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Robin C. Whittaker, ed.: Hot Thespian Action!: 10 Premiere Plays from Walterdale.


Hot Thespian Action!: 10 Premiere Plays from Walterdale

Edmonton, AB: AU Press, 2008. 569 pp.

Robin C. Whittaker has assembled a collection of texts that lives up to its playful title, Hot Thespian Action!:10 Premiere Plays from Walterdale Playhouse. Despite operating continuously since 1958, the Edmonton-based Walterdale Playhouse lacks a national profile--not surprising, given the critical bias facing amateur theatre companies, a fact passionately noted by Whittaker. Readers unfamiliar with the Walterdale might be astonished to discover the scope of productions it has staged, including Edmonton premieres of landmark international works like Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, Pinter's The Caretaker, and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, as well as Canadian icons such as French's Leaving Home, Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs, and Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Moreover, the Walterdale has actively encouraged play development, with productions of over sixty new plays in fifty years.

In addition to the ten scripts, Hot Thespian Action! includes a critical introduction about the Walterdale, as well as a contextual-izing passage for each play. With succinct prose accessible for a general readership, Whittaker situates the Walterdale's development in the context of Canadian theatre history. In doing so, Whittaker not only traces the progression of one specific company, but also debunks the mythologized notion that all amateur Canadian theatre companies desire to "evolve" into professional ones. For scholars, the richest part of the critical introduction stems from Whittaker's repositioning of the word "amateur" Breaking down the binarized model of amateur versus professional, Whittaker suggests the use of "preprofessionals (anticipating future professional work)," "paraprofessionals (simultaneously pursuing professional work at other companies)," as well as "nonprofessional[s, showing] little interest in professionalizing, and remain[ing] content with the designation 'amateur' even as they produce compelling works for the stage" (9). These insightful distinctions appear useful for discussions of contemporary Canadian theatre practice, given the number of artists concurrently navigating PACT, Fringe, co-op, and independent theatre environments.

With persuasive rationales, Whittaker describes how, contrary to common stereotypes, amateur theatre companies often program experimental and challenging plays; in the case of Walterdale, seasons have regularly included new works, giving the editor a half-century's worth of options for this anthology. The ten selected plays span a range of eras, genres, and subjects; the playwrights are both emerging and established. Whittaker notes that the plays were chosen "for their quality, readability (on the page), and producibility (in performance)" (13). That said, some of the works provide interesting reflections on their eras, but are hard to imagine on a contemporary stage. For instance, due to the overt didacticism of Wilfred Watson's The Canadian Fact (1967) and the geographic and temporal specificity of Warren Graves's melodrama Chief Shaking Spear Rides Again or the Taming of the Sioux (1974), these works appear unlikely to find a new life on stage. For fans of Brad Fraser, Mutants (1981) is a must-read; its production played a key role in sparking his theatre career and the script's incendiary language and frenetic situations provide a foundation for considering his later works. Gordon Pengilly's Swipe (1981) stands out as an elegantly written selection, playable on a contemporary stage and deserving of keen consideration from the reader. Among the most recent plays, Trevor Schmidt's Just (1999) includes poetic rhythms and subversive tones in a one-woman form. As well, the bleakness of Jonathan Seinen's [ice land] (2003) communicates a passionate playwriting voice.

In addition to the merits of the text edition, Hot Thespian Action! earns attention for its accompanying media materials. On AU Press's webpage (, an open access digital version of the book appears, along with nearly an hour's worth of video clips that feature Whittaker discussing Walterdale and the collected plays. In a way, the materials on the site resemble the bonus commentaries commonly included with DVDs. In each of the videos, a casual Whittaker coherently elaborates on the background of Walterdale and the plays. Some of the videos repeat ideas from the text, while others share lighthearted reflections. Greater integration of images, sounds, and speech might better exploit this technological add-on; as is, most of the videos feature a seated Whittaker speaking information that could be adequately captured via written text. As a project to test-drive the concept of an electronic book, Hot Thespian Action! is well-suited, as the open access digital version and the web-accessible clips provide a perfect parallel for the populist appeal and structure of Walterdale. At this time, electronic book readers have yet to gain traction, though some new devices appear to be capturing consumer interest; in the near future, an integrated source of text, images, and videos could be the most vibrant means to disseminate research.

As a contribution to Canadian theatre, Hot Thespian Action! deserves notice, not just for the novelty of the subject, but for the perceptive commentary of the critical materials and the eclectic collection of undiscovered plays.
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Author:Hanson, Nicholas
Publication:Theatre Research in Canada
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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