- Theatre and Drama in the New Saskatchewan: Making Space and Place on and beyond the Land
To many Canadians the province of Saskatchewan and its byline, “The Land of Living Skies,” conjure up a place defined by its geography, its position on the isolated, flat, and open prairie, and dominated more by the “dry cold” of its ferocious winter weather than its favoured ranking as Canada’s sunniest province. In plays like Ken Mitchell’s The Shipbuilder, its people have been historically depicted as deeply rooted in the land, drawing their independence and creativity out of the same fertile topsoil that nourished its traditional cultures—including those of its First Nations people but dominated by those of its mostly European settler/farmers. Characterized in Connie Kaldor’s lyrics as a culture where “a change in the weather makes a difference to your living” and nostalgically popularized in dramatic work like the collectively devised Paper Wheat, Saskatchewan has been perceived as defined by a homogeneous farming culture with strong co-operative tendencies that made it the logical birthplace for universal health care, North America’s first socialist government, and its first publicly funded arts agency, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, which became the model for Canada Council. While fostering the first university-based agricultural Department of Extension in Canada (1910) may also seem to be a logical development out of that intensive provincial engagement with farming culture, it may be less logical for some that it also fostered the first Chair of Music in Western Canada (1931) and the first degree-granting Department of Drama in the British Commonwealth (1945).
Where an awareness of this culture of “firsts” exists it has often been qualified by assumptions that such co-operative traditions emerged of necessity out of the reverberating [End Page 3] collision between the utopian hopes driving the explosive first waves of European settlement on the one hand, and the harsh realities of frontier life as shaped by the formidable climate, bleak landscape, and forbidding distances on the other. Building on the epic dimensions of that confrontation, popular myth tends to celebrate the perseverance, resourcefulness, and courage of those who stayed and endured on the land through even the dustbowl years of the 1930s. Unfortunately, the same mythologization also tends to perpetuate the less celebratory image of a contemporary Saskatchewan still entrenched in an insular rural culture: one that continues to stoically endure despite the harsh realities of a chronically declining population and a lacklustre economy that fails to retain residents or attract in-migration from other provinces or non-European countries. As Kelley Jo Burke suggests in this issue, individuals outside the province have seldom regarded Saskatchewan’s impressive official record of “firsts” in arts and culture as adequate compensation for the daunting artistic as well as geographical isolation involved in staying and enduring in a province that still seems more preoccupied with agriculture than culture.
There are certainly those within the province—and within this issue—who would argue that the epic Saskatchewan of history, myth, and cultural memory remains an inexhaustible mine of archetypes, patterns, and narratives that can be excavated and refined into new, reaffirming visions of local identity, culture, and language that simultaneously resist and engage with a dominant culture. In this regard, Marie-Diane Clarke and Ian Nelson point to the national and international success of several of La Troupe du Jour’s historically based Fransaskois plays. Nonetheless, they join others in implicitly cautioning against the danger of lapsing into sentimental and nostalgic constructions of an “Old Saskatchewan” that may increasingly have little physical reality beyond the theatre. To the contrary, the key to contemporary artistic survival in the province seems to lie in an openness to reassessing past and current practices alike in view of the rapidly changing social, political, economic, and technological realities of the “New Saskatchewan.”
The province is undeniably a different place than it was even twenty years ago. Saskatchewan has experienced a steady decline in its rural and farming population and a corresponding increase in its urban population. Only 35.1 per cent lived in rural areas in 2011 (“Saskatchewan Fact Sheet, July 2012...