A brief (theatre) history lesson: Central Commerce Collegiate

By: John Wojewoda and Brittney Filek-Gibson

Central Commerce Collegiate is at 570 Shaw, just north of College, located in the Palmerston-Little Italy neighborhood of downtown Toronto. The school opened its doors to local students in 1916 as Central High School, though commercial education in Toronto dates back to 1892.  At the beginning of this, CCC’s 93rd school year, Shakespeare in Action found a permanent home in Room 18, thanks to the generosity of the TDSB.  Central Commerce Collegiate (as it came to be known in 1991) has many interesting features, but one of its best is the beautiful old theatre right in the middle of the building.  Currently undergoing a bit of a facelift, it has many notable features, like a faux sky light reminiscent of  to an opera house or some European theatre.

So Central Commerce Collegiate, affectionately know as CCC, was originally a school whose focus was business and commerce, but curiously, it has a strong historical connection to Canadian theatre.  In 1928, Herman Voaden was appointed head of the English department at CCC, which was then known as The Central High School of Commerce. Who is Herman Voaden? Well, he is considered by Canadian art historians to be the most significant Canadian Playwright before World War II. Basically, he’s the father of the modern Canadian play.   Still influential, though largely unknown, there is even The Herman Voaden National Play Wrighting Competition at Queens University has been running since 1997.  Voaden was also influential as a zealous arts lobbyist and headed the Canadian Arts Council (1945-48), the Canadian Conference of the Arts (1966-68) and the Canadian Guild of Crafts (1968-70).  Thanks for paving the way, Mr. Voaden!

But it doesn’t end there.  One of Herman Voaden’s students was also an important (and largely unknown) figure in Canadian theatre history.  Toby Ryan (nee Gordon) attended CCC in the early 1920s where Herman Voaden was her English teacher.  Born into a working class family of avid theatre-goers, Toby Ryan was already well-versed in the world of theatre by the time she made it to CCC, but it was Voaden who instilled in her a love of the written word and especially of Shakespeare.  Although she did not go on to become a famous Shakespearean actress or anything of the sort, she helped to found and promote socially-minded, progressive theatre at its inception in this country.

Toby was a member of an organization known as the Progressive Arts Club.  The Toronto branch spawned the Worker’s Theatre, whose most controversial performance, Eight Men Speak, was shut down by government censorship, and the Theatre of Action, who founded a summer school and were active participants in changing the face of professional theatre.  Their work was largely socialist, pro-union, progressive, political, socially conscious, and darn fine theatre.  They played in theatres, but also in union halls, labour temples, and even managed a tour of Southern Ontario.  Their plays often featured workers in leading roles; they sought to portray the times as they actually were, not in theatrical ideals.  They were also responsible for the Toronto premiere of the most influential play of the 1930s, Clifford Odets’s Waiting For Lefty.

To bring us back full circle, Toby’s participation in Toronto’s Progressive Arts Club was actually part of a larger movement across the country (and abroad).  These clubs were formed all over the country and produced plays that engaged with the politics and people of the time.  In Vancouver, the PAC won the Dominion Drama Festival (of which Herman Voaden was a founding member) with their production of Waiting For Lefty. Winnipeg was home to another branch.  Montreal was also quite active and was one of few English language theatre groups in the city at the time.  In fact, Odets himself visited the Montreal group and was so impressed that he sent them a donation of $50 (big bucks in the 1930s).  This group also lasted much longer than the others, well into the 1950s, and, when they eventually disbanded, the last $25 in their bank account went to fund a new theatre initiative in Stratford, Ontario, now well known for its connection to the Bard.

All of this, plus the fact that CCC was featured in the X-Men movie, makes it an excellent home for our company.  And we have big plans to contribute positively to the continuation of this incredible history!

For more information about CCC:
Official TDSB Central Commerce Collegiate website

For more information about Herman Voaden:
Biographical info
University of New Brunswick website (complete works and essays)


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