A Theatre for All Seasons
By Colin MacLean
Part 1: 1965 – 1975
In 1965, Joe Shoctor, an Edmonton theatre obsessed lawyer/entrepreneur, sat in his office on 103rd Street idly looking at the Salvation Army Citadel just across the parking lot and wondered if there was a theatre somewhere inside that two-storey brick building.
Shoctor was a smart, blunt, self-made man who embraced his Jewish roots and never backed down from a fight. He went to his friends Sandy Mactaggart, Ralph MacMillan, and James Martin and persuaded them to join him in putting up $100,000 to buy the building. $150,000 more was spent on renovations. Joe, ever the optimist, told them they’d make a lot of money.
Well, they never really did make much money but if you asked Sandy Mactaggart later, they did share a great adventure. Much like Shoctor, Mactaggart was a self-made man. At the age of 11, he was evacuated to Canada during World War II and arrived in Edmonton in 1952. He liked what he saw. Mactaggart along with his partner, Jean de La Bruyere, another long time Citadel supporter, co-founded the development group, Maclab Enterprises. Maclab’s generous support of the Citadel continues today.
Citadel Founders Joe Shoctor, Ralph MacMillan, Sandy Mactaggart, and James Martin (below, left)
Mactaggart once recalled in an interview with the Citadel: “Joe was possessed by the idea that we should give the theatre a try. None of us knew anything about theatre and we certainly didn’t want to lose any money but Joe said we could build a good theatre for that money, and, you know, hire a few actors and raise the quality of theatre in Edmonton.” Joe was not to be denied.
The Old Salvation Army Citadel wasn’t a great theatre. There was no lobby. The 277 seats were shoehorned into a church. Actor Brent Carver, who first played the theatre in 1973 remembers: “If you exited stage left, you had to immediately turn left again or risk permanent injury by running into a solid wall.”
For the opening show, Shoctor selected Edward Albee’s biting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The show had opened in 1962 on Broadway, split the critics, horrified audiences, and went on to be regarded as one of the classics of modern theatre. Woolf was full of four-letter words and raw emotions – elements that had seldom been seen before on an Edmonton stage. It opened on a cool evening – November 10, 1965. Many of the good grey burghers of Edmonton made for the exits during the intermissions. “We thought, possibly, never to come back,” laughs Mactaggart.
But it worked. It was the topic of conversation all over town. Letters to the editor. Joe was ecstatic.
The Citadel’s first artistic director was John Hulbert. Turned out, he was not what Joe wanted. Hulbert was a theatre academic from Pennsylvania and Joe wanted a hands-on artistic director. Despite a solid commercial first season of plays, the theatre attracted only 800 subscribers. Hulbert was followed by Robert Glenn, another American, but a good director who had a sense of where the theatre could go. He wasn’t much interested in Canadian theatre, but he did present a balanced repertoire including The Threepenny Opera and Albee’s obscure mind-bender Tiny Alice.
Joe Shoctor was no doubt the most ferocious theatrical fundraiser ever in Edmonton and he knew it would be a challenge to find a way into the hearts and wallets of Edmontonians. But in 1968, a rainbow appeared in the sky and at the other end – not a pot of gold but a short, dynamic leprechaun – a force of nature named Sean Mulcahy. He was a good director and a fine actor. He put the bums into the seats. Two people waiting at a bus stop? There was Sean talking up the Citadel. He worked the entire town – bingos, graduations, women’s groups, men’s groups, fancy balls, and talk shows. He was unavoidable, unrepentant, and absolutely charming – a Gaelic Harold Hill. We turned out to see what all the excitement was about and filled the house.
Sean Mulcahy, Artistic Director from 1968-73 (below, left)
Mulcahy was followed in 1973 by John Neville. Neville loved Edmonton. He was one of the great British actors of the western world. No patrician he – coming to bring culture to the colonies. He was born in the London slums. He wanted to produce Canadian plays. He became one of us. He became a board member of a local modern dance company. He became a Canadian citizen. He spread his mastery of text, his plumbing of deep emotions and technical wizardry with a voice like warm fog, raising the local theatre scene in doing so. He used local actors and directors: Walter Kaasa, Scott Swan, Tom Wood, Keith Digby, James DeFelice, Tom Peacocke, and many more.
Besides bringing his brilliance to a solid schedule of the classics (The Rivals, Much Ado About Nothing, Uncle Vanya) Neville was very aware of the box office lure of such commercial fare as Sherlock Holmes (with Neville brilliant as the great detective), Anything Goes, and How The Other Half Loves.
But the old Citadel had outgrown its roots and a shiny new theatre was forming in Joe Shoctor’s mind.