Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre was founded in 1978 by Gerry Potter, who remained the Artistic Director for 17 years. The initial inspiration for the company was to work with Alberta playwrights on new plays, testing and workshopping the material and presenting the best of these works as full productions. While these works were being developed, the company also presented some of the best new plays from across Canada.
Among these were memorable productions of David Fennario’s On the Job, featuring a young Paul Gross, the same author’s Balconville, Michel Tremblay’sHosanna, John Gray’s Billy Bishop Goes to War and the award-winning production of David French’s Of the Fields, Lately.
Workshop West offered playwriting courses, commissioned new works, gave public readings of new plays and workshopped new scripts. New plays produced included Alan Filewod’s Benny the Beaver and the Third World War, Gordon Pengilly’s Flibbertygibbet, Potter’s own Gabriel The Outlaw Hero and Sharon Stearns’ Hooking for Paradise.
In 1985, with the implementation of the Playmaking Ensemble, the company put additional resources into new work and began to experiment with collective creation, collaborations with playwrights, novel adaptations, and the pursuit of a highly theatrical style. Out of this work a number of new productions emerged that cemented the company’s growing reputation as a centre for exciting new theatre. Potter and Joanne Osborne’s adaptation of Henry Kreisel’s novel The Rich Man was the first in a series of critical and popular successes of the late 80’s and early 90’s which included Frank Moher’s Sliding for Home and Prairie Report, Blake Brooker’s Barbarians, Arthur Milner’s Learning to Live with Personal Growth and Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and The Ugly Man.
Also during the late 80’s and early 90’s, WWT partnered with Teatro la Quindicina to produce a series of new Lemoine hits, including When Girls Collide and The Glittering Hear. Potter also brought to Edmonton outstanding touring productions from across Canada such as Ronnie Burkett’s Fool’s Edge and Robert Lepage’s Polygraphe.
In 1994, David Mann became the Artistic Director of the company and remained steadfast in his dedication to the production and presentation of Canadian work and new plays. David continued with play development through programs such as Springboards, the Mentor Program, the Playwrights Unit and the establishment of a Playwright-in-Residence.
Plays he developed and directed during his tenure at WWPT included MoonReachers by Janet Hinton, Exit Othelloand Selling Mr. Rushdie by Clem Martini, The Old Boys’ Club by Marty Chan, Homesick by Conni Massing, Summer People by Gordon Portman, Blowfish by Vern Thiessen and Java Life by Aaron Bushkowski
Other highlights during Mann’s tenure include the premieres of Poor Superman by Brad Fraser, Letters in Wartimeby Ken Brown and Stephen Scriver, The Stone Angel by James W. Nichol, and A Christmas Carol adaptation.
Under Mann’s artistic leadership WWPT became a leading collaborator in Edmonton’s and Canada’s theatre scene. Atlantis by Maureen Hunter was co-production with Theatre Network and Western Canada Theatre, Exit Othello was co-produced with Union Theatre, Transit of Venus by Maureen Hunter was co-production with the U of A Department of Drama, The End of Civilization by George F. Walker was co-produced with Theatre Network.
David also continued WWPT’s tradition of bringing to Edmonton challenging touring work by Canada’s leading theatre artists. Banana Boots by David Fennario, Still Alive by Andy Jones, In the Wings of Eden by Theatre Smith Gilmour and The Wines of Tuscany by Wild Excursions all came to Edmonton under Mann’s watch.
In January 2000, Ron Jenkins became the Artistic Director of Workshop West. Ron’s mandate for the company has been to develop and produce works by Alberta playwrights and present a showcase of Canadian theatre performance through KaBoom! and the Springboards Festival, which presents brand new plays by established Canadian playwrights in staged-reading presentations.
Some of the plays produced during Ron’s tenure are Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, Respectable, Mesa, Apple, Mary’s Wedding and The Red Priest, My One and Only, 17 Dogs and The Emperor of Atlantis. During this time Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre has presented plays by Daniel MacIvor, Marie Brassard, Mieko Ouchi, Sue Huff, Lyle Victor Albert, Joan MacLeod, Stephen Massicotte, Ron Chambers and Ken Cameron to name just a few.
Playwright development initiatives continue into Ron’s tenure. The Playwrights Garage, an emerging playwrights’ course, was developed for 2001 with Workshop West’s Playwright-in-Residence Vern Thiessen. The company remains committed to Canadian plays, playwright development and presentation into its 27th Season.
In 2006, Michael Clark became Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre’s fourth Artistic Director, joining the company after 7 years at Nakai Theatre in Whitehorse, Yukon. Clark rebranded Workshop West as a Playwrights’ Theatre, putting much energy into the premiering of new plays by younger writers and advancing the work of emerging and independent theatres with new plays. He rebuilt Workshop West as Edmonton’s most active and vital new writing theatre company.
Under Clark’s leadership, Workshop West audiences saw 16 full productions between 2006 and 2014. This includes 13 world premieres by Brad Fraser, Conni Massing, Kenneth Brown, Elyne Quan, Kenneth T Williams, Daniel David Moses, Sandy Paddick and others. Clark produced the professional debuts of eight playwrights including Collin Doyle, Nicole Moeller, Mark Stubbings, Jason Carnew, Katherine Koller, and Blake William Turner. To date, Clark’s work with Workshop West playwrights has resulted in 11 subsequent productions of these new plays at other theatres Canada and the U.S., garnering in 16 awards or nominations, as well as readings at theatres across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
In 2008, Clark founded The Canoe Theatre Festival. Through seven festivals his vision of Canoe was to grow the audience and the environment for contemporary theatre in Edmonton. He supported and presented new works by local contemporary creators and brought challenging, innovative contemporary theatre artists from around the globe to Edmonton. By 2014, The Canoe Theatre Festival had presented 41 festival productions. Many works and artists that found initial support in Canoe have since been invited to theatres across the continent.