Canadian theatre has gone through many changes through the years, from theatre taking place in taverns with all-male casts, to becoming the diverse and established industry it is today. Throughout history, there have been many directors who have influenced Canadian theatre. They have built theatre companies from the ground up, helped create a new style of theatre or approach to stage directing. Directors throughout history have been creating new and exciting pieces while pushing for more diversity and representation. Here are the top 10 most influential Canadian theatre directors of all time, who have not only put on amazing and entertaining shows but helped build a better industry for Canadian theatre.
#10 – John Hudson
Starting at number ten, there is John Hudson. John Hudson is the Artistic Directing and founder of Shadow Theatre in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Hudson’s importance as a director has been introducing new contemporary American and Canadian plays to audiences in Edmonton. The company has been nominated for many Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Theatre Awards and has also won awards including; Outstanding New Play, Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role and Outstanding Set Design. Other award-winning productions that Hudson has directed are; A Picasso, The Unseen, Grace and Three Days of Rain.
#9 – Paul Thomson
Paul Thomson takes the place for number nine. In 1940, he was born in the city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. From 1965 to 1967, Thomson travelled to Frace to study and work in theatre, he then returned to Canada and immersed himself into a process called “collective creation” which, according to the Candian Theatre Encyclopedia, is a term used “to define the process by which a group of theatre artists work together create a play.” (Candian Theatre 2020). Developing this idea and technique of collective creation brought a whole other side and approach to theatre. Thompson is also known for having been the artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille from 1972 to 1982. He has been noted, “for bringing the stories of ordinary Canadians to the stage, and for bringing theatre to rural communities and urban centres across the country.” (Canadian Theatre 2022)
#8 – Tyrone Guthrie
Tyrone Guthrie takes the spot for number eight. Sir William Tyrone Guthrie was born on July 2, 1900, and died on May 5, 1971. He was a British director who was important to the development of Canadian theatre. Guthrie is well known for helping to create the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford in Ontario in 1953, one of the biggest professional theatre companies in Canada, where he directed Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Richard III. He was the artistic director for four seasons. The creation of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre helped shape Canadian Theatre.
#7 – Bill Glassco
Bill Glassco has done so much for Canadian theatre throughout his life. He has been described as a big factor in the development of Canadian theatre and drama. In 1964 he left Canada to study acting and directing at the New York University, but he returned to Canada in 1969. He became involved in Ken Grass’s Factory Studio Lab. This is where he directed the premiere of David Freeman’s Creeps, which was the first play to cover stories about people with disabilities and dysfunctions, the play spotlights the silence and denial they face. This was a show done in Tarragon Theatre’s first season, which is a theatre company that Glassco and his wife found in 1971. Tarragon became very successful as part of Toronto’s alternative theatres. He was also the first director to direct Michel Tremblay’s Forever Yours, Marie-Lou outside of Quebec. This play, along with many other originally Quebec-written plays, would give him the achievement of creating an audience in English Canada for French Canadian plays.
#6 – Philip Akin
Next, there is Philip Akin. Akin has been instrumental to the Black communities within the theatre industry in Canada. Akin is an actor and director who was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1950. His family moved to Oshawa, Ontario when he was five. In 1975 he became the first graduate of Ryerson University’s acting program. After a successful acting career, Akin began directing. He is a founding member of Obsidian Theatre a company that’s dedicated to work made by and for Black people. In 2012, he was awarded the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction of a Play/Musical for his production of Suzane-Lori Parks; Topdog/Underdog. He became the director of the Shaw Festival’s production of Trouble in Mind in 2020. Not only is he a phenomenal director, but he has also done so much to support Black artists, creating funds and scholarships. Helping out whenever he can. Akin has recently retired from being the Artistic Director of Obsidian Theatre.
#5 – Nina Lee Aquino
Next on the list is the one and only, Nina Lee Aquino. She, like many other directors on this list, is working towards creating a more diverse theatre community within Canada. She strives for better and broader representation, and in an interview with CBC Radio she states that she believes it’s “important the people that are in control of the narrative, that the people creating the narrative, the stories are also coming from all walks of life.” (CBC Radio 2022). She is a Filipina-Canadian credited as a playwright, director, dramaturg and actor. She is a Toronto-based director and was the founding member and artistic director of the fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Compay from 2002 to 2009. Later on, she became the Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre Projects from 2009 to 2012. In 2010, she organized the first conference on Asian Canadian theatre. Nina is committed to developing new works “and to the artistic expression of interculturalism in theatre.” (Canadian Theatre 2022) She has recently been appointed the artistic director of the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa. She has received many awards for directing such as; Ken McDougall Award for directing (2004), the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize (2008), and awarded three Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Direction, for paper series by David Yee (2011). Nina has played an integral part in shifting representation in Toronto theatre to be more diverse and multicultural and plans to continue to do so in her new role at the National Arts Centre English Theatre.
#4 – Soheil Parsa
In spot number four, Soheil Parsa takes the spotlight. Parsa was born in 1954 in Iran. He studied theatre performance at the University of Tehran, he later arrived in Canada in 1984. He then completed his Bachelor of Arts in theatre studies at York University. Since the beginning of his directing career, Parsa has had a very successful and distinct directing style. He chooses to be simplistic with props, set, and costumes – keeping the focus on the actors and the story. He mixes elements of Iranian theatre and Western styles. His adaptation of Macbeth was very creative and innovative. He mixed the western piece with the context of ta’ziyeh. There was no blood and no swords, each character had a coloured scarf and when a character died their scarf was taken away. This change in approach to such a known piece as Macbeth was a slight risk, but with Parsa’s skill and passion it worked out extremely well. Parsa has diversified what audiences see as he has introduced a lot of Iranian plays to Canadian audiences. He is a six-time Dora Award Winner, four for Outstanding Direction and two for Outstanding New Play with co-translator/adaptor Peter Farbridge. His company, Modern Times, has received forty Dora Awards nominations and sixteen awards under Parsa’s direction.
#3 – Sky Gilbert
At number three, there is Sky Gilbert. He is and has been pushing the limits of theatre and has been giving many opportunities to many queer actors. Sky Gilbert is the co-founder and artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times which the largest gay and lesbian theatre in North America. He was the Artistic Director for about eighteen years. The company is dedicated to LGBT drama which is an opportunity for queer actors and creatives that they never really had before. The work that Gilbert creates surrounds the issues regarding gender and sexuality, which is something that isn’t talked about enough in theatre communities. As a director, Gilbert has received many awards such as three Dora Mavor Moore Awards for directing and the Pauline McGibbon Award for directing. Gilbert has not only directed his works but also directed plays such as The Lindros Trial, Treatment, How I, Wonder What You Are, and Anything Goes. Throughout Sky Gilbert’s career, he has pushed the boundaries of what theatre can and should be, actively creating safe spaces for queer communities and pushing for more queer representation within Canadian Theatre.
#2 – Andre Brassard
Andre Brassard has done so much for Canadian theatre, especially for Quebec. Brassard is continuously coined as being the “pioneer of Quebec theatre.” Before Brassard, all the theatre done in Quebec at the time was from France. The dialect spoken in France is different from the French dialect spoken in Quebec, which is called Joual. This difference could be compared to the English spoken in Canada versus the English spoken in Scotland or England. What Brassard did, was that he put on the first show that was fully spoken in Joual. The play was about three working-class women who work as stamp collectors, the way he directed this production was seen as almost revolutionary. He had directed the actors to talk the way they would if they were royalty. The lighting in the show did not follow realistic lighting, he had brought down the lights so that you could see them. This highlighted the characters and the language. The effect that this production had on Quebec was incredible, many people complained, but others took pride and joy from the fact that this play was all spoken in Joual. They felt that they could see themselves on the stage. He is also influential as he brought a lot more audiences to the theatre and a lot more theatre to established audiences.
#1 – Robert LePage
Last, but certainly not least is Robert Lepage. An absolute household name, if you ask any Canadian who they think is the best or most influential Canadian theatre director – Lepage is among the first names that are listed. He is known to juxtapose lots of multicultural elements in his plays as well as blending in new technologies to create a unique and outstanding style of theatre. One of his first works, The Dragons’ Trilogy expanded audiences’ horizons of what Quebec theatre could be, this was the first time a Quebec production toured abroad. In 1994, he founded a new theatre company; Ex Machina, most of the productions were written and directed by Lepage himself. It was a space that will allow for a structure capable of adapting to an organic approach to creating new work. When he first started in Canada he decided that he wanted to overcome the linguistic barriers that might be there as Canada is a bilingual country. In an article from The Guardian, it states his two main focuses on his approach became traditional storytelling and exceptional visuals, “freely micing a variety of media into dramatic stage images.” (The Guardian 2014). This approach changed the face of theatre and the limits to what can be pulled off on stage became almost limitless.
That concludes the top 10 most influential Canadian theatre directors of all time. The history of Canadian theatre has taken many turns and many people are responsible for shaping Canadian theatre into what it is today. From helping give pride to a whole province and language, to changing the belief of what can and cannot be staged, to taking direct action to push further the representation both on and off stage. These ten directors are not only extremely talented but have contributed so much to developing Canadian theatre into the industry is today. For more information, visit https://www.canadiantheatre.com/.
Canadian Theatre. 2020. “Collective Creation.” Last modified November 7.
Canadian Theatre. 2022. “Thompson, Paul.” Last modified January 28.
Canadian Theatre. 2022. “Aquino, Nina Lee.” Last modified January 6.
CBC Radio. 2022. “Nina Lee Aquino wants to solve the world’s problems through theatre in new position.” Last modified January 7.
The Guardian. 2014. “Robert Lepage: ‘My work is a therapeutic process.’” Last modified March 13.