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Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada

by Alan Filewod

Alan Filewod, a renowned theatre historian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, is that rare breed of academic who has dedicated his career to studying Canadian theatrical history from a “radical” perspective while also being an integral part of that history. This allows Filewod to speak with authority, and simultaneously present a depth of research and analysis that is at times overwhelming.

Filewod has excavated a plethora of diverse theatrical practices that have been alternately ignored and sentimentalized. As with any effective re-visioning, this research defies static notions of Canadian history, while at the same time exploding traditional binaries – amateur vs. professional, individual vs. institution – so beloved of our nation’s arts councils.

Committing Theatre challenges fellow academics and theatre geeks to look beyond shopworn definitions of art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism in order to view what, for Filewod, is perhaps theatre’s most potent contemporary role: its ability to disturb the status quo and thus contribute to the development of the human species. While this is not a new cultural argument, Filewod manages to reframe it in a revealing and insightful way by appealing to theatre’s ability to agitate for political reform.

However, therein lies the irony. While radical theatre invests heavily in the idea that it must speak in the language of “the people” to produce social change, Filewod’s book, complete with occasionally impenetrable language, is arguably meant for academics, not a populist, mass movement of theatre practitioners or audience members.

At the same time, for any lay reader, the discovery of the sheer breadth of theatrical practice, innovation, and diversity renders this book hugely relevant in assessing not only Canadian theatre, but the state of Canadian culture and society. In Filewod’s hands, Canadian theatre history becomes a metaphor for the development of the modern Canadian nation-state and a transnational culture pressing ever more insistently against our borders.