Staging History

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By Craig Heron

Historians have become increasingly attuned to the role of performance in history. Many of us have written about the pomp and pageantry of the powerful, the theatre of the high courts, the processions of urban respectability, the rituals of resistance among the poor and powerless. We have been much more reticent, however, about using theatre to present the history that engages us. The theatrical world is full of historical dramas, but rarely have historians penned them. We mostly keep our distance from the pageants of historical re-enactment and the quieter role-playing of costumed staff in historic houses or forts. Recently, I made a leap into writing short plays as part of a public-history project that I’m involved in, and I’d like to share some observations about the process of doing history through theatre.

Holly Kirkconnell and Ginny Thomson in The Labour of Little Of Little Ones

I must begin by confessing that, although I have always loved movies and plays, I have no background or training in theatre. I joined my high-school drama club, but never got more than a walk-on part. I never took theatre courses at university. Like lots of academics, however, I found the pressures of teaching in a university lecture hall brought out some performative tricks: I occasionally jumped up on a chair to orate, wore a special cap to portray a historical character, did a dramatic recitation of a historical document, or sang a song. For many years, I also borrowed Bettina Bradbury’s pedagogical innovation of having students make dramatic presentations to the whole class. In my working-class history course, I called these “Workers’ Heritage Moments,” and assigned groups of about eight students to put together a five-to-ten-minute dramatic performance on a specified topic assigned to them (child labour or whatever) in front of all their classmates. They showed up with props, costumes, music, images, film clips, and an original script. Mostly they loved the project.

Historians have long thought of themselves as storytellers, and often incorporate passages of dramatic reconstruction in their scholarly writing. As a social historian, I have always been conscious of the need to use the words of historical figures along with dramatic sketches of scenes and events.  Outside the university, some of the museum exhibitions I have worked on used first-person voices to present the subject matter. I also gave some of the public lectures that I was asked to deliver in the voice of a historical character – a nineteenth-century working-class poet or a member of the Knights of Labor, for example. Audiences invariably liked this departure from a dry academic lecture.

I was therefore favourably inclined to the suggestion that the new Toronto Workers History Project (TWHP) that I had helped to launch in 2016 should include a theatre group. The TWHP brought together academics, students, unionists, educators, librarians, archivists, artists, retirees, and others in a new organization to preserve and promote the history of Toronto’s working people. We have created a travelling exhibit, launched an oral history project, sponsored walking tours, undertaken to help organizations preserve records, and hosted a book club. Our main activity is a monthly meeting on a specific topic, usually with a panel of speakers combining historical expertise and contemporary activism. Thanks to the generosity of the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council, we have been able to hold these meetings in the Steelworkers Hall in downtown Toronto.

The proposed theatre group within this project was slow to emerge. After more than a year into the TWHP’s existence, it had met several times to read scenes and plays from Toronto workers’ theatre, but had not performed publicly. At that point, the Executive Committee decided to schedule a meeting in November 2017 to commemorate the centennial of the Russian Revolution. I suggested we ask the theatre group to work up a short play on what was happening on the left in Toronto in 1917. When I visited the group with that proposal, they sent me home to write the play. Suddenly I was a playwright.

For that event, we staged a fictional meeting of Toronto socialists in November 1917 that allowed us to present a range of real-life socialist activists and their concerns and dreams in the closing years of World War One. We called it See the Rising Sun. The response was warmly favourable, and we started planning new theatrical presentations. The format of the first production became our template: we would work up a play of twenty to thirty minutes that would be presented before the scheduled panel discussion in a monthly meeting. We like to draw loosely on traditions of agitprop and other theatre of protest. Sets are starkly simple, and, starting with the Russian Revolution event, we’ve tried to integrate the spectators into the play by staging some kind of meeting and having actors performing from places within the audience. We often end our plays with singing. Our concession to more formal theatre is that our costumes are as close to authentic as we can make them on a limited budget. This is committed theatre pitched to an audience that can identify with the history of working people (150 showed up to each of the last two one-night productions). We call ourselves the Toronto Workers’ Theatre Group.

In two years, we’ve covered a considerable range of topics. In March 1918 we honoured International Women’s Day with a play on the struggle to create a Women’s Committee in the Ontario Federation of Labour in 1977, entitled Don’t Agonize, Organize. In June we recognized World Day Against Child Labour with The Labour of Little Ones, a play about the struggle in Toronto in the 1880s to get children out of the paid workplace. The following November we dramatized the Metro Days of Action from 1997 in a play entitled Organize! Educate! Resist! to help focus discussion on the new political struggles that were emerging in Doug Ford’s Ontario. In May 2019 we unveiled Toronto 1919, about the Toronto general strike that took place at the same time as the more famous Winnipeg struggle a hundred years ago. (This play was performed first as part of a large cabaret event to celebrate the Winnipeg strike, and then as a contribution to the Kensington Market Historical Society). And in November 2019 we staged Emma’s Last Visit, a play on the last year of Emma Goldman’s life before she died in 1940, which she spent in Toronto. (Videos of some of the plays can be found on the TWHP website.)

The cast, programme, and a scene from Toronto 1919.

The cast, programme, and a scene from Toronto 1919.

Our director, Aida Jordão, has been deeply embedded in professional and community theatre for more than thirty years and currently teaches university courses. But the rest of the seventeen members of the theatre group are non-professionals, mostly retirees from a variety of jobs. More than half have participated in Ryerson University’s Act Two Studio program intended for people over fifty, with courses and practical work in all the theatrical arts. So there is a considerable reservoir of theatrical experience within our group. There is also a general commitment to social justice.

Aida Jordão directs the cast of Emma’s Last Visit

My role has been to bring along the history. I wrote the initial scripts for all the plays. I did the historical research on each subject, and then constructed a story that could convey the main issues. I brought those first drafts to the whole group for comment. For the first few plays, group members made suggestions for substantial revisions and the final script went through several versions (the programs listed the authorship as “Craig Heron and the Cast”). Historians who are used to sole-author scholarly writing might find this process intimidating. But I found it invigorating and necessary. No one questioned my historical expertise, only the way I had chosen to present it. Rewrites generally involved reducing detail, shortening speeches, restructuring scenes, and otherwise enhancing the dramatic quality of the story I wanted to tell. With each play, revisions continued through the rehearsals, as awkwardness, gaps, or inconsistencies became clearer. For the past two productions, I started with something closer to a final version, as I got wiser about what would work theatrically (I’m now listed as sole author).

Writing a play can be daunting for a historian. A few friends who have churned out plenty of articles and books tell me that they can’t imagine writing dialogue. It’s not necessarily as hard as it might seem, if you have an ear for the cadences of speech and conversation. But it is a challenge to present historical evidence and analysis through credible dialogue and action on the stage. The script has to move the characters through the actual historical events, and the words spoken by the actors must have some authenticity based on available sources. Yet the dialogue and movement must at the same time meet theatrical standards. Many historical documents, including speeches, do not translate easily to the stage – they’re often too turgid to work dramatically for twenty-first-century audiences. Nor can the main characters, real or fictional, be merely cardboard props spouting dense prose that sounds too much like an undergraduate lecture or a chapter from a monograph. They have to have some depth, complexity, and humanity. Moreover, explaining events might have to be more indirect, perhaps involving a conversation between characters (in our last play, for example, I used dialogue between two cops to lay out Emma Goldman’s background), or characters rushing in with news (as they often do in Shakespeare’s plays), or, as in the play on the Days of Action, a mock newscast inserting some broad background information. All of these expectations have prodded my imagination in new and fascinating ways.

Equally challenging is that fact that the historian does not have sole control of the message. The play has a collective voice. The history that I write into the script gets interpreted by the director and actors, who convey much of the nuance in the analysis. I have developed such deep respect for the ways that Aida so skillfully shapes scenes and the actors bring the history to life. Many do their own research on their characters to bring more veracity to their performances. Only occasionally, watching from the sidelines, biting my tongue in deference to the director, do I intervene to suggest that what’s happening on the stage is not capturing the history I want to convey.

The structure of a play is also limiting. There is a lot less time and space to elaborate complex historical processes. The historical narrative has to be compressed, simplified, or even altered slightly. For example, the general strike in Toronto in 1919 built up over several weeks, before fizzling after only five days. During that time, capital and labour repeatedly exchanged angry public statements, factions within the local labour movement for and against such bold action argued back and forth, the city’s mayor made numerous efforts to mediate over the course of a week, and panic raged through the daily press. In a half-hour production, I had to simplify several of those processes into more symbolic moments. The mayor’s week-long mediation, for example, became a humorous vaudeville-like sashay back and forth across the stage between a capitalist and a labour leader. In the Emma Goldman play, I compressed much of a winter of Emma’s agitation against the arrest of an Italian anarchist into one evening. The historical understanding does not suffer, but we would certainly never write our books and articles like that.

Ginny Thomson as Emma Goldman in Emma’s Last Visit.

Documentary theatre can be an engaging form of popular history, alongside historical novels and films. For the historian looking to reach beyond professional colleagues and students, this can be a rewarding form of public history. I have enjoyed my latter-day engagement with theatre immensely, and our audiences lead us to believe they appreciate this new way to discover the past. My advice to other historians: let your imagination loose and find a theatre group to work with.

Craig Heron is Professor Emeritus of History at York University and president of the Toronto Workers’ History Project.

The current members of the Toronto Workers’ Theatre Group are:  Paul Bilodeau, Doug Croker, Ed Dunsworth, Nadia Geith, Hailu Grant, Craig Heron, John Humphrey, Lev Jaeger, Aida Jordão, Merv King, Holly Kirkconnell, Janet Lewis, Vanessa Omana, Mike Phillips, Ester Reiter, Marilyn Tate, and Ginny Thomson.



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2 thoughts on “Staging History

  1. Tanya Middlebro', Ottawa

    Lovely article, Craig. I was a historic interpreter for various historic sites when young, so felt close to theatre. I wrote up and played Marie de l’Incarnation once. Really respect what you and the Toronto Workers’ Theatre Group are doing.

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