Totem Theatre

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Totem Theatre was a theatre company based out of Vancouver and Victoria that operated from 1951–54. It was founded by Thor Arngrim and Stuart Baker, who were later joined by Norma Macmillan. The company presented seasons that mixed potboilers with modern classics, including numerous plays by Tennessee Williams; Totem Theatre secured the first Canadian rights for all of Williams' stage plays.


Totem Theatre's first season took place in the summer of 1951 at Ambleside Park in West Vancouver, where they built a proscenium stage with a roof over it. They produced seven plays in eight weeks over the summer: Light up the Sky, Hay Fever, Personal Appearance, Harvey, Charley's Aunt, Room Service, and Born Yesterday.

After a successful summer season, Arngrim and Baker looked for a venue for a winter season, and settled on a hall in downtown Vancouver owned by the Electrical Workers Union. They converted the hall into a theatre with a modified arena stage, which they used mainly as a thrust stage, with seating capacity of about 370. Norma Macmillan joined the company early in the winter season, and quickly became an integral part of Totem Theatre. The winter season included such plays as Biography, The Voice of Truth, No Exit, The Glass Menagerie, The Red Velvet Goat and The Romance of the Willow Pattern (as a double bill), Rope, Come Back Little Sheba, A Streetcar Named Desire, Present Laughter, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Pygmalion. They continued to produce plays in Vancouver over the summer, primarily British potboilers.

Totem's second winter season included Peg o' My Heart, Summer and Smoke, Tony Draws a Horse, and Mother Goose for the Christmas season. In the new year, productions included No Time for Comedy, The Little Foxes, The Happy Time, and Dark of the Moon. During their second winter season, Totem came to realize that they would not be able to stay at the Electrical Workers Union hall for much longer, largely due to required fire safety upgrades that they could not afford.

Macmillan, Baker, and Arngrim decided to leave their Vancouver hall for what was then called the York Theatre (now the McPherson Playhouse) in Victoria, which sat roughly 800 people. They renamed the theatre Totem, and presented a season to middling audience numbers. Their final Victoria production was A Crowded Affair, written by Macmillan. The play had a very successful one-off production at Vancouver's Georgia Auditorium, which prompted the Auditorium's manager Derek Inman to invite Totem there for a summer season in 1954.

Totem produced nine shows at the Georgia Auditorium, from late June to late August 1954, then closed the company. Three days after their last performance at the Georgia Auditorium, Arngrim and Macmillan were married, with Baker as their best man, and all three left for Toronto to pursue careers in show business.


  • Johnston, Denis W. "Totem Theatre: AutoBiography of a Company." In Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice, ed. Sherrill Grace & Jerry Wasserman. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2006. 225–248.