Theatre Passe Muraille

 Theatre Passe Muraille, a Toronto-based theatre company, was founded by Jim Garrard in 1968. Based in Rochdale College, then North America's largest "free university" and a radical student residence, Theatre Passe Muraille (Theatre Without Walls) aimed to break down the barriers between audience and performers. Stressing theatre as event, it was the first of Canada's so-called "alternative theatre" companies. Today it maintains much of its alternative roots, both as a producer of provocative Canadian theatre and as a "seed" company that hosts and supports emerging companies and artists.

The company gained early notoriety in 1969 with a production at the Central Library theatre of Rochelle Owens's Futz, an avant-garde piece about a farmer who outrages a small town in rural America by engaging in sexual activity with his pet pig. Obscenity charges were laid against the producers, director, actors and stage crew, but 4 subsequent convictions were eventually overturned. Garrard moved the company to a church hall at 11 Trinity Square, producing such plays as Jean Genet's The Maids and Lanford Wilson's Home Free, both featuring a young Kate NELLIGAN.

 After a financial crisis, the first of several Theatre Passe Muraille would weather, Garrard resigned in 1969, and from 1969 to 1971 Martin Kinch headed an artistic triumvirate that included playwright John Palmer and Paul THOMPSON, before passing the reins to Thompson in 1972.

With its overt nationalism and pioneering spirit, Thompson's company attracted talented performers and writers such as John GRAY, Carol Bolt, Rick Salutin, Hrant Alianak, Saul RUBINEK, Nick Mancuso and Louis Del Grande. In such shows as Doukhobors (1971), Thompson developed the co-operative, actor-driven form of playwriting known as COLLECTIVE CREATION; other notable shows in this style included The Farm Show (1972); 1837: The Farmers' Revolt (1973), written with Salutin; and I Love You, Baby Blue (1975). Its nudity and scathing examination of moral standards made I Love You, Baby Blue both controversial and popular, enabling the theatre to buy its present home, a former bakery/candle factory at 16 Ryerson Avenue.

Under Thompson and subsequent artistic directors, Theatre Passe Muraille was able to offer an affordable space for fledgling alternative theatre companies such as BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES, Necessary Angel, NIGHTWOOD THEATRE and Videocabaret. It also presented a number of seminal Canadian plays, including Alianak's The Blues (1976), Gray's 18 Wheels (1977), Linda GRIFFITHS's Maggie and Pierre (1979) and Judith THOMPSON's The Crackwalker (1980). Paul Thompson retired in 1982 and was succeeded by Clarke Rogers, who continued the theatre's fierce commitment to new Canadian work. Although standards fluctuated, some interesting writers were showcased, including Sally Clark and Brad FRASER. Linda Griffiths's string of achievements continued with O.D. on Paradise (1983) and Jessica (1986). From 1984 to 1988, Griffiths was associate artistic director, returning in 1995 as playwright-in-residence with her play The Duchess: a.k.a. Wallis Simpson (1998).

Rogers resigned in 1987 and new artistic director Brian Richmond had some popular successes with Paul Ledoux and David Young's Fire (1989), Rigoletto by Michael HOLLINGSWORTH, Don Horsburg and Deanne Taylor (1990), Michel Marc BOUCHARD's Lilies and James W. Nichol's adaptation of Margaret LAURENCE's THE STONE ANGEL (1991).

Richmond left after the end of the 1990-91 season and Layne Coleman, who had acted at the theatre in the 1970s and was associate artistic director under Rogers in the 1980s, became interim artistic director. Coleman worked with general manager Colin Rose to rescue the company from severe financial instability by helping to lead a $440 000 fundraising campaign. Susan Serran, who was artistic producer from 1992 to 1997, continued Passe Muraille's commitment to new work, with a strong emphasis on political activism. Among the highlights of her 5-year tenure were 1994's The Last Supper (in association with DNA Theatre and Platform 9), Still the Night by Theresa Tova (1996) and a revival of John MIGHTON's Governor General's Award-winning play Possible Worlds (1997).

Coleman stepped in again as interim artistic director in 1997, reviving Passe Muraille/Salutin's 1937: The Farmers' Revolt for the company's 30th (and the play's 25th) anniversary. When Coleman accepted a 2-year appointment in 1998, he articulated his philosophy in a bio piece in the Toronto Star: "Passe Muraille, at its best, has always been alive and even dangerous. I know some people don't like that. Some people like their art to be more rigorously controlled, manipulated and polished. ... More and more, I want to treat the theatre like a gallery where different artists come in and present their work. I want us to speak to each other through the work, rather than in long meetings about dramaturgy and finding the perfect play structure."

By the late 1990s Theatre Passe Muraille faced a serious financial deficit again. Serran and Taylor left and Geddes Poole took over as general manager at the start of the 1997-98 season. Coleman would now be the only resident play director at the theatre.

Under Coleman, the 1998-99 season brought 2 critical successes, Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy, loosely based on the creation of The Farm Show, and Aurash, a Persian fable translated and adapted by Soheil Parsa and Brian Quirt. Healey's play was remounted the following season, the success of which convinced Coleman to continue on as artistic director, a position he would hold until retiring at the end of the 2006-07 season. In 2002 In the Wings received some critical praise as an adaptation of the last novel written by Coleman's late wife, journalist and author Carol Corbeil, which dealt with an alternative theatre's staging of Hamlet (Theatre Passe Muraille had staged Shakespeare's play featuring Coleman in the title role in 1983). In 2004 Trey Anthony's Da Kink in My Hair, picked up after its premiere at the 2001 Toronto Fringe Festival, set record box-office numbers. Co-productions are now common as part of the season: Carlos Bulosan Theatre, Obsidian Theatre, Modern Times Stage Company and Cahoots Theatre rank among Toronto groups that have shared the company's Mainspace or Backspace.

Still, Theatre Passe Muraille's financial difficulties worsened and it turned to inventive means to spark prosperity. A short-lived initiative to produce summer theatre with Picton, Ont's Regent Theatre was attempted, but fizzled in its second summer when the Picton group ceased operations in July 2004. A partnership with Bell Canada began that year, notably providing box-office service to Toronto arts organizations. And in 2006 the company offered its first artist-scholar conferences in conjunction with 2 Mainstage plays: Collective Beginnings, Alternative Creations emerged from The Rochdale Project and The Shipping of Souls and the Reception of Cultures emerged from 2007's The Sheep and the Whale.

By the end of 2006, in the midst of what it called a "tight, clean and streamlined" season of 3 Mainstage plays, the company was mired in a $500 000 debt, nearly half of its annual operating budget. The board publicly referred to the situation once again as critical. Coleman announced his resignation effective at the end of the season, and Rose, who had returned again as general manager to help the theatre, prepared to leave. The company responded by hiring new artistic director Andy McKim and programming The Drawer Boy to open its 40th season in 2007-08 (the play was reported to be the "most widely produced play in North America" the previous year). And in a headline-making turn of events, the City of Toronto purchased the company's Ryerson Avenue building for $1.2 million, leasing it to a non-profit management group to sublease it back to the company for $2.00/year and $20 000 annual upkeep. This relieved what the City acknowledged to be a crippling debt load that would otherwise have forced the company to shut down operations.