The Little Theatre movement

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


Office of Space Management Era

In 1986 management was transferred to the Office of Space Management and in 2001, after the University announced it would stop subsidizing the Theatre, it was finally integrated into the Hart House management structure, over 80 years after it was first created as a separate body from the House. After leading a successful $8 million endowment campaign (with former alumni like Lorne Michaels and Donald Sutherland helping organize fundraising efforts) it seems for the first time that the financial stability of the Theatre has been secured for the foreseeable future.



Hart House Theatre is currently the central space for the Dramatic arts on Campus. Key to the present era was the return of the artistic director position after a hiatus of 30 years. Jeremy Hutton held that position between 2010-2013. Hutton was a former Hart House actor turned director who focused on educational outreach efforts (reviving the Players Club as the Hart House Players). Furthermore, the drama program saw some growth in this era, since it combined the undergraduate drama program with the Graduate Centre in 2012.


Graduate Centre Era

After Robert Gill’s departure in 1966, Hart House Theatre would come under the management of the Graduate Centre for Drama at UofT. Serving as a “laboratory adjunct” to the academic research program in 1967 Leon Major, who had already founded one of the leading regional theatres in the Maritimes—the Neptune Theatre, became Artistic Director.1





Robert Gill Era

Robert Gill was the seventh artistic director of Hart House from 1946 to 1966 and his “era” can be summarized as one of dramatic innovation and student involvement. When he came on as artistic director, it had been nine years since Hart House had put on its own original productions. The unexpected success of Saint Joan in 1947 launched not only his career as artistic director, but also the careers of some of Canada’s famous actors and actress. His twenty-year reign was one of the longest and witnessed a growth of dramatic talent from the Theatre, which focused on the development of us  amateurism rather than professional talent.

It was in this period that Hart House Theatre became an extracurricular student theatre.


Construction and Opening

Hart House was commissioned on behalf of the Massey family. Vincent Massey intended Hart House not to be a “glorified club, but an educational institution.” The theatre was just one aspect of Massey’s ambitions for Hart House as a cultural, athletic, and intellectual hub that would fill the need for a secular student centre on University of Toronto campus. Vincent Massey started to plan the rooms of Hart House while he was still an undergraduate, wanting there to be a gym, numerous club rooms, and a Gothic Hall were students from all colleges could congregate.1 Originally, the President of UofT suggested that the new structure would be called the Massey Memorial Building which Vincent Massey rejected for two reasons: he disliked the word “memorial” in the name of an institution, and that he did not want his family name to be too obviously associated with the new building. Instead, Vincent Massey suggested the name “Hart House,” taking its name from Vincent’s late grandfather.2

In private, Vincent Massey would admit that the building and all its equipment would cost just short of $2 million. Construction began in 1911, however due to the First World War, it was delayed several years. Indeed, because of the war, Vincent Massey admitted that the building was used almost entirely for “military purposes”: the Great Hall was used as a drill hall, what later became Hart House Theatre was used as a rifle range for a musketry school that was under Vincent Massey’s command, lecture rooms were used for training Canadian officers, and the Royal Flying Corps used the gymnasium.3 During and after the war “a large portion of the building was used by the medical services for the care of war casualties, the swimming pool being used for massage, while the lecture room and others were full of various machinery for ‘occupational therapy.'”4

Hart House opened its doors on November 11th 1919, Remembrance Day, but the addition of Hart House Theatre was something of an “afterthought.”5 According to Vincent Massey, the idea for Hart House Theatre came when he and his wife were “looking about the building one day [and] were seized with the idea that the great vaulted space underneath the quadrangle might be used as a theatre. The present proscenium was in its general outline, already in existence by reason of structural necessity. The architects were brought into consultation on the subject and by a certain amount of readjustment in existing quarters and further excavation, the theatre and its accessory quarters were made possible.”6 Since Hart House Theatre was conceived as an “afterthought,” it was never integrated with the Hart House or university administration, enjoying an independent status. This would cause problems for Hart House Theatre down the road.7


Massey Era

After eight years of construction, interrupted by the war, Vincent Massey declared that “the House as it now stands is intended to represent the sum of those activities of the student which lie outside the curriculum.” The Massey era was both one of great progress and hurdles. This era represented wider social and political developments in North America. The main one was with regards to gender equality. Women were not allowed in Hart House itself during the Massey Era. After his death, the regulations were expanded to allow female members in 1972.

Hart House Theatre itself was a result of Massey’s wife, Alice and her love of drama. The Theatre in the Massey era saw some problems as a result of natural tensions between different stakeholders, students represented by the Players Club the broader community of “Little Theatre” practitioners, and Massey’s personally assembled “Board of Syndics” who oversaw the financial operation of the theatre until 1966.1

Massey’s conviction towards amateur theatre’s preciousness would only solidify as he was drawn into another massive cultural project—the Dominion Drama Festival. Created by the Governor General Lord Bessborough in 1932 as a way to further the development of a Canadian theatre culture, this nation-wide amateur theatre competition became a mainstay of Hart House Theatre (who played regular host to the Central Ontario regional competition) until its eventual collapse in 1971.