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catharine brickendenCatharine Brickenden: Grand Dame of the Grand
by Christopher Doty

"Outside of the very large cities, there is little left of the professional theatre, leaving only the thousand-foot reels of celluloid to unfold to us the dramatic genius of ancient and modern writers. And as one's taste palls for canned food, so does a goodly section of the public long for a diet of fresh and living plays." - Catharine Brickenden, 1936

Catharine Keziah McCormick Brickenden ("Kizzie" to all her friends) was the grand daughter of wealthy biscuit maker Thomas McCormick. She had attended the Emerson College in Boston where she studied drama, literature and play writing.

At the age of 21 she married a rising young lawyer, George Arthur Brickenden and went on to serve as president of Women's Section at the London Hunt Club. An accomplished horse rider, she rode side saddle three times a week after a bout with polio cramped her riding stride.

In looking over her career, its tempting to assume Canadian author Robertson Davies patterned the character of Valentine Rich after Brickenden in his maiden novel, Tempest Tost. Like the fictitious Rich, Brickenden was Ontario-born but educated abroad and brought ambitious, almost unrealizable visions to the self-indulgent world of amateur theatre.

But if Brickenden's contributions weren't always appreciated at the time, it's clear that over the fifty years she would almost single handedly re-establish a London-based theatre community that is still flourishing today.

In 1922 the London Drama League was formed. This fledging amateur theatre troup produced mostly one act plays in small halls, schools, and church basements the odd three acter thrown in at the Patricia Theatre on Clarence Street when it wasn't screening Mary Pickford features. Within a decade three more groups were on the scene, each presenting their own unique form of theatre.

In the fall 1934 the London Little Theatre, The Half-Way House Players and The Meredith Players (which were performing out of a barn) joined together under the banner of London Little Theatre. The trio began renting the Grand Theatre for $2,100 a year. A fourth group, The Community Drama Guild, jumped on board that December.

In those early years, London Little Theatre was little more than an umbrella organization. All four companies operated independently, taking turns presenting their own plays. Then as now, the artistic directors of each group wanted to remain the big fish in their private small pond - even if what they were doing was of amateur status.

Brickenden had come across a work by a Sarnia-based auto supply manager named W. Eric Harris. 25 Cents was a one-acter about a Canadian family struggling through the Depression. In the words of Brickenden's daughter, "It was a grim little number."

Taking a cue from Ireland's Abbey Theatre, Brickenden realized it was important to provide a venue for Canadian plays - even if they weren't that good to begin with. The quality would come later. Most of the members of London Little Theatre failed to see her argument.

But Brickenden's persistence resulted in a compromise. 25 Cents would be sandwiched between two established one-act plays on the Grand's stage in January 1936. Brickenden directed the production herself.

To everyone's surprise, 25 Cents was well received and was chosen as the group's entry at the Western Ontario Drama League that March where it copped a special award for playwriting. The play advanced to the national finals in Ottawa where the adjudicator, English playwright Harley Granville Baker, gave it the nod for top prize, The Bessborough Trophy. It was the first time a Canadian play had received such an honour.

The success of 25 Cents had a galvanizing effect on theatre in London. All four theatre groups at the Grand decided to band together into a single unit. The group would dominate the city's theatrical scene for the next 35 years.

Although the great years of amateur theatre had ended by the 1960s, Brickenden remained an artistic presence in London. She was on hand when the Grand was awarded historical status and toured the theatre after its rebuild in 1978-79. In 2002 the Brickenden Awards were founded to honour the best in London-based theatre. Dorinda Greenway presented the first award for best actress, just as her mother had done at many award ceremonies in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

The full text of this article will be published in The London Reader in January 2005.

Click here for information on the Brickenden Awards