Catalyst Theatre

PAGE UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Jan Selman will contribute a revised version of this page.

Tantoo Cardinal and Earl Klein in a Catalyst show.

From the late 1970s through the 1980s, Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre was the largest Popular Theatre company in Canada, producing a wide variety of community-based theatre projects and productions. Often working in partnership with agencies and community based organizations, it pursued its mandate, to use “theatre as a catalyst for social action and public education,” in a range of communities of interest. It was described as, “perhaps the most innovative popular theatre company in North America” (Alan Filewod, Theatre History in Canada 10, 2).

Catalyst Theatre was founded by University of Alberta professor, David Barnet in 1977 in Edmonton Alberta as a social-action theatre. The mandate of Catalyst was “to promote and practise the use of theatre for public education and as a catalyst for social change.” It performed commissioned works about alcoholism, drug and sexual abuse, native rights, immigration, and suicide, as well as initiating its own plays. These were performed in found spaces, and sometimes toured in the province. In 1979, Barnet hired Jan Selman (now head of the Drama Department at the University of Alberta) as Artistic Director. In 1985 Ruth Smillie became A.D. for a ten-year period.

Initially, many of the works were created collectively. A play about prison conditions, It’s About Time used the interactive style of Brazilian director and theatre educator, Augusto Boal, who developed the “Theatre of the Oppressed.”

The theatre moved into a 140-seat converted warehouse in the Old Strathcona District of Edmonton.

In 1996 Catalyst Theatre decided to change its direction away from Popular Theatre. Co-directors Jonathan Christenson and Joey Tremblay committed “to creating original Canadian work that explores new possibilities for the theatrical art form and the process through which it is created, to exposing the work locally, nationally and internationally, and to challenging the artists and audiences who participate in the creation of that work.” Since then, the company has won international acclaim for its work, such as Christenson’s Frankenstein.

  • Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia entry