The multifaceted co-founder of VIdeoCabaret and The Hummer Sisters synthesized art, media, politics and satire
If you’ve noticed that the lights along Queen West are a little dimmer these days, it’s probably because Deanne Taylor, one of the pioneers of the city’s alternative arts scene, is gone. She died December 15 from cancer.
Taylor’s nearly half-a-century career here – she was born in Berkeley, California – included groundbreaking work as a performer, playwright, producer and director.
“She synthesized art, politics, media and satire like no one else,” says Susan G. Cole, who wrote a NOW cover story on Taylor in 1991 for the Theatre Passe Muraille remount of her show 2nd Nature.
Photo by Paul Till
Deanne Taylor helped put more art into politics, and more politics into art.
In 1976, Taylor and partner Michael Hollingsworth co-founded VideoCabaret, the highly influential theatre company that originally blended video and live performance and eventually introduced their signature style of “black box” theatre. The company is best known for mounting The History Of The Village Of The Small Huts, Hollingsworth’s epic 21-play cycle of Canadian history plays, many of which went on to be remounted at Soulpepper and the Stratford Festival. The company recently moved its base from the Cameron House to a new venue in the east end.
Taylor’s history with film and TV goes back to the 1950s, when she starred as the title character in the CBC TV series Maggie Muggins. In 1971, when she relocated to Toronto after travelling the world, she joined a group of nine other women in an organization called Women & Film, which, in 1973, organized the first international festival of films made by women.
In 1976, the same year she and Hollingsworth founded VideoCab, Taylor co-created, with Janet Burke and Jennifer Dean, The Hummer Sisters, a performance art group whose mission was “to put more art into politics, and more politics into art.” The Hummers famously ran for mayor of Toronto in 1982 with a campaign called ART vs. Art – a nod to incumbent Art Eggleton. (They came in second place, with 12,000 votes or 10% of the vote.)
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Taylor wrote, produced and performed in several Vox Pop cabarets about issues both local and national, prompting NOW to call her “the closest thing the city has to a political theorist of the streets.”
In Cole’s NOW cover story, she wrote: “What makes Taylor’s typically cerebral concepts so winning is the dexterity with which she unleashes video technology and wacky production numbers, creating the impossible – a way to breathe the words epic and performance art in the same breath.”
“If you look at something like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, it was heavily influenced by VideoCab,” adds Mac Fyfe, a current artist in residence at VideoCabaret.
“The way they would shoot things would suddenly appear on Much Music – this punk rock aesthetic was duplicated all over the place.”
Fyfe, who has starred in remounts of the company’s The Great War, Trudeau And The FLQ (for which he won a Dora as the title character) and The War Of 1812, says Taylor knew how to treat actors well.
“She knew how to relax you with a story or a laugh,” he says. “She dealt with all the intricacies of running the company, but she also had time for little things. Just before the first preview, she’d cut fresh gardenias from her garden and place them in these perfect little vases in front of everybody’s makeup stations backstage – just to give us that extra oomph.”
Taylor and VideoCab also provided seed money, mentorship and rehearsal space to help encourage Fyfe and Bob Nasmith to mount their production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which went on to win various awards.
“If you look at the artists Taylor and VideoCab encouraged with seed money, it includes people like Ravi Jain, Cliff Cardinal [an associate artist with the company], and, early on, Daniel MacIvor,” says Fyfe. “It’s pretty much a who’s who of the last 40 years of Canadian theatre.”