Five Dramatic Ways the Toronto Theatre Scene Has Changed

Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Sophia Walker in Fairview.

Glenn Sumi

Since starting at the old NOW Magazine (RIP), I’ve written about the Toronto theatre scene full-time for just over 25 years. Most of that time I’ve spent seeing and reviewing shows (in excess of 250 a year, at least pre-pandemic), interviewing artists and occasionally reporting on news, trends and changes in leadership.

During all that time, I wasn’t too concerned with thinking about the state of Toronto theatre, simply because I was covering it, in a micro way, every day. But when The Grind asked me to sum up what’s currently going on in Toronto theatre, I was intrigued.

Poll any devoted Toronto theatregoer (i.e., someone who knows that the scene consists of a lot more than Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), and they’ll tell you things feel a lot different than they did even a decade ago.

But how? And why? That’s what I tried to figure out. Here are five things that feel dramatically different.

1. Pandemic recovery

The performing arts were one of the sectors most heavily affected by COVID-19, and Toronto’s theatres are still recovering from it. Sure, many companies attempted digital pivots, with some lasting results (Factory Theatre’s series of audio plays, available on podcast platforms, are worth checking out). But ultimately live theatre needs live people watching it. 

Minuses: attendance is down, as is box office. Some audience members simply haven’t returned. For some theatres, costs have also risen because now they have to hire understudies in case of illness. Also, while lots of stage actors/writers turned to TV and film, many backstage workers – technicians, stage managers, left – left as well.

Pluses: some theatres are offering a few “COVID conscious” performances requiring masks. Many theatres have also lowered their ticket prices, or offer a wider range of pay-what-you-can options. During the two-year pause, accessibility – both financial and social – became a big talking point. But this feels like a temporary measure to woo people, especially younger ones or people from underserved communities, to the theatre. I doubt it’s sustainable.

The performing arts were one of the sectors most heavily affected by COVID-19, and Toronto’s theatres are still recovering from it. Sure, many companies attempted digital pivots, with some lasting results (Factory Theatre’s series of audio plays, available on podcast platforms, are worth checking out). But ultimately live theatre needs live people watching it.

2. Changing of the artistic guard

There’s been a radical changing of the guard in the top artistic positions at Toronto’s theatre companies. There are more women, artists of colour and LGBTQ2S+ people in those roles than ever before.

25 years ago, all the artistic directors at the city’s theatre companies were cis white, straight-identifying males. The three exceptions were at companies with specific cultural mandates: the feminist company Nightwood, the queer company Buddies in Bad Times and the Indigenous Native Earth Performing Arts.

If social media had been around then, you could have tweeted out #TorontoTheatreSoWhite with the announcement of pretty much every season.

Not any more. With Weyni Mengesha at Soulpepper, Mike Payette at Tarragon, Marjorie Chan at Theatre Passe Muraille, Mel Hague taking over from Nina Lee Aquino at Factory Theatre, Brendan Healy at Canadian Stage and Ray Hogg at Musical Stage Company, there’s more diversity in theatre leadership than ever before.

Those names might not mean anything to you, but they’ve each got at least a decade of experience directing, dramaturging and building communities.

Add to this the invaluable contributions of companies like Cahoots Theatre Company, Obsidian, Why Not Theatre, Fu-GEN, Modern Times, Aluna and the aforementioned Nightwood, Native Earth and Buddies – the latter is currently in the midst of a leadership search – and you’ve got a group that better represents the diversity of the city in which we live.

3. With diverse leadership comes radical new programming

Take a look at any of the city’s current seasons and you’ll see the kind of ethnic diversity in stories and casting that simply wasn’t around when I first started writing about theatre. This is clearly coming from that change in leadership.

Under Payette, for instance, Tarragon Theatre, an institution known for premiering the works of pioneering Canadian playwrights like David French, Michel Tremblay and Judith Thompson, is attempting to redefine the canon with new voices.

Chinese-Canadian Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)’s challenging play Cockroach kicked off the Tarragon season, which has also included bold new works by Indigenous playwright Yolanda Bonnell, the Indo-Canadian Anosh Irani and the mixed-race couple Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton. Their next play is by the queer Arab-Canadian writer Makram Ayache.

There was a time when, if you were watching a Black-themed play, chances are it was February (Black History Month); ditto an Asian-themed play in May (Asian Heritage Month). That’s no longer the case.

And what are these plays about? Ho’s Cockroach is equal parts Kafka and coming-of-age tale, telling a poetic, wildly original story about identity, migration and survival. Two recent plays – Irani’s Behind the Moon at Tarragon and Kanika Ambrose’s our place at Theatre Passe Muraille – have opened up the lives of undocumented workers at Toronto restaurants, with Ambrose’s script written in a fictional Caribbean patois.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview just finished up a run at Canadian Stage. Among other things, it used a bold structure to explore how historically theatre itself has been created for the white gaze; what would happen, it asked in a jaw-dropping conclusion that prompted some walkouts, if that was turned around?

One of the defining moments in recent Toronto theatre happened exactly seven years ago, when Factory’s former artistic director Nina Lee Aquino – then the only woman of colour in a sea of white male artistic directors (see how quickly things have changed?) – brought in Ravi Jain to direct one of the classics of Canadian drama: Salt-Water Moon, written by the aforementioned David French in 1984.

Jain cast the Newfoundland-set two-hander (a play with only two characters) with non-white actors: Kawa Ada and Mayko Nguyen as the couple, and Ania Soul, who sang, played the guitar and narrated stage instructions. Jain presented a stripped-down production, with the actors dispensing with props and the set consisting mostly of evocative candles placed throughout the stage. The result was to make us focus on the language and the universality of French’s story. The production soon embarked on a successful Canadian tour and made every critic’s year-end best list.

4. Where are the critics to write about this art?

Speaking of critics, one of the most pressing current issues is the lack of diversity among those of us who write about theatre. As the theatre landscape itself becomes more diverse, where are critics who reflect that same diversity?

Just before the pandemic hit, Indigenous playwright/actor/director Yolanda Bonnell made a request that shook the community: critics who weren’t Indigenous, Black or people of colour weren’t invited to review her play bug. They could still come – and many white critics eventually paid for tickets – but they wouldn’t be invited.

“The lack of IBPOC voices in the media – at a time when arts coverage is shrinking – means white critics are often the gatekeepers of success,” she wrote in Vice. “[And] there is often a tone along the lines of ‘I don’t understand this, therefore it’s not valid or good art.’”

There are also simply egregious mistakes, such as when a certain film critic, interviewing a Black director, mistook the term “code-switching” for “coat-switching.”

Bonnell made the same request when her play My Sister’s Rage was mounted at the Tarragon last fall. And Kim Senklip Harvey put forth the same demand when her play Kamloopa went up at Soulpepper.

Unlike playwrighting and directing, no mentorship system exists in the criticism world. Most of the city’s theatre companies have development programs, where many of today’s artistic directors – those same folks I mentioned above – first got their starts.

There have been attempts to change things. Generator, the mentoring, teaching and innovation incubator, held a workshop for emerging theatre critics several years ago. More recently, the Stratford Festival and the online theatre outlet Intermission announced an IBPOC Critics Lab.

But where will these critics actually do their work? Back in 1997, there were about half a dozen paid, full-time theatre writers. Today there’s one. The rest are freelancers and/or bloggers, like yours truly.

5. Lack of touring shows

Nurturing and developing local and Canadian theatre is important, of course. But I miss the glory days of the World Stage Festival (prominently sponsored by a well-known tobacco company, which brought innovative works from around the world to Toronto. Strangely enough, this was likely the first time many Torontonians got to see the work of Quebecois global superstars Robert Lepage and Gilles Maheu.

If local artists can’t see what’s going on elsewhere – theatre is far more expensive to export than film – how will they develop and grow? One brilliant company, Coal Mine Theatre, has tried to fill in the gap by producing international plays with local artists. But it’s not quite the same as seeing the original productions.


So where are we now?

From where I sit, it doesn’t seem like a bad place. In addition to a new crop of artistic leaders making radical programming decisions, theatre companies have tried to become more inclusive in other ways, with increased sensitivity to the deaf, blind and neurodivergent communities.

A quarter century ago, I’d never experienced a “relaxed performance,” in which sound and lighting levels were adjusted to be less extreme and people were free to leave and come back during a show.

Every few years the theatre scene reinvents itself. The storefront theatre trend tried to draw hipsters to Bloor West and Parkdale. For a while, immersive or site-specific theatre was a major trend, with only one company – Outside the March – emerging as a real and lasting innovator.

The pandemic gave the theatre industry a chance to assess itself honestly. The political and social landscape is as divisive as ever. And we’re facing an uncertain economic future.

Hey, why not put on a play?

Read more of Glenn Sumi's writing at

This article appears in the May/June 2023 Issue.