According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), Mennonites have been involved in theatre-making since the seventeenth century in Holland. However, it was scorned by countless congregations as a worldly amusement, both the making of it and watching it.
A ban on theatre was upheld by many Mennonite groups in North America well into the twentieth century, after which theatrical activities increased in religious schools, colleges, and church and amateur groups, many productions emphasizing biblical or morally instructive themes. In this theatre issue of Rhubarb, Lesley Glendinning describes how much theatrical activity in Manitoba took the form of skits in Low German for home and community entertainment.
GAMEO also maintains that it wasn’t until the 1960s that professional artists of Mennonite background appeared, like the New York set-designer Karl Eigsti who was explicit about his roots and their influence on him.
Here in Winnipeg things really got going in the mainstream culture in the mid-1980s, when two shows dealing with Mennonites were produced close together: Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land at Manitoba Theatre Centre and Patrick Friesen’s The Shunning at the Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE). The latter was part of Kim McCaw’s visionary leadership of PTE, a time when he commissioned Manitoba writers to develop plays grown out of our variegated cultural landscape. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Friesen’s play encouraged many aspiring Mennonite theatre-makers that their aspirations were in fact possible, that there was room for their stories in the local theatre culture.
One is tempted to say that the rest is history.
Since the mid-80s, Mennonites in Manitoba have made significant and, as this issue illustrates, superb contributions to the general theatre scene. In addition, keen observers would agree that the number of artists of Mennonite background in Winnipeg’s professional theatre community is surprisingly high. Many of these artists have also contributed to their art form far beyond the borders of Manitoba and Canada. Whether (and how) their Mennonite background has influenced their work in subtle or obvious ways is a captivating question. In a multicultural society, trying to understand how the filaments of our more-or-less “private” cultures interweave into North American liberal-democratic culture is a matter of singular importance. Many of Winnipeg’s Mennonite theatre artists (whether they still live here or not) have contributed so much to Canadian theatre that it is time to focus on their varied contributions. The place to launch, with a few examples, such an investigation for an interested, general readership, is clearly Rhubarb magazine.