Talk about a mammoth undertaking. The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre (WECT) is described in its press information as "the largest international co-operative publication in the history of world theatre". It endeavours to record and analyse world theatre from 1945 to the present. This fifteen-year project, when complete in 1999, will be a six-volume series covering theatre in more than 160 countries in Europe (the volume on that continent came out last year), the Americas, Africa, the Arab World, and Asia/Oceania; the last volume is to contain a bibliography of world theatre and a cumulative index.
Don Rubin, the general editor, says in his introduction to Volume II that "WECT is specifically an encyclopedia of nations and their theatres" beginning in 1945 because that was "a time of change politically, socially, and culturally for much of the world. ...No other international theatre encyclopedia has attempted such a comparative broad-based, cross-cultural study. The fact that virtually all our writers are from the countries being written about adds still another level of authority and uniqueness to this work."
Rubin is careful to add that "WECT is not intended as a guide to individuals, companies, festivals, or forms but attempts to create a theatrical reference work in essay form looking at a wide range of national theatrical activity on a country-by-country basis from a specifically national standpoint."
Volume II covers the countries of North America, Central America, South America, and the Commonwealth Caribbean. Essays vary in length from overview pieces of a few pages (for instance on Haiti and Paraguay) to more in-depth, extensive pieces, with the theatre of Canada being covered in sixty-four pages, second in length to the United States at ninety pages. Quebec is distinct-in WECT at least-with its own separate entries inside the various categories in the Canada section.
The twenty-six national essays of this volume follow the series format. Each is divided into twelve sections: "History", "Structure of National Theatre Community", "Artistic Profile", "Music Theatre", "Dance Theatre", "Theatre for Young Audiences", "Puppet Theatre", "Design", "Theatre Space and Architecture", "Training", "Criticism", "Scholarship", "Publishing", and "Further Reading".
WECT takes a socio-cultural approach, discussing and analysing the major theatre movements, the major companies, directors, playwrights, and performance styles.
This has been a huge undertaking in which all concerned had to solve endless problems; not the least of these was agreeing on a definition of "theatre". Those involved are evidently proud of the book's uniqueness: on the cover, the "the" of the title is italicized, with the rest in roman. This chutzpa made me smile.
The claim that WECT is definitive calls for scrutiny. "Americas" is a handsome, well-bound, well-laid-out tome, with an impressively large index of ninety-two pages. The sections on the various countries offer a clear overview and an opportunity for easy comparison. However, the number of editing errors, especially in the Canada section, is startling, considering that the head editorial office is at York University in Toronto and that many editors, readers, writers, scholars, and resources were available to the project.
People are often but not always noted with their dates of birth (and death where applicable), with no reason given for the inconsistency. The name of the Chalmers Award given to a Canadian play is mentioned three times, and is named in two different ways-once being called the Chalmers Award for Best Canadian Play and elsewhere the Floyd S. Chalmers Awards for Playwrighting-in all cases the name is wrong. The right one is the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. Garth Drabinsky's Live Entertainment Co. did not take over the management of the new Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, as WECT says; Live Entertainment managed it from the outset. And it was named the North York Performing Arts Centre when it opened; the name changed a year later, as is mentioned twice later on, but not in the initial reference.
Rubin's policy of having the writers come from the countries they are writing about lends the book an authority and a uniqueness. But it does not compensate for some failures to include or analyse important information, and sometimes a writer's bias prevents an objective analysis.
For example, Marie de la Luz Hurtado describes a style of Chilean plays that dealt with the Pinochet regime, detailing its oppression, torture, exilings, and the effects on that time. She cites Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden as the best example. The play became internationally famous, and there were several productions across Canada. But while she notes its premiere in Santiago in 1991, she does not mention-or put in context-that it was a failure there, for the very reason that it too closely reflected what had happened. People didn't want to be reminded.
Alan Filewod's essays in the Canada section are in many cases either factually inaccurate, incomplete, or analytically questionable.
The regional theatre company in Toronto in 1970 was not then called CentreStage but the Toronto Arts Productions. It was re-named in the early eighties. NDWT, a Toronto theatre company in the 1970s, may well have been "known by the initials only", but surely an encyclopedia should tell us that the initials stood for "N'er Do Well Thespians".
The great diversity of the Toronto theatre community is noted with reference to gay and lesbian theatre, feminist and aboriginal theatre, but there is no reference to the Théâtre Français de Toronto, the largest French-language theatre outside Quebec. Indeed the essays on English Canada tend to be Torontocentric, giving quick mention to theatre companies across the country, or not mentioning at all such innovative and provocative companies as Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit, or Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange.
The Toronto Free Theatre is mentioned only as a company whose initial venue was not a traditional theatre. It should have been described as one of the alternative theatres of the 1970s that gave voice to aspiring Canadian playwrights. Nothing is said of this alternative theatre's joining of forces in the 1980s with the more conservative CentreStage to form the Canadian Stage Company.
The upshot is that we have to read this volume in tandem with the Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre to check the facts.
In Filewod's analysis of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals there is evident bias. If he praises Stratford at all, it is grudgingly, and usually followed by a back-handed remark. He says, rightly, that "the Stratford Festival aspired to the leading ranks of classical theatres," yet later chides it by saying "it has had little direct impact on the development of Canadian playwrighting." Why should a classical company have an impact on the development of Canadian playwrighting?
He notes the controversy surrounding the hiring of Robin Phillips and gives due praise to his work at Stratford but in the next line says that when he left Stratford in 1980, "perhaps prodded by the nationalist controversy, Phillips subsequently committed himself to Canada." This is not only an ungenerous supposition, it is untrue. (Besides, supposition has no place in an encyclo-pedia.) Phillips's commitment to Canadian talent was well demonstrated before, during, and after his tenure. In particular, it was he who developed the Young Company, starting in his first year in 1975.
In contrast, Filewod praises the Shaw Festival Company as "a strong ensemble company that may well be the best in the country." And he says that "unlike Stratford, the Shaw Festival has been able to build productive links with the Toronto community, and has been a constant supporter of younger, more radical companies." These statements would not stand up to careful scrutiny.
Having to be so critical is disheartening, considering that the idea of the project is so praiseworthy. Don Rubin and his colleagues are to be commended for undertaking such a herculean task. But more diligence, care, analysis, and fair-mindedness would be needed to make WECT definitive, and to warrant italicizing the "the".
Lynn Slotkin lives and writes in Toronto and goes to the theatre everywhere.