Education and Teaching

Herman Voaden – Education and Teaching


An introductory essay by Anton Wagner.

Herman Voaden, English-Canada’s leading experimental theatre director and playwright during the 1930s and a prominent educator and cultural nationalist, was born in London, Ontario, on January 19, 1903. His family moved to St. Thomas, Ontario, in 1910 where his father, Dr. Arthur Voaden (1870-1931) was a prominent educator who pioneered vocational training in Ontario. Herman had his first acting experiences at the St. Thomas Collegiate in 1917, playing Shylock in an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice at the annual school concert in the St. Thomas New Grand Opera House.

In the 1920s there was no indigenous Canadian theatre in which Voaden could have made a living as a director, playwright, actor or designer. He therefore pursued his 1920-23 Queen’s University studies with the intention of becoming a teacher like his parents and uncles. Yet he also studied modern drama (poetic, romantic and symbolist drama, and particularly German expressionist plays) at Queen’s, graduating with an Honours B.A. in English. From 1924 to 1926 he taught English at the Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa while completing graduate courses and his M.A. thesis on Eugene O’Neill at Queen’s in 1926.

Voaden’s immersion in practical theatre work, particularly directing, began in 1926-27 while he was head of the English department at the Windsor-Walkerville Technical School. He was determined to teach dramatic literature as live theatre and to convey his own excitement about theatre and the arts to his students. In the summer of 1927 Voaden left his teaching position in Windsor to begin his Ph.D. studies on Eugene O’Neill at the University of Chicago, hoping to pursue a university academic career. In order to finance his university studies, he had already accepted an appointment as head of the English Department at the Sarnia Collegiate Institute and Vocational School, intending to complete most of his University of Chicago graduate work extramurally.

Herman’s life-long career as a director, playwright and cultural nationalist began in Sarnia in September of 1927. He became the founding director of the Drama Club of Sarnia and, the following year, of the Sarnia Drama League. In public speeches and published articles, he urged secondary schools to mirror the new dramatic standards and social consciousness of leading Canadian Little Theatres.

Encouraged by a substantial pay increase and greater cultural activities in Toronto, Voaden assumed the position of head of English at the Central High School of Commerce in September of 1928. He accepted the position on the condition that he would have “complete freedom to start a theatre there, to make the theatre a living experience, to start a collection of Canadian paintings, and to give to those students, none of them going on to university, all of the leads into a richer and better kind of living that I had at university.”

Toby Gordon Ryan, one of his students and an important figure in the Canadian Workers’ Theatre in the 1930s, credited Herman’s practical production work and “living theatre” teaching approach at the Central High School of Commerce in 1928-1930 with inspiring her to make a career in the theatre.

Voaden continued his graduate university studies at Yale University from October 1930 to May 1931. He attended George Pierce Baker’s famous playwriting course and also enrolled in play production and directing courses with Alexander Dean. It was during these Yale studies that Herman began to conceive his non-realist “symphonic expressionist” play production style. At the Central High School of Commerce, he was able to implement and experiment with this “symphonic” multi-media directing and playwriting style from 1932 to 1943. Voaden retired from teaching at the CHSC in 1964.

Also available is the photo gallery and the finding aid for his fonds in the York University Archives, including the file lists of his education and teaching materials within this fonds.

Last Updated 2000/08/25