Walter Sinclair

Walter Sinclair Portrait
Artistic Director
1925 - 1927
Select Productions:
• Good Friday
• If Four Walls Told
• Twelfth Night

Walter Sinclair was the third artistic director of Hart House Theatre (1925-1927), and like his predecessor, he was English-born. Unlike Forsyth, however, Sinclair developed his directorial skills not in wealthy urban centres, but in Hong Kong, a frontier colony of the British Empire, where he directed the Amateur Dramatic Club of Hong Kong for fifteen years. At that time, of course, Hong Kong was nowhere near becoming the economic superpower that it is today, so the British who did settle there considered it the backwoods of the Empire. Sinclair even called the British residents of the city “temporary exiles” either because they were expatriates like himself or because they were living in an unfamiliar land populated mainly by the Chinese.1

Consequently, Sinclair thought himself keeping the British tradition alive by staging the works of famous English playwrights such as Lord Dunsany, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw. The British content of his plays, however, did not preclude his hiring of English-speaking Chinese students from the University of Hong Kong.2 Yet Sinclair maintained that traditional Chinese theatre will “remain forever incomprehensible” to a Western mind. As he put it, “They have their fine native theatre in Hong Kong, and, of course, we go occasionally, but . . . after fifteen years of careful observation I have tried to write a play with a Chinese theme, but it really is impossible. You see, the love-interest is nil, and a no less astute dramatist than Somerset Maugham admits his failure here.”3

Despite being on the other side of the Pacific, Sinclair was still influenced by the ideals of the Little Theatre Movement, considering that he admitted that he thought the primary function of the theatre was to stage and create good plays rather than make money. For instance, in an interview with The Globe, Sinclair admitted that he skirted international copyright law to stage an amateur production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, giving no better reason than “We just simply had to do it.”4 Versatile, industrious, ambitious, and an exceptional smooth talker, Sinclair did far more than just direct the acting of his productions. He busied himself with costume and set design, set construction, and even lighting and mechanical effects. The results of Sinclair’s increased involvement were worth it: he won praise from technicians and critics for his meticulous models of set design. These sets often featured ample entrances and exits, the use of false perspectives, and dynamic lighting.5

Upon being entrusted with the directorship of Hart House Theatre in 1925, Sinclair discovered that the theatre was mired in debt. In order to pay off this deficit, or to possibly compete with Bertram Forsyth’s flailing Hart House Players, Sinclair decided to schedule a season of sixteen productions over the course of the school year. This, of course, only created a vicious cycle: to pay for the increased number of productions, ticket prices rose; as prices rose, subscribers dropped out; as subscribers dropped out, play quality suffered because the production costs were too low, a fact that provoked Sinclair to raise ticket prices in the first place. After a year, Sinclair got the message and started slashing his spending. But the damage was already done, as people called for his elimination, believing that Sinclair was threatening the amateur and auteur quality that audiences prized. In 1927, Sinclair left the politics of Hart House Theatre behind to enjoy the more hospitable directorship of the New Orleans Little Theatre.6


Show 6 footnotes

  1. Ernest Morgan, “An English Theatre in China: Walter Sinclair, Director of the Amateur Dramatic Club of Hong Kong, Is Interviewed by Ernest Morgan,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), May 9, 1925: 20.
  2. Ernest Morgan, “An English Theatre in China: Walter Sinclair, Director of the Amateur Dramatic Club of Hong Kong, Is Interviewed by Ernest Morgan,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), May 9, 1925: 20.
  3. Ibid., 20.
  4. Ibid., 20.
  5. Anonymous, “Another Fine Stage-Setting by Walter Sinclair,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), May 12, 1928: 8.
  6. 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), 94, 96.