Canadian Soundings: Plumbing the Depths of Voice in Canadian Theatre

Canadian Soundings: Plumbing the Depths of Voice in Canadian Theatre”

Moderators: Sasha Kovacs and Michael Elliott

In nautical terms, a sounding is used to determine the depth of water under a ship. This curated panel takes inspiration from this marine procedure to locate the deep histories of the voice in Canadian performance, and to explore how vocal practices and innovations impact and intersect with the buoyancy of certain habits, historiographies, and traditions in the Canadian theatre.

Since the late nineteenth century, the cadence, texture, and sound of the voice on the Canadian stage has transformed and transgressed. In the 1890’s Owen Smily, the touring partner of nationalist performer-poet E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake, opened up a voice school that taught the Canadian accent (Braun and Keil 202). By the early twentieth century, the oral performance of literature was the key sound of the Canadian theatre, produced by and through instructional systems, such as the “Emerson tradition” that crept into Canadian training institutions (Anderson). Into the 1930’s, the voices of Canadian theatre surfaced—widely experienced as the “polyphonic chorus” of the Workers Theatre’s “innovative agitprop form,” called mass recitation (Filewod 122). By the 1970’s, George Ryga wrote in his influential essay “Three Statements” that “[…] the English theatrical accent was the passport to all manner of theatre absurdities in this country” (Ryga 350), and in his 1967 play that opened the National Arts Centre, the complex politics of the voice are explored in the gestures of the play’s title character Rita Joe, who “wipes her lips as if trying to erase some stain there” (Ryga 40). Even in 1992, the highly esteemed international vocal coach Patsy Rodenburg writes of the complexity of the voice in the Canadian theatrical tradition— in her book The Right to Speak she recalls “the uproar at a Canadian voice conference [she] attended in French-Speaking Montreal when a Parisian voice coach bluntly asserted that ‘no Canadian actor could speak the plays of Molière or Racine because they sounded too coarse’” (5). Across the histories of Canada’s Anglo, French, and Indigenous theatre communities, questions about “vocal imperialism” (Rodenburg 5), the voice of theatrical nationalism, and the sound(s) of exclusion runs deep. This panel invites contributions from researchers, artists, and pedagogues who would like to further plumb these depths.

Works Cited: 

  • Anderson, John Dennis. “The medium is the mother: Elsie McLuhan, elocution and her son Marshall,” Text and Performance Quarterly 37:2 (2017): 110-128.
  • Braun and Keil. The Sounds of Early Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • Filewod, Alan. Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2011.
  • Rodenburg, Patsy. The Right to Speak: Working with the Voice. London: Methuen, 1992.
  • Ryga, George. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. In Modern Canadian Plays. Vol 1, 4th Edition. Ed. Jerry Wasserman. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2000.
  • Ryga, George. “Theatre in Canada: Three Statements” In Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings. Ed. Don Rubin. Mississauga (ON): Copp Clark Ltd., 1996.
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