Emry’s Dream: Greystone Theatre in Photographs and Words

27 August 2008

Emrys’ Dream: Greystone Theatre in Photographs and Words
by Dwayne Brenna, with photos by numerous photographers
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$29.95 ISBN 978-1-897235-27-0

If you’ve ever enjoyed live theatre in this province, chances are that at least one of the actors was an alumnus of The University of Saskatchewan’s longstanding Drama Department – Canada’s and the Commonwealth’s first degree-granting drama department — and performed at its Greystone Theatre.

Variety shows and choruses had been performed at the U of S since 1909, but when Emrys Jones, a journalist, director, actor and educator, took the Drama Department’s helm in 1945, Greystone Theatre’s curtains rose on a new era of superbly directed and acted live theatre, and that tradition of excellence continues to the present.

Current Greystone Theatre director, Dwayne Brenna – known to many as a writer, actor, and “Eddie Gustafson” on CBC SK Radio — has orchestrated a history of Greystone with essays and black and white archival photographs that reveal the theatre’s finest hours — and some of its darkest – in Emrys’ Dream: Greystone Theatre in Photographs and Words.

The Thistledown Press book opens with a proclamation: “This is a celebration.” Indeed, the accounts within do feel celebratory, for some sixty years later, Emrys’ dream of having a Drama Department on the prairies is still being answered.

Anyone involved in the arts knows that financial and political struggles often abound, and Brenna does not shy away from sharing some of these challenges in this beautifully produced book. Perhaps the most pressing issue for any theatre company is the acquisition of suitable space. In 1949, an RCAF hangar was transformed into a 200-seat theatre for stage productions that would “serve the community of Saskatoon as well as the University and its students.” Actors including Frances Hyland, Kim Coates, Roy Romanow, Susan Wright and Eric Peterson (who looks like a teen in the photo of his performance in “Picnic”) graced its stage.

The book is flush with images that “embrace the Greystone’s history through fictitious lives lived onstage and real lives lived in dressing rooms and foyers.” I enjoyed Brenna’s accounts of a supposed ghost “roaming the [hangar] late at night and frightening unwary students actors.” The building was prone to flooding, and there’s a wonderful photo of students guiding a canoe through the hallways. Brenna himself experienced two floods (“… a couple of years’ worth of lectures had to be rewritten.”)

The author highlights Greystone’s various directors, including Tom Kerr, who brought in professional actors as mentors, and took 11 students to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to stage two plays. Despite a last-minute venue shift and scant audiences, they were awarded an esteemed “Fringe First” award.

I was impressed by the credentials of the faculty, by the diverse and challenging plays produced, and by how many Greystone alumni have gone on to professional careers in acting.

Dwayne Brenna’s done his research from the inside out, and has given this reader a new appreciation for the art of theatre, and all those who make it happen. This book is an inspiration.


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