A black and white image of a smiling man.

Toronto Workshop Productions

George Luscombe

A black and white image of a smiling man.

George Luscombe in front of Toronto Workshop Production’s theatre space, 1980. Image by James Lewcun.

A colored image of a purple building with yellow trim.

Front view of the former Toronto Workshop Productions theatre, 12 Alexander St., April 1971. Image by Harvey R. Naylor. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

A black and white portrait shot of a man.

Renovations of 12 Alexander, picturing Sky Gilbert, circa 1992-1994.

A colour image of a building with a colourful mural on it.

Mural at the rear of 12 Alexander St., 2023. Image by Thomas Sayers.

An image of an artwork collage consisting of faces.

TWP Posters on display in the cabaret stage of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St., November 2023. Image by Thomas Sayers.

George Luscombe

Today, we can see a mural at the back of the theatre at 12 Alexander Street. It reads Toronto Workshop Productions, reminding us that this was once the home of George Luscombe’s radical, socialist theatre company.

George Luscombe was born in East York in 1926. As a youth, George was inspired by drama instructor, Ann Marshall, who championed her vision of theatre as a means of politically engaging with the world.

At age 23, Luscombe left for England. As an actor, he toured across Wales until joining Joan Littlewood’s Marxist troupe, the Theatre Workshop. Littlewood, who is often known as the mother of modern theatre, incorporated unexpected elements, such as clowning or political campaigning, into her troupe’s performances. 

By 1955, Luscombe had his fill of performing in the UK. He returned to Canada to create his own political theatre, known as Toronto Workshop Productions (TWP), which operated out of an adapted theatre in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

Hey Rube!

Although initial performances of Luscombe’s troupe featured classic theatre texts such as those by Anton Checkov and Henrik Ibsen, Luscombe teamed up with writer Jack Winter to collectively create a new piece, Hey Rube!, in 1961. The play was inspired by the circus characters and stories that Luscombe heard about while touring in Wales. 

Hey Rube! was an original Canadian play and relied on a strong use of pantomime and an immersive environment, giving life to the stories of the circus people at the play’s core. The play was successful, playing for six weeks, and helped to demonstrate the potential of Canadian theatre. 

Luscombe’s skill as a teacher, as a visionary, and as a creator of an integrated theatrical spectacle is summarised best in something he told his actors: “Our job [is] to draw the raw material of the theatre from the community, interpreting it in our own way and giving it back to the community, not as real life but like an image in a purposely distorted mirror.’

At Home at 13 Alexander

After 12 years without a permanent home, George Luscombe acquired a former TTC tram shed at 12 Alexander Street in 1967, transforming it into a thrust-stage theatre for Toronto Workshop Productions. Until 1989, the space was a home for the troupe whose performances often rallied against power and privilege in Toronto.

This theatre saw the hugely successful and original political plays Mr. Bones, which explored slavery and the American Civil War; Ten Lost Years, which explored Canadians’ experience of the Depression; and Chicago ‘70, an as-it-happened play about the trial of the Chicago Seven.

But the hits were not frequent enough. The company also survived a fire in 1974 which severely damaged nearly all but the shell of the building. In 1989, the theatre’s Board of Directors sold the building to the City of Toronto for $655,000 to repay the troupe’s outstanding debts.

The Legacy of Toronto Workshop Productions

The legacy of TWP is paradoxical. While Luscombe demonstrated that stories by Canadians about Canada could sell out theatres, he worked in near-isolation from other alternative theatres. 

Luscombe was praised as a director, teacher, but often worked alone. He was not asked to direct at other theatres, nor was he invited to take part in the 1970 Festival of Underground Theatre, which brought together other Toronto alternative theatre companies, such as Theatre Passe Muraille and Factory Theatre.

When the 12 Alexander Street theatre closed in 1989, the most pressing issue was what was to be done with the building. Hopes were that another theatre company would be able to fill its stages with a similar radical vision that Luscombe championed. That hope would be eventually fulfilled by Buddies in Bad Times, who moved into the theatre space in 1994. Today, the legacy of the TWP at 12 Alexander Street can be found on a mural at the back of the building. The mural, like Luscombe’s legacy, is easy to miss, but its immense tangible impact can still be seen throughout Toronto’s theatre scene.

Additional Resources:

Bush, Steven. Conversations with George Luscombe. Mosaic Press, 2012.

Carson, Neil. Harlequin in Hogtown: George Luscombe and Toronto Workshop Productions. University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Charlebois, Gaëtan. ‘Luscombe, George.The Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia, 3 July 2018.

Charlebois, Gaëtan. ‘Toronto Workshop Productions / TWP’. The Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia, 9 Feb. 2021.

Filewood, Alan. ‘Documentary and Popular History: Ten Lost Years.’ Collective Encounters: Documentary Theatre in English Canada. University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 50-79.

Johnston, Denis W. ‘Before the Flood.’ Up the Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto’s Alternative Theatres, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 3-27