During the 1980s, Theatre Direct began to push the envelope of traditional theatre for young audiences. The company soon garnered a reputation for producing shows that tackled difficult subject matter and addressed it honestly. Inclusiveness, sexual consent, alcohol and drug addition, and suicide were just some of the issues that the company brought to the fore. Both praise and controversy marked this era, as Theatre Direct blazed a trail for TYA worldwide.
In addition, the company continued to produce high-quality shows for younger children, including plays that dealt with emigrating to Canada, resolving conflicts, and Canadian history. During this era, several shows had runs in theatres as well as school presentations, broadening the company’s audience.
1982: How I Wonder What You Are
Script and original songs by Robert Morgan
Directed by Tom Bentley-Fisher
Fate and Boy: Robert Morgan
Atropos and Richard: Robb Paterson
Clotho and Girl: Mag Ruffman
Stage Manager: Leslie Hogan
While Theatre Direct had never been afraid to tackle issues, 1982’s How I Wonder What You Are took this commitment to a new level. The play delves deeply into the subject of acceptance and the lives of its three young characters: a gifted student, a student with intellectual delays, and one whose family is plagued with conflict. Each student is given a “label” that affects the quality of his or her life, and the play shows us how each struggles in some areas and excels in others.
The company felt so strongly about the play and its message that when they couldn’t get funding to produce it, they voluntarily took a 50% pay cut and kept rehearsing. Fortunately, they found a sponsor during the final phase of rehearsal.
Children reacted strongly to the production, with many visibly moved by the performance. How I Wonder What You Are incorporated rock music and the slang of the day, enhancing its relevance to young peoples’ lives. The message of inclusion resonated with teachers and other adults as well: How I Wonder What You Are won the first Chalmers Children’s Play Award and garnered unanimous critical acclaim.
“A brilliant play that challenges kids…How I Wonder What You Are is a potent, punchy message for Ontario schoolchildren.” -Toronto Star
Winner: Chalmers Children’s Play Award, 1983.
1983: The Railroad Story
A Theatre Direct Canada Collective
Original music by Richard Greenblatt
Directed by Richard Greenblatt
Spit Mulligan: Jerome Ackhurst
William Cornelius van Horne: David Stewart Craig
Buddy Hogan: Robert Morgan
Clara LaDoux: Mary Vingoe
Designed by Patsy Lang
Stage Manager: Leslie Hogan
The Railroad Story provides an entertaining look at the building of the CPR, and the issues that surrounded the formation of the nation.
1983: By All Means
Written by Robert Morgan
Directed by Tom Bentley-Fisher
Jake’s father has committed suicide, and he and his friends gather for a wake. All the turmoil and confusion of their teenaged lives comes to the fore, and, as they face their vulnerabilities, they find strength in their bonds with one another.
1984: New Canadian Kid
Written by Dennis Foon
Based on a concept by Jane Howard Baker
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Mother: Judith Norman
Nick: Derek Scott
Mencha: Tricia Adams
Mug: Kevin Fox
Stage Manager: Aidan Cosgrove
In this popular play developed at BC’s Green Thumb Theatre, Nick and his mother are new immigrants to Canada. Their experience is conveyed to the audience by a theatrical twist: Nick and his mother speak English, while the Canadians all speak gibberish.
Written by Tom Bentley-Fisher with Patricia Grant
Directed by Tom Bentley-Fisher
Margaret: Barbara Barnes
Miss Dewson: Patricia Grant
Todd: Blake Carter
Janice: Marina Endicott
Alex: Gary Furlong
Margaret, a new kindergarten student, has to go to an afterschool care program with three older children. Frightened and feeling lonely, she has trouble fitting in with the others – until their teacher gives the children the responsibility of caring for nine duck eggs. Using music, rhythm, and rhyme, Friends celebrates the joy of forming bonds with others in a common cause.
1984: Love and Work Enough
Collectively created by Nightwood Theatre Company
(Collective members Peggy Sample, Kate Lazier, Cathy Wendt, Eva Mackey, Heather D. Swain, Mary Vingoe, Ann Lederman, and Cynthia Grant.)
Directed by Cynthia Grant and Mary Vingoe
Musical Direction by Ann Lederman
Heather D. Swain
A dynamic look at women’s lives during early settler days in Canada, Love and Work Enough is filled with music, movement, and humour. The show provided a captivating way for young people to relate to history.
Winner: Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Children’s Theatre, 1985.
1985: Street Safe
Written by Anna Fuerstenberg
Josh and Clara encounter a number of situations where they may be in danger. They must use caution and common sense to stay safe.
1985: Getting Wrecked
Written by Tom Walmsley
Lyrics by Tom Walmsley, music by Micah Barnes
Directed by Jeffrey Cohen
Jerry: Barclay Hope
Peter: David Fraser
Linda: Liza Hocura
Francine: Helen Taylor
“Get down, get bad, get wrecked/Get up, get free, get wrecked…”
Getting Wrecked, an uncompromising look at teen life, evoked a dramatic response when it toured to schools in 1985. Walmsley’s hard-hitting script features four teens experimenting with booze, drugs, sex, and rock and roll, and protests about the subject matter became an issue for the production.
Getting Wrecked deals with a year in the lives of Peter, Francine, Jerry, and Linda. Peter, who is extremely bright, is entering a new school as the play begins. He begins dating Francine, whose father is a heavy drinker. The two of them gravitate toward Jerry, an older student who likes to party, and Linda, Jerry’s girlfriend. As the year progresses, drinking and smoking weed begins to take a toll on the teens and their relationships. Eventually, Linda and Peter start to re-evaluate the course of their lives, while Jerry and Francine remain committed to the party lifestyle.
The characters are complex: witty, talented, conflicted, and facing a variety of challenges. As aspiring musicians, they are able to express their inner fears and desires in song. As relevant today as it was when it was first written, Getting Wrecked earned Theatre Direct the reputation for fearlessness. The show garnered a potent response from audience members as well as praise from teachers, parents, and theatre critics.
Winner: Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Children’s Theatre, 1986.
“Getting Wrecked is brilliant.” -Toronto Sun
1986: Double Vision
Written by Betty Jane Wylie
Directed by John Glossop
Eileen: Donna Bothen
Corrie: Siobhan McCormick
Lara: Rita Tuckett
An amusing and sensitive exploration of the complexities of family relationships, Double Vision looks at the lives of a grandmother, mother, and teenage daughter. As the three women struggle toward meaningful communication, they must learn how to break down the barriers created by age and the “generation gap.”
1986: Peace and Plenty
Written by Lib Spry and Peggy Sample
Peace and Plenty tells the story of two young people who love the earth, but who have trouble understanding one another’s point of view. Emily is preoccupied with her family’s farm, and worried that the bank might foreclose. Jason is a city boy who has taken up the cause of nuclear disarmament. Over the course of a summer, the two come to realize that the issues are connected.
1986: The General
By Robert Morgan
Directed by Alec Stockwell
Designed by Shawn Kerwin
The General: Earl Pastko
Jainin: Glenda Romano
Jacob: Michael Caruana
Children in Bridgeport, Ontario had a special bond with their crossing guard. But when the village amalgamates with the City of Kitchener, the council decides to fire their eccentric friend. The children take on City Hall and mount a successful public protest. Based on a true story, The General celebrates the agelessness of friendship and the power of young people to affect change.
This play, with its roots in local Ontario history, proved so popular that Theatre Direct revived it several years later with the following cast:
The General: Andrew Massingham
Jainin: Melinda Little
Jacob: Darren Hynes
The General was a hit with young audiences both times, and the second production garnered a number of awards.
Winner: Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Production: Theatre for Young Audiences, 1999.
Winner: Chalmers Canadian Play Award: Theatre for Young Audiences, 1999.
1987: Thin Ice
Written by Beverley Cooper and Banuta Rubess
Directed by Maureen White
Tony: Christopher Girotti
Jennifer: Shelley Hoffman
Trish: Laura Hubert
Des: Max Hancock
Playwrights Banuta Rubess and Beverley Cooper teamed up to research and write this ground-breaking script about the sexual stereotypes and myths that can lead to date rape. As the tagline for the show announced: “Dating is not a simple game”.
Tony’s parents are going away for the weekend, so he decides to throw a party. Jennifer, a girl who is attracted to Tony, is delighted to be invited. Tony talks his buddy Des into asking Jennifer’s best friend, Trish, to come along as well — and unexpectedly, they really hit off. When the party is over, Jennifer and Tony are left alone in his house. Jennifer is ready for a kiss…but Tony thinks he deserves more.
Again, controversy about the subject material led to some reluctance on the part of school administrators to book a Theatre Direct show, but letters from teachers who had seen the production helped to overcome the hesitance in very many instances.
Thin Ice toured high schools in Ontario and across Canada, and went to the Edmonton Fringe – it’s estimated that at least 80,000 young people saw the show. Many young people disclosed their own stories of date rape to the cast after seeing the play, and Theatre Direct made sure to provide audiences with information regarding available support agencies. The show played a role in the prevention of sexual violence, and in educating both young women and young men.
“Dealing with different forms of sexual coercion in a high school setting, the play connects with its viewers in a way that few school plays manage to do…The work deserves a showing at every high school in the city.” -Jon Kaplan, NOW magazine
Winner: Chalmers Children’s Play Award, 1987.
Winner: Dora Mavor Moore Award, Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young Audiences, 1987.
1987: The Snake Lady
Written by Frank Etherington
Directed by Simon Malbogat
Anna Kaljas: Diane Gordon
Jacob: David Kinsman
Rene/Sargent Freddy: James Kirchner
Albert/Alvin Krauss: Jorma Lindqvist
Set design by David Duclos
Props & Costumes by Shadowland (Brad Harley and Leida Englar)
Stage Manager: Rob MacDonnell
Anna Kaljas was a real Kitchener woman who provided shelter for homeless, addicted, and mentally ill people for many years. The play centres on Anna and her grandson, Jacob, who views the residents of his grandmother’s house as beyond help, and not worth the effort to get to know. Ironically, the residents of the house view Jacob in much the same way, as he is angry, insecure, and distrustful following his parents’ divorce. As Jacob learns about the various circumstances that led the residents to Anna’s house, he begins to see that they are ordinary human beings, whose illnesses are often misunderstood.
1987: The Kingdom of LoudAsCanBe
Written and directed by Kim Renders
Score by Paul Cram
Puppets by Brad Harley of Shadowland
This co-production with Nightwood Theatre is set in a noisy land where pots and pans hang on the line to dry and babies are given whistles instead of pacifiers. Amidst this backdrop, Princess Decibelle, about to turn ten, asks her parents to throw her the world’s noisiest birthday party.