicated board and staff, Persephone has entered the 21st century with élan, and now has high hopes for a new theatre in the downtown heart of Saskatoon.

Robert Hinitt

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