After the House Lights

Witch Hunt at the Strand delves into a dark period in Edmonton’s history

Witch Hunt at the Strand. Image supplied by Workshop West.


When you think of 1942, I’m sure thoughts of World War II fill your brain.

However, in Edmonton, there was a battle of a smaller scale happening in 1942: an attack on homosexual men, many of whom were in the theatre community and worked at The Strand Theatre. The RCMP and Edmonton City Police teamed up to investigate ten men, eventually laying 37 charges of gross indecency resulting in the conviction of 9 men, 6 of whom served jail sentences [1].

Discovering a new chapter in Edmonton’s history

These events aren’t well-known in Edmonton’s history, but that’s what Darrin Hagen’s play, Witch Hunt at the Strand, aims to change. Following a sold-out run at the 2015 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, a new version of the play will be presented by Workshop West at the Backstage Theatre, November 23 – December 4.

Although Darrin is a self-professed history enthusiast (he has even run Queer History Bus tours during Pride Week), the 1942 trials of gay men in Edmonton remained unknown to Darrin until Linda Goyette, then writer in residence at the Edmonton Public Library, brought his attention to Mary Glenfield‘s thesis on Edmonton’s theatre history between 1920 – 1965. Mary’s thesis contained a small mention of the scandal that had rocked Edmonton in 1492, and Darrin thought to himself, “Wow, this is one of the earliest glimpses we have of recorded history in Queer Edmonton. LGBT people are kind of like ghosts in that they tend to float through history until they get ‘caught’. And normally when they do get ‘caught’, it’s a quiet, quick, fervent arrest and it doesn’t make a big splash in the papers, but for some reason this one did.”

“I found the opportunity to fill in a big blank in that history really fascinating… I was fascinated that there was a record of what it was like to be gay in theatre in Edmonton in the 1940s, during World War II – 74 years ago. This was not only before gay marriage was legalized, but before Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality. Try to imagine what life was like back then – how careful you had to be about who you spoke to and who you were free around.”

With the encouragement of Karen Simonson (who works at the Provincial Archives of Alberta) and David Cheoros (Director of this production as well as the 2015 production) and  of Maa and Paa Theatre, Darrin went to the Provincial Archives and started digging up the transcripts and evidence logs that formed the basis of Witch Hunt at the Strand. Darrin was excited about the opportunity to write the show with the assistance of the real trial transcripts, “When I can put real words in a character’s mouth that a person actually spoke while they were on this planet, that is so inspiring to me…I feel a responsibility as a writer who’s writing tributes – theatrical dramatic tributes – to people who lived, to treat them with respect and try to get their story as close to what they went through as possible.”

Darrin also received another opportunity to further research the events of 1942 as, during the 2015 Fringe run of the show, several family members whose relatives were persecuted came forward with private collections of letters and information. One example is the relatives of JP Folinsbee, whose letters to James Hart were used as evidence against James, who gave Darrin access to their personal archive of JP’s letters.

While many of the names of those involved in the 1942 trials may be unfamiliar to Edmontonians today, one of the characters in Witch Hunt at the Strand may be familiar to audiences: Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, after whom Edmonton’s theatre awards are named. The addition of this character came as part of the re-writes Darrin undertook to prepare for this Workshop West production of the show. Darrin explains, “I knew from Mary Glenfield’s thesis that Elizabeth Sterling Haynes had to testify in the trial. We have this female icon of the Edmonton theatre community that we honour every year and she was dragged into this. What is it like for someone whose passion puts them into the world of theatre to work with members of the gay community who get in trouble? … Once they all start going through the scandal, there had to be someone [the men] could speak to, someone they can bounce their fears off of. The world around them has to be represented by somebody and so because she was such an icon of the theatre community and was teaching acting at The Strand Theatre, she was in the building and had a history there… Everyone around the people who were being arrested were impacted by this too, so she almost becomes the voice of the city, of the theatre community, of the people who are reading about this.”

Witch Hunt is increasingly relevant today

Witch Hunt at the Strand is being presented at a particularly relevant time, as Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault has been placed in charge of determining the Government of Canada’s apology to sexual minorities who were discriminated against, including convictions for gross indecency and persecution in the public service and military. Darrin says working on Witch Hunt at the Strand has been a poignant reminder of the mutability of civil rights. “We have fought hard to get to where we are now and anyone who believes that’s the way it should be, needs to be vigilant about protecting those rights because we know now that there’s a world where they can disappear really quickly depending on who’s in charge of our country or in power at the time… As queer people, we can’t think that the fight is over, because it’s not. Even if we reach that nirvana here, there’s still the rest of the world to deal with. There’s still places where people don’t have rights. If we are privileged enough to be in a place where we perceive we have some sort of equality, we owe it to our brothers and sisters in other countries to try to fight.”

Bringing the myriad of characters in Witch Hunt at the Strand is a stellar cast of Edmonton actors: Jesse Gervais, Mathew Hulshof, Doug Mertz, and Davina Stewart, under David Cheoros’ direction. The design team is equally as exciting: T. Erin Gruber is designing the set and lighting of Witch Hunt and projection design will be by T. Erin Gruber and Elijah Lindenberger. Costumes will be designed by Geri Dittrich (whose period costumes I love!), and Darrin Hagen’s sound design will round out the production team.

Witch Hunt at the Strand is presented by Workshop West and plays at the Backstage Theatre November 23 – December 4. Tickets range from pay-what-you-can at the venue during the November 23 preview performance to $24.50 – $27.50 during the regular run at the venue or through Tix on the Square.

For those who are interested and able to donate, Workshop West invites you to to sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance to Witch Hunt at the Strand. A $100 donation will send a GSA to the show and get you 2 tickets to the show.

1 For more information about the historical context of Witch Hunt at the Strand, check out the awesome blog post by Brenley Charkow on Workshop West’s website.