John Juliani in the SFU Theatre. [Photographer: Danny Singer. Simon Fraser University Archives. School for the Contemporary Arts fonds, F-109-12-7-0-40, "Juliani, John." (photo), 1968.]

How the early days of the arts at SFU changed my parochial little life

by Marcia Toms

It was the autumn of 1967. The ructions of the Summer of Love had passed me by as I prepared for life after high school by purchasing new clothes and wondering what was in store. Simon Fraser University was 2 years old and I was 17. I arrived on Burnaby Mountain at the instant school, impressive in all its concrete massiveness, unconsciously naïve. My sole personal attachments to the arts, in my mind cosmopolitan ones, were seeing The Beatles and other British invaders at local venues and memorizing all of Bob Dylan’s early lyrics. Vancouver was my hometown and in those days, it lived up to my Dad’s nickname, La La Land: small, green, and mild.

My parents had agitated for UBC: staid, safe, and leafy, with no legions of students rallying against Shell and in favour of reinstating fired Teaching Assistants. My high school friends who chose it fit that bill. One had a single goal: go to UBC, join a sorority, get married. Sadly for her, her Grade 12 GPA was too low, so she had to settle for sorority-less SFU. Me? Despite being young and lacking life skills, I wanted something more edgy in keeping with the bar set by my hero, Percy Shelley, who was admirable for getting sent down from Oxford after writing a pamphlet extolling atheism. Media reports about SFU convinced me that it was that place.

When I arrived on the hilltop, my only ambition was to be an English major, focusing on one thing: the Romantics. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that only senior undergraduates were admitted to those rarified courses. I was furious, a short-lived emotion in the teenagers’ universe. And that brings me to the Arts.

Memories are made of many things. Mine of those early days at SFU are shadows, images of people and faces not quite clear, but still evocative.  The first of these is of the grey mall on a grey day. Coming toward me is a figure, a man wearing a horizontally-striped shirt and a dark Breton style beret. This figure, not short and not tall, but somehow imposing, would soon have a name: John Julianni, apparently even then a singular force in the emerging SFU arts world, and one who would help shape its reputation for innovation. To a kid—me—he seemed to be everything my Vancouver was not.

As I was in my first year, I had to take first year courses, a blow to my big fish/small pond ego. One of those was an English class taught by Ralph Maud to a couple of hundred students. It was held in a big AQ lecture theatre. One of Maud’s first lectures would bring me to realize I was not a very big fish at all. He was lecturing, with arm-flinging thrown in, about either Dylan Thomas or DH Lawrence and, with casual flair, threw in the F-word.  In those days, smokers smoked everywhere and so a few of the more mature students—the 19-year-olds—calmly lit up their cigarettes while I hoped my flushed face would fade. I was ready to be shaken up.

The Arts scene at SFU cast a wide net with an equally wide reach. Dance, theatre, and cinema were accessible and free. In my previous life, I’d been to a few pantos and endured at least one school play, happily and regularly attended Nutcracker ballets each Christmas, saw The Sound of Music movie with my grandparents (Dad bowed out); all of these generally in keeping with the ‘mild’ moniker. At SFU, I began to spend long lunch hours at the open-door cinema and was introduced to real film, most of it in black and white: the dark parade along a hilltop of flagellants following a scythe-carrying Grim Reaper. And The Bicycle Thief, too. Some French “New Wave” when I hadn’t known there was an “Old Wave.” In theatre, I learned some of the words: “Poor old Marat, in you we trust, you work ’till your eyes are red as rust. Poor old Marat, we trust in you.”  Actors throwing themselves around, a few nude scenes, challenging notions of what art could/should be. Questions welcome. Committed and charismatic teachers such as Michael Bawtree and John Mills and emerging artists, filmmaker Sandy Wilson and actor Norman Browning, seen later at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in an inimitable role of Benjamin Backbite, where he was absolutely perfect.

Although I had changed my major from English to PSA after my fit of Romantic pique, I still loved poetry. So when Russian poet Andrei Voznesenky, his translator Seymour Main, and the iconic Beat, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, hit the biggest lecture theatre at SFU, I was there. I can still see it. Three men standing at the foot of many rows of seats. The place was full. The Russian recited first: short, in a black leather jacket, blond hair. Hands on hips or reaching out to the audience: “I am Goya.” In Russian, of course, accompanied by a seamless translation. I was riveted. Ferlinghetti followed: humble and appealing. I could have listened all day. Much, much later in life I found myself—long explanation possible but not here—teaching English and being delighted that Grade 8 East Van kids in 2004 had a natural affinity for his work. Had it not been for that day at SFU, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

As fits, the radical campus and its grass roots experimental arts lent encouragement to seat-of-the-pants theatrical productions mirroring the upheavals of the time. When the PSA Department was placed under trusteeship, a group of students including Mark Vulliamy mounted a musical satire, “We Three Trustees,” which played at the campus theatre. Sandy Wilson drew cartoons for initiatives of the Students for a Democratic University (SDU)  and, later, Vancouver Women’s Caucus, and an upending of the Miss University Canada contest saw another satirical review in one of the lecture theatres with costumes borrowed from the real theatre. Bob Mercer, now a retired editor of a number of Vancouver publications, invented a cartoon character, The Little Man (who had more than a passing resemblance to Karl Marx) and students were advised to follow him. We were encouraged to thumb our noses at traditions and authority. Guerilla theatre, often raw, was always enthusiastically pursued, and it burgeoned. At convocation, one English graduate exchanged a role of toilet paper for a degree, another student—who may or may not have graduated—wheeled a large flesh-toned foam bottom around The Mall, giving out degrees to those who kissed it. 

It is now 50 years since those times. I know it is a cliché, but (except for the images in my memories fading and the details incomplete) it could have been yesterday. Many people speak about the need to democratize the world, and those early days at SFU when artists reached out and found their efforts reciprocated were a kind of democratization. I was never an artist of any kind, but that time helped me appreciate through experience the broad reach of what art should be: free, open to all, and provocative. 

November 23, 2020