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Remembering a Theatre Pioneer

by Lois McLean, '46 BEd

When I was a student at the University of Alberta from 1943 to 1946, we were lucky to have Sydney Risk as our theatre advisor. Sydney was head of drama for the Department of Extension and his job took him all over Alberta, teaching, directing, adjudicating and giving workshops. He also taught acting and directing for six years at the Banff School of Fine Arts.

I really wanted to study drama at university and to eventually work in the theatre. At that time there were no theatre courses given. All plays were organized by students, with help from older, experienced advisors, often from 'over town'. It was great for us to have Sydney, a graduate from the University of British Columbia, who had worked in professional theatre in England and had an MA in drama from Cornell. He was on campus, working in Extension and living at St. Steve's.

In my final year, under Sydney's supervision, the student Drama Society organized an Inter-Year Play Competition, produced the first performance of 'Stampede', an original three-act play by Gwen Pharis Ringwood (which Sydney directed), and established the first Western Canadian Inter-University Play Festival. This brought plays from the Universities of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta to the stage of Con Hall.

All these activities took place in our 'spare time', outside class. Without Sydney's caring and skillful help we could not have accomplished such a busy program.

In the summer of 1946 he trained a small group of us to set out as Provincial Players, touring three one-act plays the length and breadth of the province. He found us a battered car to pull the curious trailer which held our portable scenery, props and costumes.

I was by then so bitten by the 'theatre bug' that I accepted Sydney's invitation to become a founding member of his professional Everyman Theatre company in Vancouver, along with 14 young people he had gathered from across Canada.

That winter of 1946-47 we toured from Vancouver to Winnipeg, braving blizzards, breakdowns and blowouts. It was wonderful theatre training, playing a new town every night and never knowing whether we'd get through the drifts to the next performance. This was at a time when there was no professional theatre in the West, and hundreds of people saw their first play done by the Everyman Theatre.

One of our most popular plays was Edmonton playwright Elsie Park Gowan's 'The Last Cavemen', set on the shores of Lake Wabamum. Elsie was one of our greatest supporters and a close friend of Sydney's.

Sydney Risk's Everyman Theatre flourished for seven years in Vancouver, eventually achieving a home of its own in an old vaudeville theatre building. Many Canadian actors, still working in theatre today, began their careers on Everyman's stage, polishing their skills under Sydney's direction.

In later years, he taught at University of British Columbia Continuing Education, travelling British Columbia as he had done years before in Alberta.

Sydney's life was devoted to theatre and encouraging professionalism. After his death, in 1985, a group of friends, colleagues and relatives formed the Sydney J. Risk Foundation for the purpose of giving monetary awards for excellence in acting, directing and playwriting to working professionals in Alberta and British Columbia. Recipients are chosen by experts from recognized theatres and/or institutions in those provinces.

To date, the Foundation has presented two awards to the authors of the best original plays at the Jessie Awards in Vancouver, in 1988 and 1989. The winners were Ian Weir and Alex Brown. It is hoped to extend the awards to Alberta in the near future.

Should you wish further information or to donate to the Foundation, please contact Donald H. Risk, Swinton and Company, 840 Howe Street, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2M1.

Tax receipts will be issued.

We would love to hear from anyone who saw an Everyman production or had personal memories of Sydney J. Risk.

The author graduated with an education degree from the University of Alberta in 1946. After her experience in the Everyman Theatre, Lois worked as a professional actress in England for eight years, returning to Edmonton to teach high school drama and English while beginning a family. In 1967 she moved to Vancouver, where her family of four are now young adults. She freelances as an actress in theatre, TV and films, and is active on the executive of the University of Alberta Alumni Association in Vancouver.

Published Spring 1990.

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