Nancy Pyper

Nancy Pyper Portrait
Artistic Director
1935 - 1937
Select Productions:
• Merrily We Roll Along
• Once in a Lifetime

Nancy Pyper (1893-1985), the sixth artistic director of Hart House Theatre, took Stone’s ideals of increased populism to the next level.

Born and raised in Londonderry, Ireland, Nancy Pyper remains the first—and so far, the only—woman ever to be appointed as the artistic director of Hart House Theatre. Nancy Pyper understood the nationalist impulse of Hart House Theatre: in fact, her training as an actress, director, and journalist led her to become peripherally associated with the antics of the Abbey Theatre—the same theatre whose founding goal was to cultivate Irish drama and dramatists, like Synge O’Casey, Lady Gregory, and W. B. Yeats. After marrying Charles D. Pyper, a journalist and author, Nancy left her native home and settled with her husband in Winnipeg, probably some time in the early 1920s. Dates are sketchy, however, but in Winnipeg, Nancy Pyper’s name became much more prominent as a actress, director, and producer for many of Winnipeg’s dramatic clubs. This changed, of course, when Major Eric Holdenby, Chairman of the the Board of Syndics offered her the job of artistic director at Hart House Theatre in 1935.1

When Nancy begun in September 1935, she gained a reputation for being energetic, saucy, and cheerful. Her vision for Hart House Theatre could be summed with her offhand comment on the newly installed Sausage Bar in the Hart House lobby, responding to her critics: “Toronto is to talk; Toronto is to laugh; Toronto is to forget itself . . . even if we have to put something in the sausages.”2 Pyper’s irreverence toward Hart House old, artistic elite continued as she choose to use new performers, among them her protégée Judith Evelyn. The Varsity even published a poem about Nancy Pyper’s efforts in the director’s chair, which begins thus:

Putting Hart House in the papers

With her gay and vivacious capers,

Restless as a windshield wiper

Is the charming Mrs. Pyper.

Drama hereabouts must waken

Even tho’ so long forsaken.

Ticket sales will meet the rental

Long as she stays temperamental.3

She stayed true to that advice, as long as she remained in the director’s chair. Off the director’s chair, Nancy Pyper established the U of T drama festival at Hart House Theatre—a festival of four nights of one-act plays staged by college groups.4 Despite her preference for student theatre and populist programming, Pyper still won critical acclaim for her productions of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime and Merrily We Roll Along. Haldenby himself said “I think the production of Merrily We Roll Along the most brilliant work ever done in Hart House.”5 But for all her efforts, the financial woes of Hart House Theatre persisted, ensuring that the 132nd production of Merrily We Roll Along marked the symbolic final curtain on Pyper’s reign as artistic director and an end to Hart House Theatre productions.6



Show 6 footnotes

  1. Nancy Pyper fonds,” University of Manitoba Libraries, accessed January 10, 2014.
  2. Richard Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” in A Strange Elation: Hart House: The First Eighty Years, ed. David Kilgour (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 96.
  3. Quoted in Lotta Dempsey, “Person to Person: Woman of Talents Back as Stage Star,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Apr. 8 1958: 12.
  4. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 96-97.
  5. Anonymous, “Stage reception for Nancy Pyper: Receives High Praise for Production of Merrily We Roll Along,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Apr. 19 1937: 15.
  6. Anonymous, “Stage reception for Nancy Pyper,”15. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 97. Roly Young, “U. of T. Theatre Comes Alive: Wide Scope Promised In Hart House Revival,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Jul. 27 1946: 17.

    So in 1937 Pyper resigned; landing a job first as a drama critic for the prominent Saturday Night, then a job as a journalist for the Toronto Telegram accompanying the 1939 Royal Tour. In her spare time, she travelled across the country, promoting the Canadian war effort. Her speeches ended up getting her recruited as a public servant for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (popularly known as WRENs), where she served for over three years as a Lt. Commander before retiring on February 7, 1946. She finished her career teaching drama for many years at the Bishop Strachan School until she died in Toronto at the age of 92.[7. Anonymous, “Nancy Pyper Ends Services With Wrens,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario), Feb. 8, 1946: 13. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 97.