A Brief History of (Rural) Performing Arts in Canada

(Quoted from: The Value of Presenting: A Study of Performing Arts Presentation in Canada, ©2013, Inga Petri, Strategic Moves/CAPACOA (Canadian Arts Presenting Association)

The performing arts in Canada have much deeper roots than one might expect. Long before European explorers came to Canada, aboriginal peoples had a rich, artistic life including music, dance, theatre and storytelling. These deep artistic traditions have been part of this land for millennia. Nonetheless, development of theatre and performing arts in Canada has been shaped mostly by European rather than indigenous traditions.

The first documented theatrical performance in North America took place in Samuel de Champlain’s settlement of Port Royal (near today’s Annapolis Royal, NS), in 1606. It told the story of sailors travelling to the New World and their encounter with Neptune, god of the sea. It was a theatrical performance by sailors, encouraged by the governing body for the health and well-being of the people.

In colonial times, plays were performed by troops in taverns and public buildings. Concerts, modeled on London society’s musical evening soirees, were presented in homes of newly arrived politicians and businessmen in the early 1800s. Dance arrived in the late 1800s via European and American touring companies.

With rising industrialization, growing populations and accessibility of Canada’s west, theatres began to appear across Canada. The then-famous Pantages vaudeville and movie theatre empire extended into Canada, building venues for up to 2,000 people who flocked to theatrical, musical, dance and vaudeville performances. Most of these featured touring companies and artists, although arts institutions, performance ensembles and musical clubs were growing in cities across the country, all of which fostered the development and promotion of Canadian talent.

The 1920s and ‘30s saw the rise of community concert associations, the travelling Chautauqua festivals and Little Theatres bringing multi-facetted performances to communities of all sizes. Dance took a leap forward in the 1950s thanks to the immigration of prominent ballet teachers.

The Massey-Levesque Report on the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences in 1951 led to the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957. With greater government support, and Canada’s Centennial celebrations, new theatres were planned or built in many cities across Canada throughout the 1960s and beyond.

Regional presenting networks began to appear as early as 1968 in Saskatchewan. The Ontario Arts Council created Ontario Contact in 1971, the first Contact event in Canada, in order to support and coordinate touring activity by bringing artists and presenters together. The Canada Council’s Touring Office, established in 1973, further enhanced Council’s role to support performance and make the performing arts accessible to all Canadians. The Touring Office created Contact East in 1975; the same year the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils held its first Contact Showcase. These initiatives were crucial to increasing the number of Canadian artists touring across Canada and complemented efforts to increase international touring by Canadian companies.

The 1970s were, relatively speaking, a heyday for Canada’s performing arts. Theatre saw the emergence of a distinct Canadian voice. Canadian orchestras were numerous and very active. Modern dance troupes took flight. All disciplines enjoyed an expansive era, with an explosion of niche or specialized art forms and appeal to every audience taste.

Several aboriginal theatre and performance companies were founded during the 1980s that continue to operate today, including Native Earth Performing Arts (1982), De-ba-jeh-muh-jig Theatre (1984) and Ondinnok (1985). Concurrently, there has been a rise of aboriginal arts service organizations, training opportunities and spaces where new works can be created. Today, while there has been a marked increase in the number and voices of aboriginal artists and performance creation companies, there is a sense of a persistent lack of professional spaces for aboriginal works.

In 1980, the federal government created the Special Program of Cultural Initiatives, a two-year program with a budget of $29.4 million managed by the Department of Communications. One component, Special Events of a National Character or Significance ($7.6 million), ultimately left a large legacy. Initially designed to fund one-time activities, it attracted applications from organizations across Canada to stage special festivals and events. The program soon discovered that these events returned for annual funding. The current wealth of arts and cultural festivals can be attributed in part to this program. Indeed, festivals have become a major contributor to Canada’s cultural, social and economic life: from nurturing new work in dance to fostering the international cachet of major tourism attractions like Montreal Jazz Festival, to bringing together diverse communities in a common cultural space. The program was renamed Cultural Initiatives Program in 1982 and was renewed until 2001, when it was integrated into the Arts Presentation Canada program (later renamed Canada Arts Presentation Fund), as part of the Tomorrow Starts Today initiative.

The 1980s and ‘90s were characterized by persistent financial problems, and many companies folded or down-sized. These pressures led, however, to an overall improvement in marketing, fundraising and management capacities, and necessarily very high performance standards. In 1996, the Remettre l’art au monde policy in Quebec affirmed the role of the performing arts presenter. Since then, presenters have taken a major role in the development of, and access to, performing arts. Better definition of their multi-faceted functions, in turn, supported further policy breakthroughs.

In 2001, the Tomorrow Starts Today suite of programs was created with encouragement from CAPACOA and RIDEAU, the largest presenting network in Quebec. It continues to represent a major policy statement in support of presenting in Canada; for the first time, it shifted ongoing federal funding to presenting activities, rather than only being focused on individual events. Tomorrow Starts Today included two critical programs for presenters:

– Canada Arts Presentation Fund (formerly Arts Presentation Canada), designed to provide Canadians access to artistic experiences; it was the first national program that supported multi-disciplinary series presenters. The initial program allocation was $72 million over three years. (Program renewed and made permanent in the 2014 Federal budget.)

– Canada Cultural Spaces Fund (formerly Cultural Spaces Canada), contributes to the construction and renovation of arts facilities and the acquisition and renewal of equipment. Its allocation was $80 million over three years. (Program renewed and made permanent in the 2014 Federal budget.)

As a result of funding from the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, community-based professional venues have been built outside of urban centres thereby increasing access for Canadians.

The professionalization of the presenting field began to accelerate across the country. In 2007, presenting organizations in Quebec set out their priorities and further illuminated and affirmed the role of performing arts presentation through the Forum national sur la diffusion des arts de la scène, organized by RIDEAU and its partners. In the same year, the Cultural Human Resources Council in collaboration with the presenting sector published a comprehensive profile of the wide-ranging artistic, marketing and managerial competencies of presenters.

Management of Contact events was progressively transferred from public funding agencies to the presenting networks across Canada. With the focus of networks on either specific geographies or art forms, these events have become an effective tool in convening presenters, marketing touring artists and coordinating bookings. Moreover, during the early 2000s, Canada’s francophone minorities outside of Quebec have been organizing networks and Contact events that serve a broader cultural spectrum including the performing arts.

Today, Canada’s performing arts landscape spans from traditional forms like theatre, to contemporary dance and music genres to circus arts. Interdisciplinary creation has been part and parcel of performing arts since earliest times and continues to evolve alongside with artistic expression, technical capabilities, audiences and the funding environment. Gradually, different performance traditions that reflect the diversity of Canada’s immigrant and aboriginal populations are gaining recognition in the mainstream of Canada’s cultural life.

Now, The Value of Presenting: A Study of Performing Arts Presentation in Canada – together with its comprehensive research documentation – seeks to provide the underpinnings in terms of context and information to build toward a common vision for performing arts presentation for the next generation.