Entertainment

How the women of Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre Company have upheld their century-old purpose in the face of constant change

As I speak to Molly Thom, one of the longest-serving members of Toronto’s all-woman Alumnae Theatre Company, a fire alarm goes off every 20 minutes. At first, the noise is a nuisance, but before long, I come to think of the shrill sound as being kind of funny, full of irony and coincidence.

Irony, because despite celebrating its 100th anniversary last year, the Alumnae Theatre Company has become somewhat forgotten in Canadian stage circles. It could use a siren to gain some attention. Later, when I reach out to a number of theatre experts, at least a dozen admit to not being familiar with Alumnae or much of its story. That seems unusual for a group with as much history as Alumnae’s. Maybe it’s because, since its founding in 1918 by University of Toronto graduates, the company has been moved around like furniture that doesn’t quite fit a room.


The Alumnae Theatre.

Cole Burston/For National Post

Coincidence, because the building in which they now find themselves, on the unassuming corner of Berkeley and Adelaide, used to be Firehall No. 4. In fact, Thom’s husband, Ron, renovated the firehall for the troupe in the early 1970s.

After being evicted from a coach house on Huntley Street in the late 1950s, the women of University Alumnae Dramatic Club, as it was originally named, found themselves on the move. First, they relocated above a garage on Bedford Road only to be evicted yet again. Then, there was the decrepit synagogue on Cecil Street with no heat, peeling paint and only one light. They performed in that space for eight years before the axe fell again, and they spent a brief time in a church on Maplewood Avenue. Finally, after a long and exhaustive search, they moved into Firehall No. 4, renaming themselves Firehall Theatre. They re-opened officially in the fall of 1972.

But there was one last catch: In 1978, patrons confused Second City’s new location and restaurant at another firehall down the street with the Firehall Theatre. It became such a box-office bother that the troupe renamed itself The Alumnae Theatre. Since then, Alumnae hasn’t moved an inch. Not only has it become the longest-running theatre company in the city, but it’s now the longest-running theatre company run by women in North America.

Except for male actors here and there, the company is run entirely by women. Far from a “no boys allowed” club, Alumnae is more concerned with producing unique and unusual work that wouldn’t normally be seen in Canadian theatre, whether that’s restoration comedy or European avant-garde drama. Above all else, this is their purpose.


L-R: Judith Darragh, Jacqueline White, Kay Cook, Diane Polley in the 1973 production of The Women.

Alumnae Theatre Company Archives

Purpose is an important word for the women of Alumnae. Each of them, without prompting, brings up the reason they do what they do. They talk of their goals in the face of the obstacles ahead, of the company’s evolving ambitions, all in a determined effort to protect their history and their future. It’s what has driven them for over a century. Yet, despite all of this history and all their drive, Alumnae remains an underappreciated Canadian institution. 

“Every so often, the question is raised as to whether men should be allowed to be members and it never goes anywhere. Perhaps they can be associates?” Thom says with a heavy laugh. Personable and full of memories, Thom says her greatest pride is that they were able to build a “safe and encouraging space” for female talent and, most importantly, “a bridge between community and theatre” for the city.

All of Alumnae’s members are volunteers. The company itself is non-profit, its funds sourced entirely from donations, ticket sales and room rentals. Even in its earliest years, when Alumnae didn’t have a home and performed out of U of T’s Hart House, all profits were used to fund the war effort and other campus initiatives. It wasn’t the women’s expectation that they would end up building and growing a full-fledged theatre company fostering award-winning talent. 

Every milestone has been a surprise. When it was still at the coach house and only had 35 seats and a 7 x 14-foot stage, Alumnae held the first Canadian productions of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, among others. Thom says the company wanted to give its members roles they hadn’t had before, for an audience of “our nearest and dearest — who else would come? Who else could we fit?” As it turned out, quite a lot when Godot, which included male actors but featured an all-female production team and a female director, saw lineups around the block. 


Just some of the countless boxes of props in Alumnae’s sprawling storage room.

Cole Burston/National Post

During the 1950s and 1960s, Alumnae picked up countless awards at the Dominion Drama Festival (DDF), where theatre groups from across the country would compete. Each win would bring local notoriety for the company and its actors. William Hutt, Diane Polley, Anne Tait, Shirley Barrie, Kelly Thornton and Richard Easton were just some of the names to receive acclaim through Alumnae stagings. When their programming took a political turn in the ’60s, they were dubbed the “original alternative theatre” and the “godmother” to Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre and Tarragon Theatre, according to St. Thomas University drama professor Robin Whittaker.

Soon after, Alumnae added readings and dramatized literary works to its repertoire, including a piece about D.H. Lawrence’s life intermixed with scenes from his novels, and an adaptation of a young adult novel written by a nine-year-old Victorian girl about social climbing in England. Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais and Marian Engel have all spoken at Alumnae events. 

But in recent years, packed houses have become rare. When I attended the last show of the theatre’s most recent season, only half of the seats were taken, most of them by friends or family of the company. And the actors taking the spotlight aren’t the marquee names that other theatre companies in the city can bring in. Alumnae recognizes that they’re unlikely to compete with those organizations in terms of draw, and so they’ve refocused on cultivating fresh talent.   


Molly Thom directing a rehearsal at Alumnae Theatre.

Dahlia Katz

Those efforts include New Ideas, a three-week juried festival that gives works in progress a platform for readings and workshopping, granting emerging playwrights space for first productions. That’s a particular coup in the theatre community, with Alumnae providing not only the space, but costumes, props, set pieces, mentorship and marketing in an industry where financial constraints are often the biggest barrier. That, in turn, opens up membership to a more diverse community of creators with otherwise limited opportunity.

“I met someone who had never acted before and she got a role in New Ideas. English isn’t even her first language,” says volunteer marketer Alison Smith. “It’s a good example of the risk that these festivals can take with actors, new plays and less experienced playwrights. It makes it exciting for the audience, too.”

Liz Best, an actor and playwright, only joined Alumnae a few years ago, but has taken on many roles since. “I went to a members’ meeting and was ‘convinced’ to take over running front of house,” she remembers. “I had no experience but I was available so I qualified for the job. Since then, I’ve acted, directed, run sound, written plays and have had some of them produced at Alumnae. I never would’ve had the success I’ve had with my plays without it. They gave me a place to hear my work, get constructive feedback and have it performed. Where else can a 60-year-old woman get such a chance?”


A peek at Alumnae’s dressing room.

Cole Burston/National Post

While the oldest member is in her 90s, the youngest, Nicole Entin, is just 16 and will next be assistant directing a Sarah Ruhl play. That opportunity to take on any role with any resumé has led to many members starting their own production companies, and/or becoming full-time actors and writers. 

“When any volunteer-run organization finds an able person willing to take on one job, the next question is what else can you sign up for? Whether you have the skills seems secondary. And beware of showing too much enthusiasm because you’ll end up with a board position,” says Smith. “Being part of the community theatre scene has brought another dimension to my life.” 

“It’s given women an opportunity to try anything, and it’s made us much bolder in our programming choices,” says Thom, recalling how when she began at Alumnae, she just wanted to be an actor. But before long, the bug to direct proved too overpowering. “I didn’t have to say, ‘I want to direct this.’ I didn’t have any experience at all, all I had to do was call up a bunch of my friends and ask them to come and be in my play. It turned out to be a great success and I decided that I really liked doing it a lot. So over the years, I learned how to be a director just by the opportunities that I could have here.”

Everyone I talk to involved with Alumnae has a story like this. And each only adds to the question of why, when women in the arts have become more empowered than ever, they haven’t been granted a greater spotlight or received more support from their community.  


Volunteer Sandra Schneider tours the Alumnae Theatre’s second stage.

Cole Burston/National Post

A 2018 Ontario Arts Council review of the Canadian theatre scene revealed that 70 per cent of the roles of artistic director, director and playwright — “the triumvirate of power” as described by researcher Rebecca Burton — are taken by men. Women typically occupy roles in costume design, assistant direction and general management, and comprise only a third of the country’s artistic directors. And while women make up 50 per cent of members of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, they only account for one-quarter of the country’s produced playwrights, which has been the case for three decades.

What’s most unusual about all of this is that the majority of theatregoers, theatre-school graduates and community-theatre workers are women. Based on these numbers, then, the majority of the Canadian theatre audience is being deprived of the very stories and perspectives that represent it.

It might be tempting to suggest some grand conspiracy here. The truth — as always — is more complicated. Because of their status as a non-profit run by volunteers, Alumnae isn’t recognized by official theatre organizations. They can’t afford to pay unionized performers or theatre professionals at scale. And so, in recent years, with the evaporation of the DDF and an influx of larger theatre groups with deeper pockets, Alumnae has struggled to compete.


Costumes that go decades back atop original oak wood lockers used by the firefighters of the former firehall.

Cole Burston/National Post

Thom, who grows wistful recalling members long gone and Alumnae’s early days as a nightly packed house, doesn’t sugarcoat it: “Most young people who want to pursue theatre want to pursue a professional career, and while they see the importance of starting here, the numbers don’t look great. I don’t know how to entice them. It’s a question of money and marketing. You know, we used to be reviewed in all the major dailies, and now we aren’t reviewed by anybody except in the blogs.” 

The climate has changed. Decades ago, a young artist could afford to volunteer as a means of building up their portfolio. That’s simply not the case anymore. Nevertheless, Alumnae is fighting to keep up. And while it might be easy to be dismissive of amateur productions, a strong community theatre scene is vital to the theatre scene in general. 

“Theatre at its heart is participatory,” says Whittaker. “If you do theatre when you’re a kid, you’re more likely to attend and even do theatre as an adult. Strong community theatres build strong theatre communities. But a lot of the rhetoric from recent theatre professionals is that non-professionalizing theatre practices distract audiences from ‘good quality’ work. This has been proven false; people who see community theatre often also see professionalized theatre. And both have their ups and downs; the difference is that one is an employer, the other is volunteer-run.”

“Theatre is a fickle thing,” says Best. “We have a lot of young women working in the theatre each year but as their experience grows, so does their need to move onto greener theatrical pastures. That’s fine with me. If Alumnae becomes known as a breeding ground for young female artists, I’ll be very happy.” 


Laura Meadows and Kathryn Geertsema in Alumnae’s 2018 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Bruce Peters

“I’m very proud of what I’ve done and the opportunities I’ve brought to younger people,” says Thom, matter-of-factly. “I did it all, I ran the whole thing. I did the original coach house, the synagogue, this place. I ran the troops.” 

If that sounds like her work is done, far from it. For Thom, despite its long history, there is still so much to be written for and performed on Alumnae’s stages. She laments the way newer theatres have latched on to the rare works Alumnae made a name for producing. She hopes to see the company return to its “bold, three-pronged program” that made it successful in the very beginning: Canadian plays, classics and European alternatives. “There are always playwrights that aren’t being produced, we need to correct that.”

That’s a rare sentiment in the entertainment industry, and one that built Alumnae into a creative force, which, over a century, has remained the underdog of Canadian theatre. It likely won’t ever see night-after-night packed houses again, but the company’s drive to do more and better, and offer a platform to otherwise unheard voices keeps it going — as it has for more than 100 years. That — combined with a certain sense of sisterhood — has provided the foundation for Alumnae’s exceptional legacy.

“We learn from each other,” Best says. “The way women do.”

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