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Theatrical group from Calgary.Theatre is often a window into a culture. A community's issues, values and concerns are presented through its performances, offering glimpses into a particular place and time. In surveying Alberta's theatre heritage there is no exception. From the touring era of the early 20th century, to the rise of the amateurs during the Depression, one is able to witness the evolution of a province. These beginnings are not only a part of Alberta's history, but are the foundation of today's thriving theatre scene, which is recognized internationally.

The first signs of an established theatre community in Western Canada became apparent as early as the 1880s. The Calgary Amateur Music and Dramatic Club appeared in 1884 and the Edmonton Amateur Dramatic Company in 1896. These companies enjoyed moderate success and eventually travelled across the prairies with their shows, marking the beginning of the touring era in Alberta. Still, much of the theatre at the time was produced by American and British touring companies attracted by the guaranteed booking dates in Western Canada.

Theatrical production at Grand theatre.To accommodate these touring groups, facilities were built at an unprecedented pace. The famous Robertson's Hall in Edmonton was constructed in 1893 by Edmonton's sheriff Walter Scott Robertson. It seated 300 people, had a grand piano and was used as an all purpose entertainment centre until it was destroyed by fire in 1896. The Grand Theatre in Calgary was built in 1912. With seating for 1,200 people, at the time, the Grand was considered the finest theatre in Western Canada. Unlike its Edmonton predecessor, the Grand survived and began to host vaudeville in Calgary for a number of years before transforming into a movie theatre.

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Heritage Trail #152 – Vaudeville
By 1906, both Edmonton and Calgary had good theatres, and the network of rail lines made it easy for touring groups of Vaudeville performers to visit Alberta. The Vaudeville Troupes kept up a hectic pace, visiting a new town every three to seven days. Listen Now

Citadel's Shoctor theatre.Vaudeville was the most common touring show in the country at the time. Popular acts featured dogs, snakes, monkeys, even elephants, as well as human performances in the forms of skits, musical selections, and dancing. These companies would often follow a particular circuit, sponsored by a theatre chain, staying in town for as long as they could before moving on.

The touring era ended abruptly in the 1930s when many companies were forced to abandon their circuits due to loss of interest and lack of funds. Resources were diverted from the arts, and the virtual disappearance of professional companies brought the amateur theatre movement into full swing. Soon, small groups composed of local talent were springing up in towns across the province. These "little theatres" became a staple in many communities. Edmonton's Little Theatre was founded in 1929 with help from Elsie Park Gowan and Vernon Barford. The company enjoyed great success, producing several plays a year. It entertained troops during the Second World War and sponsored the Edmonton Drama Festival from 1936 to 1945. The Coaldale Little Theatre gained national attention in the 1950s, after its productions won some major national drama competitions.

Moulton Theatre in BanffThis era also saw the rise of educational institutions for the performing arts. The University of Alberta began conducting classes, adjudicating, offering summer school and lending out equipment. The Banff School of Fine Arts was founded in 1933, followed by two similar institutions in Drumheller and Olds in 1960.

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Heritage Trail #147 – Variety Shows
In the days before radio and television, settlers found amusement and entertainment in live performances. Sometimes these variety shows were put on by professional troupes on tour, but more often, the variety shows were mounted by amateurs in the communities themselves.
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Professional theatre made a comeback once more with the 1965 opening of the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. Stage West, Northern Light Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and Catalyst Theatre soon followed, attracting international touring companies to Alberta once more. In Calgary, professional groups evolved directly from amateur theatre with the amalgamation of Workshop 14 and the Musicians' and Actors' Club, forming the M.A.C.-14 Club in 1966.

Today, Albertans enjoy a mix of both amateur and professional theatre productions in a variety of venues. Throughout the performing arts section of this website, some of the most important people, facilities and events are examined, offering further insight into the origins and future of Alberta theatre.

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A scene from Walterdale Theatre's production of the melodrama 'Lady Audley's Secret'.Listen Now

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