In the overlapping art, music and performance scenes of Toronto’s Queen Street West during the 1970s and 80s, Deanne Taylor initially developed an underground reputation with satirical singing performance troupe the Hummer Sisters and the theatre renegades VideoCabaret.
But Ms. Taylor’s bid to put “more art into politics, and more politics into art” hit the mainstream in 1982 when the actor, writer and filmmaker briefly changed her name to A. Hummer to represent the Hummer Sisters on the ballot against incumbent mayor Art Eggleton in the 1982 Toronto municipal election.
Believing mayor was “no job for politicians,” Ms. Taylor and her performance-art sisters ran collectively on a proto-populist promise of “24-hour mayor service” while hosting boisterous nightly political cabarets at the Cameron House bar. They held a penny-a-plate fundraiser to cover the $3,000 cost of their “Art vs Art” campaign – and as a riposte to a $150-a-plate one held by Mr. Eggleton.
“If he has to spend $100,000 to tell people who he is, and to beat the Hummer Sisters – maybe he’s the fringe candidate,” Ms. Taylor told The Globe and Mail as A. Hummer, who went on to receive close to 12,000 votes and place a respectable, distant second.
“The structure of the arts community in Toronto was not facing electoral politics in any way shape or form before she came along,” says Toronto MP Adam Vaughan, a long-time friend and one of many politicians Ms. Taylor later privately coached on how to bring more art to their political presentation.
“She was at a pivotal point in history when it went from being eccentrics holding salons and speaking to each other into becoming one of the most significant political forces in the city.”
An enduring figure in Canadian theatre, Ms. Taylor channelled her creative energy into mounting an epic play cycle about this country’s history by her life partner, playwright Michael Hollingsworth, taking it from small alternative theatres to the Stratford Festival over decades. Ms. Taylor died at her long-time residence above the Cameron House on Dec. 15 of pancreatic cancer. She was 74.
“She was the Queen of Queen Street, without a doubt,” Mr. Vaughan says. “The queen is dead. Long live the queen.”
Deanne Elizabeth Taylor was born on Nov. 24, 1946, in Berkeley, Calif., to Canadians Violet Mae (née Fowler) and Malcolm Gordon Taylor.
Mr. Taylor was finishing his PhD in political science at the University of California – with a thesis on the Saskatchewan Hospital Services Plan. His career subsequently straddled academia and direct involvement in the development of Canada’s universal, publicly funded health-care system, and took his family across the country.
“You’ve heard of ‘military brats’ – we were academic brats,” recalls Burke Taylor, Deanne’s younger brother. “There was a sense with our parents that every individual can create a difference and I think that was a big motivator for Deanne.”
As a child during a stint in Toronto, Ms. Taylor took dance classes from a neighbour who choreographed for the CBC – which led to work as a young actor. At 9, she landed the title role on the TV series Maggie Muggins; she was the second of three girls to play the red-headed character, whose friends included Fitzgerald Fieldmouse and Grandmother Frog.
Before moving to Calgary in 1960, when Mr. Taylor was appointed principal of what would later become the University of Calgary, the Taylor family took a three-month tour of European universities that Burke recalls was a “profoundly eye-opening experience” for him and his sister: “It certainly opened up the idea of the whole world being accessible to us”
After high school, Ms. Taylor studied for a year at the University of British Columbia before returning to Europe on what she initially sold to her parents as a gap year – and what turned into a seven-year adventure living in Morocco, travelling to India in a VW van and, most of all, immersion in Swinging London.
In the countercultural scene surrounding Portobello Road in the late 1960s, Ms. Taylor attended music clubs and Caribbean carnivals, became a committed acid tripper and studied at the London School of Film Technique, which she’d later describe as “an eccentric operation … barely certified and rather a bargain.”
She began a relationship with Roger Cross, at one point “top floor manager” of the Playboy Club, and, along with a friend named John McWilliams, they founded the Electric Cinema at a run-down movie theatre – a late-night screening series that eventually evolved into an enduring repertory cinema.
Ms. Taylor hosted Jean-Luc Godard and screened his cut of One Plus One at the Electric Cinema – and later had a small part in Mr. Godard’s documentary about “the status of women in capitalist society” titled See You At Mao, walking up and down a staircase in the nude.
In an online memoir, Ms. Taylor described this period as not “all moonbeams and fairytales” – and wrote of being turned off by violence at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1968. “I cannot follow a political principle to the point where it’s more important than someone’s skull,” she wrote.
Writer Marni Jackson, who first met Ms. Taylor at a summer job at the Banff Centre and later visited her in London, recalled much of her friend’s politics and style were forged during this time.
“She was true to her aesthetic principles and she was loyal to her ideas,” Ms. Jackson said. “She didn’t just go with the trends. She’d rather read Montaigne than Germaine Greer.”
In 1971, Ms. Taylor returned to Canada and Toronto – where she joined Ms. Jackson and eight other women to form Women & Film, a group that held a women’s film festival in 1973 at the St. Lawrence Centre with free programming and child care. Thanks to a Local Initiatives Program grant, it toured across the country.
It was in the interdisciplinary arts world that set down roots on Queen Street West that Ms. Taylor would most make her mark, however, with two intertwined entities that she co-founded – the Hummer Sisters and VideoCabaret.
The former first came to life in a shared residence dubbed “Hummer House” where Ms. Taylor lived with video artist Marien Lewis and visual artist Bobbe Besold. The Hummer Sisters – a quartet completed by actor Janet Burke – gave their first political performance in 1974 after the city of Toronto demanded Ms. Besold remove a vegetable garden she had planted in the front yard.
The local six o’clock news was called and, when the cameras arrived, the quartet performed a satirical song about the situation – leading to the city backing down. Recalls Ms. Burke, “[Deanne] didn’t want to ever be on entertainment news, she wanted to be in the news news.”
Affiliated with VideoCabaret after it was founded in 1976, the Hummer Sisters developed a style that Ms. Jackson described in Maclean’s magazine as “a blitzkrieg mix of rock’n’roll, TV and theatre.” With subjects ripped from the headlines, shows such as The Patty Rehearst Show and The Bible as Told to Karen Ann Quinlan were performed in galleries and bars backed by live bands and walls or stacks of television monitors that designer Chris Clifford wired up to present a mix of live and recorded video.
Visiting New York in 1978, VideoCabaret presented The Patty Rehearst Story and Electric Eye by Mr. Hollingsworth at The Kitchen off-Broadway – and, while staying at the Chelsea Hotel, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Hollingsworth began a personal relationship that would last 42 years. “It’s been fireworks ever since,” says Mr. Hollingsworth, who married Ms. Taylor this July in their residence at the Cameron House.
Like many rock bands of the era, the Hummer Sisters broke up in dramatic fashion – in 1980, on a tour to England – and then reformed with a new lineup. It was Ms. Taylor, Ms. Burke and Jenny Dean who then ran in the 1982 campaign for Toronto mayor.
Alongside political cabaret work and her involvement with the Caribana parade, Ms. Taylor went on to co-create more traditional theatrical productions with VideoCabaret like Rigoletto, a 1989 rock adaptation of Verdi’s opera for which she and Mr. Hollingsworth won a Dora Mavor Moore Award, and her own hit musical odyssey 2nd Nature, which featured an all-female cast playing reproductive organs.
Leslie Lester, now a vice-president at the city agency TO Live, was stage manager on the latter – and recalls the rigour behind Ms. Taylor’s avant-garde work. “Every word, every note, the video images, choreography, costumes, lights – everything – was rehearsed and rerehearsed, produced to a level of perfection I had never seen,” says Ms. Lester, who went on to produce for VideoCabaret for a decade.
From the 1990s onward, Ms. Taylor threw her energy primarily into shaping and reshaping Mr. Hollingsworth’s epic play cycle The History of the Village of the Small Huts as writer, director and producer.
Its unique aesthetic involved precise, jump-cut movements of cartoonish characters inside a television-like frame.
Described as fiercely loyal by her friends, Ms. Taylor was supportive of many emerging performance and theatre artists to whom she became an “Art Mom.” Cliff Cardinal, now an associate artist at VideoCabaret, was one of the young artists Ms. Taylor took under her wing after he moved to Toronto as a teenager in 2000.
Mr. Cardinal is part of the most recent generation of Indigenous theatre artists – Graham Greene and Gary Farmer were part of the first – who found a collaborative artistic home and work in VideoCabaret’s history plays. “Michael and Deanne never talk about ‘look what we do for Indigenous people,’ but I can say I’m part of the Indigenous community and I have been nurtured here and I have been supported here,” he says.
Ms. Taylor was set to reboot The History of the Village of the Small Huts once more in VideoCabaret’s new home on Busy Street in Toronto’s east end in 2020 – but the pandemic intervened. Mr. Cardinal says the plans are now to inaugurate that new space in the fall as the Deanne Taylor Theatre.