The only escape: The early years of the SFU theatre

by Tessa Perkins Deneault

Until 1976, SFU only offered non-credit programs in theatre, dance, film, music, and visual arts, which one might assume meant that the school cared little about the fine arts. 

To the contrary, unlike UBC — which took 50 years before building their own theatre — SFU got one the day it opened. 

And yes, there weren’t any credits for theatre. But what that meant was that students in any faculty at SFU could partake in the arts. The theatre was home to not only dedicated actors and dancers, but to scientists and would-be business people to flex their dramatic muscles, and get an education outside of their classrooms, outside of their degrees. 

“People majored in other departments, but they came to the arts because they cared deeply about [it],” said Nini Baird in a 2006 interview produced by SFU’s Retiree Association

And unlike the quiet, inconspicuous building you now find next to Maggie Benston Centre (now called the Leslie & Gordon Diamond Family Auditorium), the theatre was a vibrant hub of creative and cultural activity. Press from Vancouver even came up the hill to see what all the fuss was about and some of the people involved even became nationally and internationally renowned artists. 

Baird continued, “SFU became an example for universities right across North America for its approach to alternative environments for the arts.”

"When I first got here to Simon Fraser, it was exciting, it was new,” said Penn Lewis, a charter student. He had been accepted by universities in the UK and California, but SFU was the one he wanted to attend. Having been shy in his adolescence, he liked the concept of an original university with small class sizes and tutorials.

“My parents had somebody drive me here for the first month or two, and I got very annoyed at that,” he laughed. “You have to get away from that. I was seventeen and extremely shy. You would never have seen me without a jacket and tie and slacks.” 

Despite this attitude, Lewis was attracted to the theatre. 

“It opened me up,” he explained. “Most people knew you couldn’t even touch me – I was very hypersensitive. I would really freak out, and there was a little talk about it, but the people in the theatre helped.”

The mixture of all kinds of people — according to Lewis “there were characters [with] big egos and little egos” — made it a very interesting place to be. 

Lewis preferred to remain behind the scenes — he helped the theatre with whatever they needed, whether it be selling tickets, promoting the shows, or stage management. 

The program was a fascinating learning experience where students were exposed to all kinds of ideas: “that’s what happened in the theatre.”

The theatre officially opened on November 25, 1965 with a production of A Man for All Seasons directed by Tom Kerr. 

The cast included some very talented people who went on to find a great deal of success in professional theatre, film, and television. 

One of the lead roles went to Norman Browning, who came to SFU straight from high school and went on to become a leading man in major Canadian theatre companies. He also has numerous film and television credits including a role in the 1997 feel-good family classic Air Bud

However, for the director himself, the endeavor was a stressful one.

“The first year at Simon Fraser was a nightmare,” said Kerr. “I was used to being in charge — things were very difficult and disorganized.”

There was an atmosphere of unrest, and the feeling that “every time you got up, there was a strike.”

Kerr found himself at SFU at 32 years of age after realizing that he was going to need a degree to be taken seriously by many people. He was known for teaching theatre and for his already impressive directing credits and awards including Best Director at the Dominion Drama Festival in 1964. 

“I needed some education, so I went to SFU,” explained Kerr, “and I was asked [if I] would do the drama?” 

“I’d been told I’d be doing [the drama program], but I hadn’t made my degrees yet.” The fact that Kerr was not an academic and hadn’t finished his degree turned out to be a problem. 

“There was one professor who made it very difficult for me,” said Kerr. “He asked me to write an essay about theatre in Canada, and then ripped it apart. I just had to get on with it.”

Kerr felt that the professor was jealous of his success in the theatre and took it out on him by giving him bad marks. One of his friends hadn’t done the assignment for this professor’s class, so Kerr wrote the paper for him, and it received a B. “If he knew I had written it, I would have failed. So I had that to deal with.” 

“I almost had a nervous breakdown,” he said, commenting that he had also been elected to the board of governors of the newly formed Peak student newspaper. 

This stressful period in his life didn’t last long because he soon moved on and went where the theatre called his name. 

“I did three terms and got the hell out,” laughed Kerr. 

“Sometimes I barely got to class,” he admitted. “But I could write an essay, so I got through. I just wanted to get out and get on with my career."

“I was hired to be the guy to set up the visual arts,” Iain Baxter& explained. Until Baxter&, who changed his last name to legally contain an ‘&’ sign, arrived in 1966, SFU didn’t have any Visual Arts program, but he changed all that and put his experimental ideas into practice. 

“Going to Simon Fraser for me was coming to this new place where we could have new ideas.” 

Baxter&, who is often referred to as “The And Man,” had obtained a degree in zoology and biology, but after a trip to Japan in 1961, he decided to do an MFA in the arts. “I became aware of Marshall McLuhan [and] to see art as information.” 

The non-credit nature of the programs gave the instructors a lot of freedom, and Baxter& probably took advantage of that freedom more than anyone when he decided to condense 13 two hour lectures into one 26-hour lecture. “I thought maybe you’d learn just as much,” he said. 

“I happened to be judging a fashion show, so we went to that.” The class met on campus at eight in the morning and had walkie talkies to keep in touch throughout the day. “We went downtown. I took them to a sushi restaurant, before [they] were on every block. There are a lot of visual aspects to Japanese food.” 

They also visited many artist studios and the Vancouver Art Gallery before returning to the university to watch movies. The final assignment for the course was to write a report about the day. 

“In the early days,” said Baxter&, “basically, it was your class. I decided to just do this idea I had.” 

And nobody stopped him, although there were a few criticisms. “One dean said, ‘Why don’t we just hire you for one day instead of the whole semester?’”  

SFU was a place where new, unique, and unconventional ideas could flourish, and nobody was going to shut you down before you tried.

Baxter& was instrumental in founding The Centre for Art and Communication at SFU, which he described as “one of the first places in Canada that focused on art and communications — looking at the arts as integrated.”

Along with Baird and other staff members, they took their time and spent over a year discussing how the centre would be set up, which Baxter& found valuable because it allowed him to think in a more multidisciplinary way.  

“The theatre was the hub,” explained Baxter&, describing it as a place where all major events, lectures, and performances would take place. 

“President McTaggart-Cowan embraced that whole centre,” he said. Although “a lot of [the faculty at] the university weren’t happy it was non-credit, we were protected by the president.”

With strong support from the administration and the freedom to experiment in a noncredit program, Baxter& was able to put his radical ideas to the test.

“I did another talk, up there, one time – it was a lecture – one part involved asking the audience to come down row by row and sit at a desk and I took their name, age, weight, and photo,” he described. He had thought it would be a neat idea to find out the weight and age of the audience.

“The theatre was the only escape for [the students].”

Those involved with the theatre weren’t all SFU students. Students, staff, and faculty came to SFU from many different parts of the country because of well-known directors and the experimental, cutting-edge work that they were creating.

One such director was John Juliani. Juliani joined SFU in 1966 and founded his Savage God Theatre Company that same year. He went on to perform at the Stratford Festival, and was a highly regarded director across the country until his passing in 2003.

Juliani said in a 1989 interview on the Rogers TV series, Conversations, “It was an  exciting time at Simon Fraser. They were turbulent years, but certainly a seminal time for me and I think for a lot of the people who worked up there.”

Dance students were also integrated with the theatre when productions would need to incorporate any kind of movement or dance. The dance program was founded and developed by Iris Garland, a highly regarded and well-known contemporary dance artist who passed away in 2003. Garland was a faculty member at SFU until her retirement in 2000.

With such a tight knit community in the arts, students from all disciplines would spend time together. “My girlfriend, for a while — she was in dance,” remembered Lewis. “They would tell us to get involved in sports, but you need to do dance for the fluidity and movement. So people would take things like Scottish dance, and people wondered why anyone would take that – but it would help you in the theatre.”

“The theatre integrated with all of these different things,” said Lewis. All of the arts came together in the theatre. This included the music program led by R. Murray Schafer, a pioneer of soundscape studies and composer, writer, music educator, and environmentalist who led the World Soundscape Project during his time at SFU.

Another thing Kerr had to contend with were protests, sit-ins, and an atmosphere of unrest. “A lot of the friction seemed to come from sociology,” Kerr said. “They had a lot of left-wingers. Frankly I wasn’t any wing — I just wanted to get on with it.” Many people in the theatre shared that sense of distance from the political protests happening on campus.

Protests would sometimes disrupt rehearsals according to Juliani. “You’d be in the middle of a rehearsal and suddenly you’d lost people because they were ‘sitting-in’ in the library.”

Juliani described the activism as coming from the sociology and anthropology departments: “They were manned with a lot of Marxist scholars and that was no secret.”

“What was happening in the community was one thing; what we were doing in the theatre was the opposite. I never thought that the theatre people, although many of the students in the productions were involved in politics, took a political stance.”

The theatre program at SFU was lucky because, being non-credit, they didn’t have the same level of accountability that a credit program might have. “UBC could probably never have put on several of those plays. They would not have touched Centralia (a 1967 play based on the 1919 Centralia, WA labour dispute that resulted in six deaths, numerous wounded, and still bitter feelings) because UBC was supported by MacMillan Bloedel,” Lewis explained.

While the theatre didn’t experience too much controversy, Lewis recalled one scandalous incident during a production of Juliani’s The Devils when a harpist from the Vancouver Symphony came up to be part of the show.

“She almost stole the show. She had to sing, and she was a streetwalker wearing a tight bodice, and she was fairly well-endowed,” laughed Lewis. “She came out and sang her tune, and there was a gasp in the audience because she had made little rosettes as if her bosom had popped out a little bit from her corset. This caused a scandal. It was controversial . . . We sold out every night.”

The theatre was usually supported completely by the administration and President McTaggart-Cowan. “I don’t remember us having a real controversy about any of the plays we did. There was a warning about language,” Lewis recalled. “I remember that a couple of times in our lunch series. And, I think there was a warning to John Juliani about clothing, especially after that item in The Devils.” The lunch series, in which student works were presented for free to the campus community, were an important part of the contemporary arts program right up until they moved to the Woodward’s campus in 2010.

Lewis described the theatre community at SFU as being very close, sometimes spending days on end with each other working on a project. “There was one in particular, I think we were doing the Centralia project in 1966 — it was extremely long and they did a workshop and we were here overnight and overnight — it was 48 hours or more.”  

Through the common goal of creating meaningful theatre, Lewis said he developed lasting relationships and trust with his classmates, describing the way the theatre helped create the strong sense of community that SFU is known for. 

“You learnt about joint efforts and working together,” stating he also learned how to relax and feel comfortable in his own skin, as that is something actors must do in order to take on another identity. 

“They were phenomenal times,” Lewis reflected. “People were looking forward to it.”

“I was getting messages from Europe and from friends and relatives in the East, and I know other people were [too]. You were getting these phone calls, and they would say ‘what is your new play; what are you going to do?’” 

The theatre at SFU had a large part in establishing a sense of community, and promoting creative and intellectual freedom. 

“I had friends and relatives who went to other universities, and they didn’t come away with the same type of intellectual fervour at all,” said Lewis. “And, of course, they were looking at us saying — oh, that’s too radical. But if you don’t have it in university, when is there time to express it?”

Originally published September 7, 2015, The Tartan Magazine (a special publication of The Peak). (used with permission)