It’s trite but true: fact can be stranger (and more entertaining) than fiction. In Peter Jobin’s Beyond Walls, we begin to get a sense that the history of Toronto’s long-running alternative theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, couldn’t have been more compelling if it were a theatrical script.
Picture this: 1960s Toronto. The infamous Rochdale College, an institution of co-operative living and alternative education, is emerging as a radical experiment in creativity, learning, and co-habitation. Writers, poets, visual artist, actors, dancers and others around the city are beginning to recognize the limits of the Toronto cultural scene—and look for ways to innovate.
It is in this maelstrom of artistic change that Theatre Passe Muraille was born. A radical theatre group designed to be innovative and provocative, Theatre Passe Muraille focused on literally breaking down barriers between actors and their audiences. The story of its founding and evolution demonstrates the company’s ability to take inspiration from disparate sources and synthesize them into a new, uniquely Canadian—or Torontonian—form of artistic expression. And like any good story, there are conflicts of character, clashes with authority, triumphs and lean times. But despite the challenges and controversy the company faced during its early years, Theatre Passe Muraille lives on today, and has recently marked its 50th anniversary.
Read on for an excerpt of this fascinating study of the history of Toronto’s alternative theatre scene.
* * *
Busted: Theatre Passe Muraille at Rochdale
On Wednesday, March 5, 1969, the day the Theatre Passe Muraille production of Futz was scheduled to open, producer William (Bill) Marshall challenged his city: `We want to see what you can put on in Toronto.’ The Toronto Star printed a rousing article, `Futz Brings Nudity, Bestiality to Toronto Stage.’
The Toronto Police showed little interest: `If all it’s got to show is a couple of bare mammary glands,’ declared a spokesman, `I don’t think we’d even bother with it.’ Marshall’s producing partners, lawyers Miles O’Reilly and Arthur Pennington, invited crown counsel Peter Rickaby to the opening night. Rickaby was both the complainant and prosecutor in the 1965 obscenity conviction of art gallery owner Dorothy Cameron, still a scandal in Toronto. At the Central Library Theatre, a Toronto Police morality-squad plainclothes obcer asked Rickaby if, in his opinion, an obscenity charge should be laid. `It would be laughed out of court,’ Rickaby told him.
Hours before the opening, the Futz company stage manager telephoned his actors with a warning that the police might charge them right after the performance. To avoid running into any law obcers after the opening, the actors made their exit via the theatre’s fire escape. On Thursday, March 6, after the second night’s performance, the Toronto Police preferred charges of `staging an indecent performance’ and the following day legal summonses were issued to the director Jim Garrard, the three producers, the actors, the stage crew and even the Central Library’s teenage coatroom attendant.
As the play’s scheduled three-week run proceeded, new summonses were issued to everyone after each night’s presentation, each performance constituting a new odence under the law. The daily legal ceremony was covered by press and television, a major media event. The publicity put ticket sales through the roof; the producers scheduled additional performances, and invited the surprised American playwright, Rochelle Owens, to Toronto for interviews. Her rather `Manhattan’ comment was, `This couldn’t happen in New York. All this prurient sex. It’s very corny.’ Torontonians, who weren’t odended by `an indecent performance’, as the warrants read, or by the denial of free speech, were unhappy with the rather provincial character of the entire adair. The Toronto Telegram commented, `The press, the police, and those responsible for the production have this much in common: they have all become excited by a trace of smut.’
After its scheduled three-week run, Futz closed, as another theatre had previously reserved the Central Library. There was talk of moving the production to a new location, but this was just not possible. Passe Muraille had no production funds, the Trio partners were facing three weeks of Criminal Code charges and lawyers Pennington and O’Reilly, if convicted, could face sanctions by the Ontario Bar. The Futz arrests and the explosive media coverage they received produced extraordinary public exposure for the new Toronto theatre scene and energized local stage professionals of all kinds. In retrospect, it’s interesting to examine why members of the Futz company were arrested.
For Toronto in 1969, it may well be that the Passe Muraille production of Futz was an `indecent’ act. The first act of An Evening with Futz, as the Central Library performance was called, was based on improvisations that director Jim Garrard had created in his Rochdale College theatre classes, and was designed to prepare the audience for Rochelle Owens’s play. Theatregoers had to reach their seats by stepping over actors sprawled in the aisles. After warm-up exercises, the cast questioned the audience about their ideas on bestiality, sexuality and the play’s reputation. Sexual jokes and skits were mixed with the Walt Disney animated short Three Little Pigs and other visual materials. A recording of the Beatles singing `Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’ was played. One critic described this first act as `an extended series of obscene songs and dreary old jokes’. According to most reports, the audience interrogations were foolish, the songs and jokes were juvenile. Garrard disliked this first act so much he usually remained in the theatre lobby, refusing to watch. Now Theatre Passe Muraille, the new company he had founded just one year earlier, was at risk and he was facing charges, with no resources to defend himself.
* * *
Hope you enjoyed this unique peek behind the scenes of a major part of Canada’s theatrical heritage. To read more, be sure to get your own copy of Beyond Walls here.