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Susan Rubes stands in the old TTC repair shed, soon to become her new theatre, the Young People's Theatre, Feb. 24, 1977. (Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail)
Susan Rubes stands in the old TTC repair shed, soon to become her new theatre, the Young People's Theatre, Feb. 24, 1977. (Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail)

Creator of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre credited luck for her success Add to ...

For 11 years after its founding, the YPT bounced from one venue to another (it was one of the very first companies to stage plays in schools). In the mid-1970s, Rubes found an unused brick building on Toronto’s Front Street, a former TTC stable turned streetcar repair shop. The place was a dump, with water flooding the floor and a rotting foundation. The city agreed to its use as a theatre, charging annual rent of $40,000, and the place needed $2-million in work. She got it all, squeezing $500,000 from the federal government and $1.1-million from the province, even persuading architect Eb Zeidler to design the place.

Already by 1975, her success in children’s theatre was recognized with her induction into the Order of Canada.

The theatre’s maiden production in its new home was on Dec. 22, 1977, an adaptation of the Prague theatre Laterna Magika’s The Lost Fairy Tale. After that, Rubes seemed determined to show that she took young audiences seriously, with such offerings as John Hirsch’s Twelfth Night, The Miracle Worker and The Diary of Anne Frank, starring her old friends Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.

“We all loved working with her,” said Eli’s daughter Roberta Wallach, who played the title role. Rubes “had boundless energy … sparkling eyes and a radiant smile. She and Jan had the kind of love that I see in my parents’ marriage as well.”

YPT was more than just a stage. It grew into a centre, with a year-round drama school for youth added in 1969, teachers’ resources and a community outreach program. Today, said artistic director Allen MacInnis, the theatre stages eight productions a year before 60,000 children and adults. It is still guided by Rubes’s motto: “Only the best is good enough for children.”

Some of Canada’s best-known actors appeared on YPT stages, including Kate Reid, Eric Peterson, Brent Carver, Gordon Pinsent and Martin Short. Albert Schultz, founding artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, played Daniel Richler in a 1984 YPT production of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. “It was there that I first met Susan and experienced, as a very young actor, her generosity and warmth,” he recalled. “[She] was a pioneer and those of us lucky enough to make our living in the Toronto theatre community owe all we have to a handful of brave souls such as she.”

Rubes’s influence extended to critics. In time, noted Patricia Keeney, a York University expert on children’s theatre and literature, theatre for young audiences became a legitimate category for the prestigious Chalmers new play award each year, juried by Toronto’s Drama Bench (later the Canadian Critics Association).

Weary of fundraising, Rubes became head of CBC radio drama in 1980, a natural fit given her love of the medium. “I haven’t totally adapted yet to the first large corporation I’ve ever worked for,” she confided to The Globe midway through her tenure. “Why, it’s all about power. That’s new to me.”

Still, she boosted drama programming, hired a casting director and script editor, and set up a training program that drew hundreds of applications from writers across the country. But she quit six years later because, as she told Thomson, “they wouldn’t give me any more air time and they wouldn’t give me any more money.” She served as president of the Family Channel when it debuted on Canadian pay TV in 1987, until 1989.

Largely driven by the success of the YPT, today there are some 80 theatre companies in Canada targeting young people.

Rubes’s final request was to have no memorial service following her death.

She was predeceased by her son Christopher in 1996. Jan Rubes died in 2009. She leaves her sons Jonathan and Anthony, three grandchildren and two half-brothers.

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