Theatre New Brunswick

The Fredericton PlayhousePhoto: D. Green
The Fredericton Playhouse
Photo: D. Green

Theatre New Brunswick (TNB) is a professional theatre company that was founded in Fredericton at The Playhouse in 1969. Its past artistic directors are Walter Learning (1968–1978, 1995–1999), Malcolm Black (1978–1984), Janet Amos (1984–1988), Sharon Pollock (1988–1990), Michael Shamata (1990–1995), David Sherrin (1999–2003), Scott Burke (2003–2005), Claude Giroux (2005–2006), Leigh Rivenbark (2006–2008), Caleb Marshall (2009–2014), Thomas Morgan Jones (2015–2018), and Natasha MacLellan (2018–present).

TNB and Fredericton's Playhouse share an inextricably linked history that helped shape the local and provincial availability of professional drama in the province. Even TNB's 1987 publication, On Stage With TNB, states that “The story began with the Playhouse, which opened in 1964” (Gardner 3).

Today's Playhouse operates as a performance hub for theatre, drama, and music in New Brunswick. Local, national, and international performers, both professional and amateur, utilize The Playhouse, which occupies a prominent position in Fredericton's historic downtown core and New Brunswick's wider arts community. Indeed, its location next to the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly, which was built in 1882 and is the active seat and symbol of democracy in the province, represents a definite cultural statement. Likewise, its position almost directly across from the Beaverbook Art Gallery on Queen Street makes The Playhouse a central site of cultural production in Fredericton.

Conceived from the 1961 Beaverbrook Auditorium Act, The Playhouse opened in 1964 as a 1000 seat Georgian-style venue. Supported by well-known cultural benefactors Lord and Lady Beaverbrook through a one-million-dollar donation, The Playhouse was born of philanthropic generosity and a lofty cultural mandate. Originally intended as a site for the increased sophistication of New Brunswick society, The Playhouse operated as a facility for local performers with the expressed wish that they help generate a receptive and culturally vibrant society. For many, the existence of a professionally viable building at the centre of Fredericton's artistic and democratic heart made a statement about the nature of the city and its people: they were encouraged to flourish under the auspices and strong influence of not only the government and university, but also art itself—a community portal of intellectual significance. On Stage With TNB explains that “[w]ithin a year it became a major centre of the performing arts in the Atlantic region” (3).

After the formation of TNB in 1969, The Playhouse functioned as an anchor for the creation and performance of what might be considered serious theatre. Death of a Salesman, The King and I, Othello, and The Taming of the Shrew were all produced during the 1970s. Under the crucial artistic direction of Walter Learning, TNB developed a far more provincial mandate as it strove to tour the province with productions first developed in Fredericton at The Playhouse. Consider the 1982–3 TNB On Tour schedule, which extended to Edmunston, Campbellton, Bathurst, Chatham/Newcastle, Moncton/Riverview, Sussex, Saint John, and St. Stephen. On Stage With TNB offers a fascinating insight to the inaugural 1969 tour between Woodstock and St. Stephen, underscoring the difficulties of touring a province like New Brunswick:

Sceptics felt that chances of making the tour a success were slim: New Brunswick roads in winter could be forbidding and storms frequently interrupted transportation on the first tour. Critics also pointed out New Brunswick towns had no background in theatre, professional or otherwise. Some warned that TNB would never be accepted, especially in smaller centres. (17)

These were real and genuine concerns that attest to the great leap of faith that TNB took in committing to this process. It demonstrated a belief in the people of the province, which was vindicated when “nine New Brunswick centres and close to 300 schools each year enjoy[ed] TNB performances on a regular basis” (Gardner 17).

This was theatre operating with a truly provincial mandate: originating in Fredericton but striving to disperse across the full spectrum of NB's diverse social and economic communities. Such theatre, it was assumed, would give New Brunwickers the chance to enjoy professional drama of canonical and historical significance. As such, “Theatre New Brunswick has developed into an outstanding example of regional theatre, dedicated to bringing first class productions to the people of New Brunswick” (Gardner 1). As increasingly secular societies shifted away from the church as a venue for the development of local performance, TNB brought a previously unseen level of theatrical sophistication to the province at large. As a result, local artists seized the opportunity to make contacts with the company and come to Fredericton to workshop their ideas and discuss the production of theatre. Alden Nowlan, widely considered one of Canada's greatest literary figures and resident in the province for 14 years, collaborated with Learning on a number of scripts during the 1970s. On Stage with TNB refers to this partnership as “one of the landmarks in Theatre New Brunswick's history,” a relationship that would create “three new hit plays” (Gardner).

TNB would utilize The Playhouse as its home for the production of professional theatre between 1972 and 2003 (becoming a formally separate entity in 2000). Over time, the ongoing development of TNB as an autonomous company led to the diminishment of The Playhouse as a venue in its own right. TNB occupied the space entirely, mounting approximately eight to ten productions a year and relying heavily on funding for the continuing maintenance and development of the building. Indeed, a 1971 grant of two million dollars from the Beaverbrook Foundation led to the adaptation of the venue for the more demanding performance of theatre: a fly tower was added to increase the technical capability of the building, and an overall reconfiguration of the space was completed. What resulted was a building suited only to the performance of theatre, however exceptional, where changes deadened the musical acoustics to such an extent that concerts, for example, became difficult to stage. Nevertheless, as a venue for the continued staging of professional theatre and a permanent site of production for touring performances, The Playhouse fulfilled the needs of TNB for most of the organization's stay at the building.

An historical and ongoing commitment to youth theatre has characterised TNB's mission for much of its history. Founded in 1974, TNB's “Young Company” continues to strive for what On Stage With TNB calls “timely entertainment for young audiences” through which “more than 50,000 New Brunswick students in 300 schools across the Atlantic region regularly enjoy TNB Young Company performances” (27). The creation of a youth theatre company enabled TNB to reach across both cultural and generational divides. It introduced children and young adults around the province to the idea of theatre as a purposeful and socially acceptable institution. A theatre school was created in 1999 to professionally train young people between the ages of five and eighteen, attracting students from across Atlantic Canada and beyond. TNB continues to train and support young performers across the province and has now fashioned an autonomous identity in the aftermath of the split with The Playhouse in 2000.

From the inception of The Playhouse in 1964 to the contemporary incarnation of TNB as an independent theatre company still striving to bring theatre to the province, the history of drama in New Brunswick has been uniquely influenced by these institutions.

Benjamin Griffin, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Gardner, Jane, ed. On Stage With Theatre New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: Theatre New Brunswick, 1987.

Theatre New Brunswick. Advertising and Schedule Pamphlet. Fredericton, NB: 1982.

---. Advertising and Schedule Pamphlet. Fredericton, NB: 1988.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Benson, Eugene, and L.W. Connolly, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Wagner, Anton, ed. Contemporary Canadian Theatre, New World Visions: A Collection of Essays. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 1985.

Yerxa, Tim. Personal Interview. 13 Mar. 2009.