Spotlight: Robertson Davies comes to Kitchener

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One major supporter of the Little Theatre movement in Canada in the early days was Robertson Davies.  His first novel (1951’s Tempest-Tost) takes a community theatre product of The Tempest as its background, affectionately satirizing some of the personalities and preoccupations of the amateur stage.  We know of two occasions when Davies visited KWLT, both in the 1940s: once at the beginning and once at the end.

In 1940, the young man of letters had recently returned to Canada after finishing his education in England (and working as a member of the Old Vic Repertory Company).  In March of that year he spoke as a special guest at the Western Ontario Drama League awards luncheon; this happened at the Walper hotel in downtown Kitchener, as the 1940 WODL festival was the first hosted by the young Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre.  In his speech, he praised the growth and development of community theatre in the area and across Ontario.  “There are only two kinds of actors: good and bad whether they be amateur or professional.  The amateur has as much to contribute in his way to the theatre as the professional.”

With war looming again on the horizon, Davies also called on Canada to continue funding theatre and other cultural institutions (as they were already beginning to do in England) instead of concentrating solely on military matters.  It was important, he said, to maintain the tradition of dramatic work in Canada, where the Little Theatre was as important as the professional stage.

Davies returned to KWLT in December of 1948, on the occasion of the first amateur production of his play Fortune, My Foe.  (The play had opened professionally in Kingston earlier in the year; one of the lead actors was William Needles, an alumnus of KWLT from its earliest days.)  He attended both performances of the show, acting as adjudicator for the second.  As recounted by Carol Toombs (née Hicks) for the “Entrances & Exits” booklet:

The plot of the drama revolved around a New Canadian recently arrived from the Balkan homeland where he had been a professional puppeteer.  A show within a show took place when marionettes Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the lead characters, engaged in the famous Adventure of the Windmills from Cervantes’ classic tale of the woeful knight of La Mancha.

 

After the show Mr. Davies asked to meet the puppeteers behind the scrim of the small marionette theatre on the large stage.  Upon being introduced to us he graciously complimented Betty [Woodruff, née Shantz] and myself on our “fine puppet performance”.  This rare encounter has become a more and more valued memory after five decades.

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