Exterior of 11 St. Thomas St, 2023. Image by Thomas Sayers.
A Theatre Passe Muraille rehearsal at Trinity Square, 11 Trinity Square, circa 1969-1972. Image courtesy of Theatre Passe Muraille Archives.
Theatre Books sticker and bookmark, 2023. Image by Thomas Sayers.
Toronto’s Bookstore for the Theatre
Toronto’s alternative theatre scene needed spaces beyond the stage to inspire and sustain their work. Theatre Books, beloved independent bookstore and supporters of theatre in Toronto, was one of those crucial spots.
New York City has the Drama Bookshop. London has Samuel French. And, for nearly 40 years, Toronto had TheatreBooks, which lived for nearly 20 years in a bay-and-gable house at 13 St. Thomas Street.
Leonard McHardy and John Harvey directed and constructed sets in Toronto’s alternative theatre scene in the 1960s and 70s. TheatreBooks’ curtain rose in 1975, and its Yonge Street location was filled with the kind of books that keep a city’s theatre industry alive and bubbling.
All kinds of people, from theatre students to critics, flocked to Theatre Books. Sir John Gielgud, famed English actor and director, was known to drop by for a chat when performing at the Royal Alexandra. Film actor Wallace Shawn once exclaimed that TheatreBooks had it all. The store offered thousands of books on topics like theatre, ballet, opera, puppetry, and monologues.
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Rise of the Canadian Playwright
McHardy and Harvey credited their store’s success to the rise in Canadian plays written and published in the 1970s. It was rare to see a show written by a Canadian on a stage before then, as Canada’s regional theaters mainly imported successful shows from Broadway or the West End.
In 1971, disgruntled Canadian playwrights convened in Gaspé, Quebec for a Canada Council for the Arts conference on playwriting. There they wrote the Gaspé Manifesto, demanding that any theatre receiving government funding must present at least 50% Canadian plays by 1973. Although the Manifesto attracted significant attention and support from Canada’s theatre community, it was ultimately unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Toronto companies like the Factory Theatre, with its mandate of producing exclusively Canadian theatre, were devoted supporters of new playwrights. Others, like Tarragon Theatre, offered promising new Canadian plays, like David Freeman’s Creeps or Judith Thompson’s Biting Dog, extended workshops and polished productions to show off to Toronto audiences and critics.
And as Toronto’s playwriting and alternative theatre scene grew, so did the city’s theatre bookstore.
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A Peek Inside TheatreBooks
Many, including theatre critic Lynn Slotkin, fondly recall wandering between the brushed steel bookshelves and sifting through their specialized collection of books. Sometimes the writers of the books would be there too. American playwrights Terrence McNally and Neil Simon, Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, Canadian film director David Cronenberg, and many others all gave readings and signings at Theatre Books.
When the Toronto International Film Festival, then called the Festival of Festivals, debuted in 1976 at the Windsor Arms Hotel, the bookstore drew huge crowds.
Leonard and John continued to comment on the theatre scene in the Toronto Star as resident experts in the city’s theatre scene. Despite the rise in e-commerce in the late 1990s and the closure of many locally owned bookstores thereafter, the store held on until 2014, when TheatreBooks announced it would close after nearly 40 years of operation.
Next time you come across a used theatre book, take a look at the back cover. You may very well find a TheatreBooks sticker, connecting that book to the heart of Toronto’s theatrical community.
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Ballet, Arthur, et. al. ‘A Strange Enterprise: The Dilemma of the Playwright in Canada, or The Gaspe Manifesto.’ Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings, edited by Don Rubin, Copp Clark Limited, 1996, pp. 302-6.