The top 10 stage artists of 2021

Whether on video, audio, virtual reality or live and in-person, these versatile talents made dramatic breakthroughs during another difficult year


It was nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? Theatre returned this year, first slowly and outdoors (thank you Dream in High Park!) and then, when restrictions were eased, indoors, properly spaced with audiences vaccinated and masked. And now it looks like things are closing up again because of rising COVID-19 numbers and the Omicron variant.

Besides darkened theatres and out-of-work artists, there were other reasons to be sad, including the deaths of four titans of the Canadian stage: Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, David Fox and, just this past week, Christopher Newton.

While many theatre companies kept everything online, some of the most unforgettable experiences came from hybrid shows, like Blindness and Draw Me Close.

As in previous years, this list comprises artists involved in at least two shows. But I’d like to thank every artist who wrote, streamed, directed, performed, organized a Zoom reading and welcomed us back. Special kudos go to Gary Rideout Jr. and James Elksnitis for opening the gorgeous Comedy Bar Danforth.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to everything I wanted to see.

But here are 10 artists who made another unusual year a dramatic success. 

1. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, director

In the fall, Obsidian Theatre’s new artistic director helmed a haunting live audio production of Lisa Codrington’s Cast Iron, bringing a 70-something Bajan-Canadian woman’s complex story to life with thrilling intimacy. But earlier in the year she also organized 21 Black Futures, one of the most ambitious projects in Canadian theatre history and a timely and urgent look at the future of Blackness. 

2. Jordan Tannahill, writer/actor 

Although he lives abroad, Tannahill made a huge mark on the local theatre scene with three very different pieces. Is My Microphone On?, which he co-created with Erin Brubacher, was an urgent call to action about young people inheriting a ruined climate from their parents and grandparents. The live-streamed rihannaboi95 – about a bullied queer student finding self-expression by reenacting Rihanna videos on TikTok – proved even more relevant than when it debuted in 2013. And most groundbreaking was Draw Me Close, which took individual audience members into a virtual reality replica of his childhood home and made us ache with extrasensory longing and regret.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Cliff Cardinal and cast shake up tradition in As You Like It.

3. Cliff Cardinal, writer/actor 

Early in the year in Rick Roberts’s live-streamed and locked-down Orestes, Cardinal played the self-absorbed title character, an internet star who, as punishment for committing matricide, is cut off from all his social media platforms. Then in the fall, he lit the fuse of the most controversial As You Like It we’ve witnessed, as he explored every aspect of what it means to present a land acknowledgement at a time when generations of Indigenous people are dealing with, among other things, the legacy of the brutal residential school system. As we reimagine what theatre can and should be after the pandemic, it’s clear we need more theatrical shit-disturbers like Cardinal.

4. Marcia Johnson, writer/actor 

In Keith Barker’s audio drama Every Minute Of Every Day, Johnson played a woman whose visit to her estranged sister in the big city was fraught with complex emotions; you could hear a lifetime of history in every line she delivered. And in her ambitious play Serving Elizabeth, she addressed big themes like representation and the effects of colonialism while looking at two periods: 1952 Kenya during a royal visit, and 2015 London during the writing of a series that’s awfully like The Crown. The play is so rich with ideas and drama it should get productions across the country. 

5. Jani Lauzon, actor/director 

Lauzon, a frequent figure on this list, directed a revelatory audio production of Margo Kane’s 1990 play Moonlodge about a young Indigenous woman’s coming of age from a small Canadian town to the American southwest. There were moments that were so effective they couldn’t be achieved in the same way on a stage. Then, in a remount of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, Lauzon added pluck and resourcefulness to her Pelajia Patchnose, a woman who’s handy with a hammer but less successful when it comes to fixing broken things in her life. 

6. Akosua Amo-Adem, actor/writer/director 

Always a magnetic stage actor, Amo-Adem proved herself a talented director by helming Keith Barker’s audio drama Every Minute Of Every Day, getting rich, lived-in performances from the actors and establishing place and time with extraordinary ease and effectiveness. She also co-wrote, with Qasim Khan and Cheyenne Scott, The Home Project, a semi-autobiographical triptych in which she played a stand-up comic who emigrated from Ghana as a child and was now caught between two cultures and trying to understand the concept of home, all while navigating things like white privilege and entitlement.

7. Guillaume Côté, dancer/choreographer/producer

While live dance suffered a lot during 2021, the enterprising Côté braved the pandemic with technical savvy and lots of imagination. In the Fall For Dance North lineup, he and his company Côté Danse live-streamed +(dix), a fascinating work inspired by the myth of Odysseus and the idea of home. And then, in association with designer Thomas Payette, he choreographed the stunning duet Touch, exploring in glorious movement a word that’s taken on so much baggage and fear. Performed in the huge, airy, loft-like space at the foot of Yonge, Touch touched us all, and it was cathartic.

8. Amaka Umeh, actor 

There’s no word yet on whether Umeh will play the title role in Stratford’s Hamlet in 2022 – which she was supposed to do in 2020. But judging from her clear, detailed and very funny Helena at the festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s nothing she can’t do. She proved that yet again in the fall when she made a big splash as Ahab, the maniacal, peg-legged captain seeking vengeance on a massive whale in the atmospheric waterfront show Moby: A Whale Of A Tale.  

Photo of Alice In Wonderland courtesy of Bad Hats Theatre

Landon Doak (left), Tess Benger and Fiona Sauder made sense of our upside-down world in Alice In Wonderland, with costume designs by Ming Wong.

9. Ming Wong, designer 

In what must be a first, costume designer Wong made her mark on two completely different productions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland in one year. The first was for Bad Hats Theatre, which was supposed to have been performed live but, because of the pandemic, was captured on video instead. Her costumes here were contemporary and playful, with bold touches – a plastic shawl for Jacob MacInnis’s Caterpillar, marathon-like numbers for the playing cards – doing a lot of work. For the Ross Petty streamed panto Alice In Winterland, meanwhile, she created glamorous get-ups that fit right into the hyper-real digital universe. 

10. Landon Doak, actor/writer/composer

Doak, the Dora Award-winning composer of Life In A Box, had a great year, impressing with their songs (co-written with Victor Pokinko) and multiple characters in Alice In Wonderland and then playing an enthusiastic, if limited, Shakespeare – the Bard as bro? – in Rébecca Déraspe’s charming I Am William

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