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Updated: 12th July 2018 15:52

'We played for a hundred bucks a week,' says Theatre Calgary's 1st artistic director as troupe marks 50 years

The origins of the city's first professional theatre group can be traced back to Dr. Betty Mitchell's 1940s drama class at Western Canada High School, but it was Christopher Newton who officially launched the company in 1968.

City's first professional troupe celebrates 50th anniversary this month

Theatre Calgary's 2017 cast of The Humans, a comic drama that explores the American family in the 21st century. (Trudie Lee)

The origins of Calgary's first professional theatre group can be traced back to Dr. Betty Mitchell's 1940s drama class at Western Canada High School, but it was Christopher Newton who officially launched the company in 1968.

Newton, now 82, spoke Thursday on the Calgary Eyeopener about those early days as Theatre Calgary celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. 

Newton first came to Calgary at the request of the city's semi-amateur theater company, Mac 14. He was was acting at the Stratford Festival. 

"I got a telegram asking if I'd like to do a part in Charlie's Aunt, and I didn't want to do it," he told Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray.

We speak with the company's first artistic director Christopher Newton. 9:33

"But a friend of mine I was having breakfast with said to me, 'what are you doing for those six weeks, just get out there and do some work.' So I came out and played in Charlie's Aunt."

Newton said that at the time, a lot of people in Calgary were noticing that it was the only major Canadian city left without a professional theatre company. 

The question was, could this semi-amateur theater group be made into a proper professional company?

Newton thought so, and offered to take on the job. 

Troupe started in Allied Arts Centre

According to Theater Calgary records, on July 1, 1968, Mac 14 officially became Theater Calgary, with Newton at the helm as the first artistic director.

The troupe worked out of the Allied Arts Centre, an old, converted tractor warehouse on Ninth Avenue.

Newton directed Theatre Calgary's first show, The Odd Couple, starring six young actors Newton knew from Stratford. 

"[They] got very excited that I'd been offered this job and really took it extremely seriously, and they pretty much offered their services, anybody who could help, so I was lucky," he said. 

"We played for a hundred bucks a week and we stayed at the Alberta Hotel, which has since been torn down, thank God," he said. 

Newton said Theatre Calgary became the first English-speaking theatre company to be given a subsidy from the Canada Council.

Actor Christopher Walken starred in Romeo & Juliet for Theatre Calgary in 1972. (Reuters)

Many well-known Canadian actors had their start at the company, but one surprising international superstar also took the stage for Theatre Calgary: Christopher Walken. 

Newton said he knew Walken as a friend from working with him at Stratford. 

"He wasn't a huge name at the time, he was just beginning," Newton said. 

Shortly after Newton stepped down as artistic director, he got a call from his successor, Clark Rogers. 

"He called me up and asked if I thought Chris would come up and do something," he said.

"I said to Clark, 'Well try, that's all you can do,' and so he called him up and he came to Calgary for the fourth season and played Romeo."

The show was a hit. 

"The Calgary audiences were very enthusiastic," he said. 

The Calgary history musical

Newton said the greatest hit they had in his tenure, though, was in the second year of Theatre Calgary's existence. It was a musical called You Two Stay Here, The Rest Come With Me.

"Long titles were in at that time," joked Newton. 

The show was a rock 'n' roll musical based on the history of Calgary up to 1914.

"In those days, people didn't think about Calgary as having history really because things were happening so fast in the late Sixties. So, you just had to run very fast to stay in the same place," he said.

The Belles Soeurs Musical was performed by Theatre Calgary in October 2017. (Andrée Lanthier)

"The idea of a rock musical based on the early history of Calgary was something very strange." 

Newton said no one in Calgary had done a show like it before. 

"It was really the essence of what we were trying to do in early theatre in this country," he said. "Make it relevant and make it connected with the city itself."

The former artistic director said the show was "wildly successful," selling out the converted tractor warehouse venue — including seating on the staircases.

"There was this one incredible moment where I was hanging around the lobby at the end of the show and this man, obviously part of the audience, came out and said, 'you're Chris Newton, aren't you?' and I said yes."

The man told him the show was terrific, and that his daughter had really enjoyed it as well.

"Then he said, 'but we had to sit on the stairs.' And I said, 'I'm very sorry about that, you know, it's a very popular show.' And the man answered me by saying 'yes, but I'm the fire marshal.'"

Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona  is currently being performed by Theatre Calgary until Aug. 19.



With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Lucie most recently headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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