Once in a blue moon, a place becomes a magnet for artists and creative activity and galvanizes a community with remarkable spinoffs – think of Lapin Agile in Paris, The Riverboat Coffeehouse in Toronto, The Cedar Tavern in New York City.
Peterborough’s Union Theatre was such a place. The community-run performance space operated from 1989 to 1996 in a former coffin factory off a side street of downtown Hunter St. Some of our best performers, playwrights and theatre pros cut their teeth at the Union – Kate Story, Ryan Kerr, Esther Vincent, Brad Breckenridge, Bill Kimball, Dennis Tourbin, Tim Etherington, Robert Winslow and many have gone on to create theatres of their own. The space also nurtured the underground punk music scene and ran a soup kitchen on Tuesdays and Fridays. Joe Hall, David Ramsden, Washboard Hank, Fred Eaglesmith, Dave Tough and Willie P. Bennett as well as a host of anarcho-punk circuit bands like Varsol, Antischism and Rorschach performed at its after hours booze can, which helped keep the theatre afloat while the cops looked the other way.
Author, actor and professor emeritus at Trent, Ian McLachlan, along with Trent colleague and punk scholar Alan O’Connor are working on a book on the Union. They recently invited former participants in the legendary theatre to Trent’s Bagnani Hall to share their stories. Their transcriptions of interviews, research and visual material will become an important archive for the history of Peterborough’s cultural spirit.
The theatre staged work by local as well as established playwrights – from an early production of Timothy Findley’s Can You See Me Yet to Phil Kummel’s Electric Chair Blow Job. It reveled in the freedom to experiment with both really good and really bad material. Nothing was too ambitious to attempt – from Alfred Jarry’s classic Ubu Roi to Peter Shaffer’s Equus to Frankenstein Meets the Recession written by a collective of 9 writers in conjunction with local welfare recipients, the Union found a way to mount these productions.
Riffing off Artspace which had previously occupied the space, then moved on to Market Hall, it had a symbiotic relationship with the Only Cafe including a well worn path between the two spaces for frequent beer runs. Theatre Trent offered financial assistance and access to a toolbox of props and costumes.
The time was right for the Union in working class Peterborough. The theatre provided a safe haven for creatives in a tough little town with “a solid background of violence.” Rents were affordable and Hunter St. was becoming the art-centric neighbourhood it is today. The Union Theatre thrived on and survived financial and structural brinksmanship with a consensus-driven mandate. Members wore many hats in the egalitarian organization. While the public school system entirely lacked an outlet for artistic youth, Trent’s Cultural Studies program was a supportive influence with its unique brand of art and politics.
Peterborough’s rich history of theatre and performance includes East City Productions, the Peterborough Theatre Guild, The Magic Circus, City Stage, the Cooked and Eaten writers’ series, Peterborough Theatre Users’ Group (THUG), Public Energy, Arbor Theatre, 4thLine Theatre, Mysterious Entity and The Theatre on King – all of which influenced or have been influenced by the Union Theatre.