Performance at the Majestic Theatre in Biggar, Saskatchewan, 1919. The theatre opened in 1911.
Biggar Museum and Gallery

Although there were itinerant entertainers such as singers or magicians in the North-West before the 1880s, serious theatre production coincides with the advent of the railways and the immigrants they brought to provide eager audiences. After the CPR established Regina in 1883, its first theatre was on the second floor of the town hall (over the jail), built in 1886. Despite its increasing inadequacy, this served for local and touring productions of melodrama, vaudeville and even operetta until replaced by the fine “electrical” Regina Theatre in 1910. This pattern was repeated in Saskatoon a little later, where the Empire Theatre became the principal house. Both housed the frequent tours of British rep and American stock companies, the San Carlo or Beecham Opera companies, vaudeville, and local productions. Visitors included such names as Sarah Bernhardt, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Ethel Barrymore, and the Marx Brothers—all touring “the breadbasket circuit.” Costs reduced large-scaling touring, but smaller companies from Winnipeg, Calgary and Moose Jaw helped fill the void and visited smaller centres, which often had an “Opera House.” Another important source of drama and education, especially in rural Saskatchewan, was Chautauqua, which flourished between the wars.

With the decline of touring, however, local community theatre began to increase. In Regina, the Operatic Society operated from 1910 to 1950, and the Community Players, formed in 1924, led to the formation of Regina Little Theatre in 1926. This group continues as the oldest continuously producing amateur company in Canada. Saskatoon Little Theatre existed from 1922 to1949, and was succeeded by Saskatoon Community Players (1952–59) and eventually Saskatoon Gateway Players (1965–). Promoted by the Saskatchewan Drama League (formed in 1933) and later by the Saskatchewan Arts Board and the Department of Education, community and school theatre survived the Depression and war years, even in some quite small places, and increasingly flourished in the second half of the century, encouraged by dedicated people such as Mary Ellen Burgess, Hilda Allen, Cal Abrahamson, Kay Nouch and her husband, Florence James, Robert Hinitt, Margaret and Harold Woodward, Donna and Roy Challis, Betty and Keith Woods, and many others. At present, Theatre Saskatchewan has some eighty-six affiliated groups, many in small towns and villages all over the province.

Many similar groups, dedicated to various forms of theatre, have been established over the years: the Saskatchewan Drama Association (1978–) to promote child and youth drama; Regina Lyric Light Opera; Regina Summer Stage (founded by Sylvia Oancia); Saskatoon Summer Players; and Prairie Opera, among the most notable. Earlier, university drama club productions provided opportunities for students at the University of Saskatchewan and Regina College during the 1930s and early 1940s, but the universities were to become even more important later. Not only did the senior university nourish the fledgling Saskatchewan Drama League in the 1930s and 1940s, but it was the first Canadian university to establish a drama department, led by Emrys Jones from 1946. His teaching there, at the Banff School and elsewhere, enormously influenced all aspects of theatre in the province, as did the efforts of colleagues Walter Mills, Tom Kerr, and Henry Woolf. Establishment of a drama (later theatre) department at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus in the 1960s did much the same, especially under the leadership of Eric Salmon (who started a short-lived professional company, which encouraged the Kramers to pursue that goal) and such influential teachers as Gabriel Prendergast.

Finally, the province was prepared and anxious for permanent professional theatre in its principal cities. Starting with a touring school company, Sue and Ken Kramer founded the Globe Theatre in 1966, and began adult productions of challenging repertoire in 1969. These were also performed in Saskatoon for several years. A permanent theatre in 1981 gave the Globe the home base and stability it needed, and touring eventually ceased. Saskatoon’s two professional theatre companies developed later. 25th Street Theatre, under the aegis of Andras Tahn from 1972, produced such memorable Canadian dramas as Paper Wheat before it eventually disbanded; but Persephone Theatre (1974–) has managed more longevity under the direction of Tibor Feheregyhazi. A more recent success has been the annual Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan summer productions of the Bard’s works in accessible form.

Richard Harvey