The Little Theatre movement was an international campaign and reform movement that protested the oversaturation of crassness, commercialization, mass-production, and professionalization within theatrical productions. Instead, the Little Theatre movement sought to develop amateur talent, artistic and experimental productions, and would inevitably be not-for-profit. In Canada, however, the ideals of the Little Theatre movement became intertwined with Canadian nationalism, and now the term generally refers to the nonprofessional, or amateur, theatre community (which included not only actors, but also directors and stage hands) in Canada.1
The Little Theatre movement in Caanda was largely inspired by the success of the so-called European art movement, best symbolized by the success of smaller, less commercialized theatres like André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris and W. B. Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey Theatre in particular was an inspiration for Hart House Theatre: for like the Abbey Theatre, the original conception for Hart House Theatre was not only to polish local talent, but also stage nationalist plays. In essence, Hart House Theatre would develop Canadian actors, directors, stage hands, and playwrights. This nationalism and confidence in Canadian talent was given some fuel by W. B. Yeats’s visit to Toronto, in which he hailed Hart House Theatre as a “Theatre for the People” in a lecture. Roy Mitchell outlined some of the ideals of the Little Theatre movement in his book, Creative Theatre, and he became the first director of Hart House Theatre in 1919. It was under Bertram Forsyth, however, that Hart House Theatre enjoyed an unprecedented wave of critical and commercial success.2
Many organizations followed Hart House Theatre’s precedent, trying to develop Canadian amateur talent. Some notable examples include the Vancouver Little Theatre, the Home Theatre near Naramata, BC, Toronto’s University Alumnae, the Cercle Molière in St-Boniface, the Ottawa Little Theatre, the Montréal Repertory Theatre, Father Legault’s Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, and the Halifax Theatre Arts Guild. While little theatres blossomed throughout the country, Hart House Theatre quickly fell from grace once Bertram Forsyth and the Players’ Club seceded from the Theatre. A commentator in The Globe wrote that because of the separation, “a definite period in the theatre’s [Hart House Theatre's] history has been closed” because the subsequent increasing competitiveness between different theatres would divide critical attention and resources.3 The competitiveness between the little theatres led to eventual commercialization, and it was not long until the Little Theatre movement’s experimentation succumbed to staging the crass, commercial, and sentimental plays that the movement had initially criticized.
Edgar Stone tried revitalizing the ideals of the Little Theatre movement by creating the Dominion Drama Festival (DDF)—an annual week-long competition that united Canadians interested in theatre across the country, remaining a dominant force in determining Canadian talent at least until 1950. The DDF shut down temporarily during World War II, and continued until its dissolution in 1978. Little Theatres still serve an important function in developing Canadian talent, though the movement ended long ago.4