Agit-prop Theatre in Canada

Agit-prop is a shortened name, which stands for agitation propaganda. Agitation propaganda focuses on systematic spreading and explanation of economic, historical, philosophical, and political ideas. It aims at mobilizing recipients to take urgent action through political persuasion to counter prevailing practices that are spearheaded by the political class, organizations, or political movements (Benson 38). In other words, agitation propaganda focuses on creating emotional excitement amongst the target audience in order to provoke action and response. Agitation propaganda began in Russia, when it was used to convert the masses to socialism. It involves activities such as disseminating propaganda movies, leaflets, and posters, manufacturing events and distorting information, document forgery, and doing things that provoke reaction from the enemy (Benson 39). Agitation propaganda is preferred by revolutionaries and militant groups because it is versatile and can be applied in diverse situations and different scenarios.

Agitation propaganda has been used throughout history by militant groups and revolutionaries, who resist power and control by the state. Propaganda is utilized to agitate destruction and disorientation of the social order. It was particularly effectively used during the French revolution by Napoleon Bonaparte to mobilize the masses against the aristocratic government. Propaganda generates the necessary will power from the public to sustain a revolution. Leaders of the revolution ensure that people drift their attention from daily routines and focus entirely on the idea that the government is a threat to their survival. It is also used by governments in times of war to mobilize the public against the enemy nation. Governments use propaganda to ensure total public support to wage a war successfully.

In Canada, the agit-prop theatre was very popular among workers in 1930s (Wasserman 87). Theatre groups served as barometers of the socioeconomic life of Canadians. The groups also served as precursors to the revolution and the movement against oppression in 1960s and are still prevalent in societies up to this day (Kennedy 74). The agit-prop theatre movement began in 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression, a time during which World War II was just around the corner. Theatre groups comprised of students, art groups, and workers who were out of employment. They were aware of the fact that an international calamity was on the horizon and they wanted change.

The revolutioners depended on agitation and propaganda and they staged their performances on the street. They usually staged short plays with a radical underlying political messages in order to provoke and mobilize the crowd. Communism was their main driving force, and theatre groups used their creativity to oppose capitalism and fascism (Enders & Richard 61). The performances were focused on current affairs that were taking place as a form of intervention. For instance, when the government enacted a federal law banning communism, the groups released a documentary condemning this initiative. Eight people were jailed in the Kingston Penitentiary causing a riot. A guard aimed his firearm at the cell in which the leader of the communist party was held and attempted to assassinate him. Events of the day led to a production of a documentary called “Eight Men Speak.” It was produced by a Toronto-based agit theatre group known as The Workers’ Experimental Theatre (Benson 39). The government censored the documentary after one performance. The documentary was, however, successful as the federal law was banned and prisoners were released.

Between 1930 and 1936 there were dozens of theatre groups across Canada. The mainstream Canadian society did not consider them as theatres because they performed on the streets and they pushed for left wing agendas. Pictures and written accounts about the group are, therefore, very few. Despite the unavailability of materials about a theatre group, evidence indicates that they were first theatre groups to incorporate new and emerging theatre techniques in their presentations (Filewod 124). They were the first groups to practice collective creation, which involves collective writing, production, and performance of a play. They were strongly influenced by Vsevolod Meyerhold, a Russian director, who was famous in 1930s and who transformed choreography and invented new stage techniques in contemporary theatre. The work of the agit-prop theatre was not viewed as art. The influence of the communist party portrayed the work as more propaganda rather than art (Filewod 126).

The history of the agit-prop theatre can be traced way back to 1837 when people of Upper Canada revolted against British colonialists. The people were particularly outraged about land allocation system, which highly favored colonialists since crown land was reserved for them. The main leader of the revolution was able to escape to the United States but other leaders were arrested and executed. The incident was never forgotten, and 1920s witnessed the rise of the agitprop theatre in both Germany and Russia (Kennedy 75). The theatre was left-wing and was very popular in Europe. The theatre became an official tool for exploring and disseminating political ideas, especially communist ideologies. The beginning of the Great Depression made people lose faith in capitalism, and a left wing wave spread across the world. Immigrant communities in Canada were heavily influenced and they founded socialist art clubs. The criminal code in Canada was used to outlaw unlawful associations and anybody suspected to be a member of the party was arrested and accused of sedition.

In 1931, offices of the communist party were raided, and the leader was arrested and charged with sedition.   After the "Eight Men Speak" documentary was censored, George Luscombe created The Toronto Workshop Productions. The workshop marked the beginning of alternative theatre dedicated to left wing politics (Rubin 155). In 1967, Canada held centenary celebrations. Celebrations spearheaded an era of nationalist outlook in 1960s and 1970s. In 1968, a theatre without walls was formed. It was similar to agit-prop theatre in that it was anchored to collective creation. In 1970s, the alternative theatre founded by George Luscombe became extremely nationalist (Rubin 156 ). In 1971, the Local Initiatives Program was created in Ontario, which provided mainstream theatres with funds.

In 1973, “Theatre Without Walls” reproduced the 1837 revolt against the British colonialists in a play titled "1837". In 1967, the Party Quebecois was elected to form the government in Québec (Wasserman 88). Nationalism became extreme in 1970s because big population of baby boomers had reached adulthood and wanted their opinion to be heard. Canadians did not want to be associated with Americans or their activities. The Vietnam War was a point of bitter contention between Canada and America as most Americans were escaping to Canada to avoid enlistment. The Canada Council for Arts was created in 1957 to oversee sponsoring of mainstream theatre all around the country. Traditional theatre was undermined and modern theatre gained immense support. In opposition to mainstream modern theatres, small theatres started emerging as alternative theatre. Led by George Lusocombe, small theatre founders opposed all foreign ideals and standards (Wasserman 89).

In the 19th century, nationalism in Canada had revolved around a desire to get rid of British imperialism (Wallace & Cynthia 161). Canadian values and content was preferred in the theatre. The wave of nationalism persisted up till 1960s and 1970s. However, Canadian nationalism was challenged by regional nationalism. In Quebec, demands to become politically independent from Canada began. Francophone community began to dissociate itself from the Anglo-phone community. Most of the people holding positions of power and authority in Canadian society were from the Anglophone community. The first communist party was founded in 1960. Soon after, a part of extreme members broke away from the party and formed the Front de Liberation du Quebec.

The new party began practicing agit-prop by committing acts of terrorism against federal signs and symbols. In 1970, a British Member of Parliament and a diplomat were abducted and held hostage. The Member of Parliament was then murdered. The federal government enforced the Federal War Measures Act and deployed the national army in Quebec (Filewod 127). Those suspected of belonging to the Front were arrested and imprisoned in an exercise, which resonated with the imprisonment of leaders of the Communist Party in 1930s. The Quebec party was elected to power in 1976 and passed Bill 101 in 1977. The bill limited teaching of English in schools, stipulated that immigrant children must be taught in French, and that public sign posts must also be in French (Wallace & Cynthia 163).

The agit-prop theatre movement became strong. It owed its popularity to the fact that industrialization created a wide gap between the upper class and the lower working classes. Labor unions were created all over the world, and several strikes took place during the period as most workers inclined towards left wing ideology. The agit-prop theatre was entirely a cultural movement of workers as plays were written, performed, and produced by the workers. Immigration played a big role in internalizing the agit-prop theatre in Canada since immigrants from Europe introduced European ideologies into Canada. Dissatisfaction with the inequalities between classes mobilized workers to action (Wasserman 89). Workers formed socialist clubs, such as the Toronto’s Progressive Arts Club, to express their disinterest and their dismay. Formation of clubs was a cultural revolt against colonial theatre troupes, such as the Dominion Drama Festival, which capitalized on British melodrama, which was out of touch with harsh realities of the Great Depression. Agit-prop theatre was entertaining as it implied full interaction with the audience, and innovative techniques, such as mass chants, were used in the performance (Benson 40).

Agit-prop theatre progressed in modern Canada. In 1979, Balconville, a play by David Fennario, illustrated how Anglophone workers and Francophone workers could unite to overcome repressive economic and social conditions they were facing (Endres & Richard 64). The play intended to promote unity and solidarity among lower class poor workers. The play set to reveal to workers that their suffering was not based on difference in languages, but stemmed from deeper causes. The playwright had become a Marxist during his early years in college and founded the Cultural Workers Association together with other people. He was able to portray the problem of the working class effectively by using agit-prop theatre.

Theatre has remained the center of the debate on cultural nationalism in Canada. It seeks to validate Canadian values while rejecting colonial ideals and notions of art. The theatre is politicized since it seeks to make people conscious about prevailing political circumstances. British imperialism is the main cause of concern in Canada, which is further aggravated by language problems in the Francophone Quebec. Canadians are also aware of America’s commercial imperialism of the country (Kennedy 80). Most of playwrights in Canada had been conservative until the Alternative theatre emerged. The alternative theatre was radical, militant, and placed emphasis on egalitarianism and collective creation. New theatres were passionate about Canadian culture to a point of extremism and were reminiscent of the agit-prop theatre of 1930s. Literature pundits consider it ironic that alternative theatre developed first in Anglophone Canada, while nationalism sentiment was more prevalent in Quebec (Rubin 161). This can be attributed to the fact that Quebec was conservative during the Workers’ Theatre Movement of 1930s, and the agit-prop theatre had failed to penetrate Quebec. In contrast, Anglophone Canada had been radical and had staunch left wing supporters (Wallace & Cynthia 167).

The agit-prop workers theatre shared the same characteristics with similar movements in Britain as in the United States. Participants called for international cooperation in the revolution against the evils of capitalism. Issues of national culture took a back seat as the groups were fighting for freedom from suppression (Filewod 128). The agit-prop theatre did not flourish after the Second World War but it set the foundation and ideologies for the post-war alternative theatre. The alternative theatre focused on trade unionism as a means to protect the rights of workers and completely dispensed with nationalism. Affluent educated young people whose eyes were set on careers in the theatre industry graduated from colleges in 1960s. They were disgruntled with the conservative theatre that had been sponsored by the Canadian Council. Those who studied outside Canada came back with radical experiences and told their counterparts about the beauty of street theatre that they had witnessed in the United States and in France (Filewod 129). Playwrights in Quebec leaned towards Marxism of the left wing in France, while English speaking Canada leaned towards American socialism.

Street theatre spread sporadically in Quebec. It became a movement that began to dominate the association of theatres. The association held annual congresses and festivals and issued a journal, which analyzed new plays and manifestos about politics. It, therefore, became a centre for radical revolution and demand for independence of Quebec from Canada (Benson 42). In English Canada there was no room for street theatre to emerge again due to lack of common ideologies and long distances between theatre groups. In Quebec, theatres were very interested in ideology and ensured they were affiliated with colleges and universities making their movement very strong (Kennedy 79).

Theatre causes change and transformation in three ways: in the story being performed, in performers as they bring out the message, and in the audience, whose perceptions change as they watch the play. Entertainment only results in a temporary change of the audience, but the change is permanent if it changes ideological views of the audience and mobilizes them into action (Wallace & Cynthia 170). In agit-prop theatre even people in the audience were performers since directors ensured that the plays revolved around interaction. Plays were able to facilitate cultural transformation (Benson 39). The strongest feature about the alternative theatre was that it was able to create empathy as people in the audience were able to interact with performers irrespective of economic class, level of education, culture, race, age, gender, ethnicity, or religion. The beliefs of the audiennce were confronted and challenged and most of them were spurred to act against retrogressive policies.

Canada is not a homogeneous country as it is characterized by linguistic, ethnic, and regional differences. Differences have challenged federalism as some provinces frequently agitate for separation from Canada. Regional theatres in Canada were guilty of cultural chauvinism and were reluctant to focus on other cultures (Endres & Richard 64). This menace was, however, cured by collective creation, which brought fresh ideas in theatre. Alternative theatres were unable to exist after 1970s due to lack of funds and exhaustion of the creativity of playwrights (Kennedy 80).

The agit-prop theatre of 1930s gave rise to an alternative theatre of 1960s and 1970s. Important theatre  groups of the time, such as the Mummers troupe, did not last past 1970s. It is, however, clear that theatres contributed significantly to culture and are still relevant in present day Canada (Rubin 169). Currently, theatre is used by minorities and marginalized groups, such as women, indigenous people, people with disabilities amongst other groups, to protect their rights. Theatre is used to express suffering and to suppress oppression. It remains politically sensible and is used to vent against historical injustices. It still has the same features that characterized the disgruntlement of 1930 and fights against colonial imperialism and workers' rights.

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