A Brief History of the Banff Playwrights Lab

Photo of faculty and participants at 1984 Playwrights Colony

Banff Playwrights Colony in 1984: Standing (left to right) Peter Smith (actor), Robert Rooney (director), Scott Wan (director), Fern Downey (actor), Brent Carver (actor), Alan Williams (playwright), Per Brask (playwright). Seated (left to right) Beverly Peacock (co-ordinator), George Ross (manager), Lyle Victor Albert (playwright), Susan Wright (actor), Fran Gebhard (program head), Henry Beissel (playwright), Patrick Christopher (actor), Heather Gardner (admin. assistant), John Murrell (playwright), Paul Ledoux (playwright), Guy Bannerman (actor), Alf Silver (playwright). Photo: Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives.

Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has been training artists since 1933 in the Canadian Rockies and has offered drama and playwriting programs in some form since that first year.

The Banff Playwrights Lab, now marking its 50th edition, was created by playwrights Tom Hendry and George Ryga in 1974 to support the development of new plays in Canada. Since then, more than 800 plays have been written, created and workshopped at Banff Centre by leading playwrights from across the country and beyond. Its alumni include 500 playwrights plus dramaturgs, actors and directors, and it is one of the longest continuously operating writing programs at Banff Centre.

To explore the full list of playwrights that have participated in the Lab (formerly called The Banff Playwrights Colony) and the 800-plus plays that have been developed here, please visit Banff Centre Playwrights Lab Participants.

Over the past 50 years the Playwrights Lab has evolved under the direction of its program heads, including Sharon Pollock, Fran Gebhard, John Murrell, Kim McCaw, Bob White, Keith Turnbull, Linda Gaboriau, Maureen LaBonté and Vicki Stroich. We thank them and acknowledge their huge contributions to this program over so many decades.

In 2013, Artistic Director of Nightswimming and dramaturg/director, Brian Quirt, became Lab Director. In collaboration with current Lab Dramaturg, Jenna Rodgers, he has since made inclusion and equity central to Lab curation, programming, participants, and projects. Brian has also expanded the role of international guest artists, extended the range of collaborators available to support the Lab’s interdisciplinary activities, and added Banff Centre’s Margaret Greenham Theatre to the Lab’s facilities, enabling participants to use this 200-seat theatre for creation sessions and workshop readings.

The Playwrights Lab now supports up to 50 artists each year. Plays workshopped during the Lab are performed across Canada and around the globe. During the 2018/19 season, for example, the last full year prior to the pandemic, 37 plays developed at the Lab between 2013-2018 were on stage and on tour across Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the United States, England and Denmark, for a total of more than 50 runs. In 2022/23, more than 20 productions of Lab-developed plays have been on stage, including new works by Marie Beath Badian, Yolanda Bonnell, Marjorie Chan, Ins Choi, Kareem Fahmy, Hiro Kanagawa, Jani Lauzon, Mieko Ouchi, Christine Quintana, Makambe K. Simamba and touring projects created by Theatre Replacement and Boca del Lupo.

For current program information about the Banff Playwrights Lab, please visit our programs page.

For highlights of the Banff Playwrights Lab over its history, please scroll down.


1933: The University of Alberta’s Department of Extension established the Banff School of Drama, and nearly 200 students paid a dollar apiece to enroll in the two-week summer course. Two summers later, when additional courses were offered in painting, creative writing and playwriting, the Banff School of Fine Arts was born.

1933-1940: Two of western Canada’s most significant theatre pioneers had strong ties to this program: Elizabeth Sterling Haynes (of Edmonton’s Sterling Awards) and playwright Gwen Pharis Ringwood.


1970: A five-week course in playwriting is offered, taught by Sylvan Karchmer, a playwright and fiction writer from the University of Houston. This was “a practical Workshop course dealing with the composition of the one-act play for the stage and the half hour radio and television play.”

1973: Playwright George Ryga joins Karchmer that summer, and the course becomes “Advanced Playwriting.” With the cooperation of the school’s Drama Division, a performance element was added.

1974: Tom Hendry arrives and starts the Banff Playwrights Colony. During this inaugural edition, eight playwrights worked on 10 new plays. Hendry is one of this country’s most important figures in drama, having co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Toronto Free Theatre, and the Playwrights Co-op (now the Playwrights Guild of Canada).

1974-1976: Hendry was Playwright-in-Residence at Banff, and he established a model for all succeeding Playwright residencies by adding a company of actors to the program and by establishing a national mandate. Two years later, there was no longer an application process or a playwriting course — instead, the Colony invited playwrights to attend based on nominations from Canadian theatre professionals from across the country. The Colony quickly became a significant force in the development of text-based theatre and its success through the 1970s can be traced back to those initial years: the founders and first directors of the Colony were playwrights.

1977: Playwright Sharon Pollock takes over from Tom Hendry as director, and during her time the Playwright-in-Residence position was changed to Program Head. The 1977 Banff Centre brochure stated that the “Colony…fulfills a much-needed function by providing material resources and personnel for pre-rehearsal work on new material.”

1977-1982: Over Pollock’s seven years as director, a total of 57 playwrights participated in the Colony; each year also included three directors, a stage manager, a six member acting company, and one student writer. One of the first playwrights Pollock invited was John Murrell, in 1977, who would have a long and profound relationship with The Banff Centre, eventually becoming its Executive Artistic Director of Performing Arts. Other playwrights of note who made visits during Sharon’s tenure include Brad Fraser, Allan Stratton, Michael Cook, Margaret Hollingsworth, Ken Dyba, Sheldon Rosen and Paul Ledoux.


1983: Fran Gebhard becomes Program Head; her association with the Playwrights Lab had begun seven years earlier as a member of the acting company. Playwright participants during her three years included Carol Bolt, Sally Clark, Conni Massing, Joy Coghill, Frank Moher, Nicola Cavendish, Mary Vingoe and Don Hannah, with John Murrell as playwright in residence each year.

1987: John Murrell begins his first tenure as Program Head. It was during these years that the mandate moved away from the workshop and firmly into the development of new plays. At this time, the Lab changed its dates from summer to late spring. Playwrights included Joan MacLeod, Colleen Murphy, Michael Springate, Mary Walsh, Colleen Wagner, Marie Lynn Hammond, Charles Tidler, Clem Martini, Marie Laberge, Daniel MacIvor, Deanne Taylor, Sky Gilbert, John Krizanc, Ray Storey and Betty Jane Wylie.


1990: Kim McCaw, artistic director at Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, becomes Program Head. Under his directorship the translation of a play from French Canada became an annual component. Two of the translators that McCaw invited to the Colony — Maureen LaBonté and Linda Gaboriau — continued to have long association with Banff Centre: LaBonté, as Colony dramaturg and co-director, and Gaboriau, as Colony Associate Director and as co-founding program director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. During Kim’s tenure, writers making their first visits to the Colony include Peter Anderson, Daniel David Moses, Rick Shiomi, Carol Sinclair, Shirley Barrie, Norman Chaurette, Dennis Foon, Wendy Lill, Kelly Rebar, Jason Sherman, Drew Haden Taylor, Sean Dixon, Michael O’Brien, Morris Panych, Mansell Robinson, Arthur Milner, John Roby, Michael Miller, Michel-Marc Bouchard, Tomson Highway, Daniel Danis, Ian Ross, Catherine Banks, Jean Yoon, Anne Chislett, Ken Garnham, John Lazarus, and Michael MacLennan.

1997: Bob White and Keith Turnbull become Co-Program Heads. During the nineties, when operating grants were being cut to many of Alberta's public institutions, the very existence of the Colony was threatened, and a partnership was formed with Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) to jointly operate the Playwrights Colony.

1997-2007: Over this decade, the Banff/ATP partnership was reflected in a name change, the Banff playRites Colony, to align with ATP's playRites Festival where many Colony projects receive their premiere productions. First with Turnbull, and then with John Murrell, who returned to The Banff Centre in 1999 as head of Theatre Arts, Bob White helped to establish exciting new programs within the Colony.


2000-2006: In partnership with la Maison Antoine Vitez, the playRites Colony was host to playwrights from France; five of the resulting texts were published by the Banff Centre Press as "Voices from France." Another international partnership was formed with the Australian Council for the Arts, and from 1999 to 2005 Banff annually hosted a playwright and a dramaturg from Down Under. It also included two translation components: the international Translation Project, and the Quebec Translation Exchange, a partnership the Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD) in Montreal.

2007-2009: John Murrell retired from Theatre Arts to assume the newly created position of Emeritus Artist-in-Residence at the Banff Centre, while Maureen LaBonté and Bob White became co-directors of the Playwrights Colony. In 2008, celebrated Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor was named the first Colony Senior Playwright-in-Residence. He was followed in 2009 by award-winning BC playwright, Joan MacLeod.


2010-2012: Bob White stepped down as co-director at the end of the 2009 Colony and was succeeded by Vicki Stroich, then Artistic Associate at Alberta Theatre Projects. During Vicki Stroich's tenure with Maureen Labonté, internationally acclaimed Indigenous playwright Tomson Highway served as Senior Playwright in Residence in 2010, followed by Carole Fréchette (2011) and Vern Thiessen (2012).

2013: Brian Quirt becomes Director of the Playwrights Colony, working with Associate Dramaturg Leora Morris, and Senior Playwright in Residence Mieko Ouchi. The Lab initiates an annual focus area, which begins with plays engaging with outrage or outrageousness. Priorities for the Lab include women playwrights, artists of colour and Indigenous artists, interdisciplinary approaches to creating new work by including choreographers and musicians, consistent inclusion of international playwrights and guest artists, next generation artists (including a new partnership with the National Theatre School of Canada), theatre for young audiences, residencies for creation companies, and extensive partnerships with organizations across Canada and internationally to broaden the range of playwrights and artists participating in the Lab. The program also adds an annual retreat component in February offering two-week residencies to two playwrights.

2014: To celebrate the Lab’s 40th edition, a reading of Tom Hendry’s play, Fifteen Miles of Broken Glass, is recorded for the Banff Centre Archives, featuring the Lab’s acting company. The focus is political plays, and the Playwright in Residence is Marjorie Chan. Jenna Rodgers joins the leadership team as Associate Dramaturg. The Lab co-commissions Anita Majumdar’s The Fish Eyes Trilogy with Nightswimming, which goes on to tour to 10 cities across Canada.

2015: Playwright in Residence, Jani Lauzon, works with Brian and Jenna during a year of focus on interdisciplinary projects incorporating playwrights. The companies-in-residence are Signal Theatre, The Only Animal and Up in the Air Theatre. The Lab co-commissions Bryony Lavery’s Slime with Cape Farewell. It premieres in 2018 in co-production with The Only Animal.

2016: Marcus Youssef, Artistic Director of Neworld Theatre, serves as Senior Playwright in Residence. Neworld is the company in residence with King Arthur’s Night, which premieres in 2018 in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and tours to Hong Kong. The Lab focus area is theatrical form.

2017: The Banff Playwrights Lab unveiled its new name and retired the word ‘colony’ as part of Banff Centre’s commitment to truth and reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. The name change also more accurately conveys how the program has evolved over the past five years into a lab environment dedicated to exploring theatrical storytelling through interdisciplinary experiments in form and content. The Lab focuses on Theatre for Young Audiences and launches a partnership with Young People’s Theatre. Marcus returns as Playwright in Residence, and goes on to win the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre in 2017. The companies-in-residence are Kaha:wi Dance Theatre and Citadel Theatre.

2018: The Lab marks its 45th edition with a focus on how playwrights are incorporating audience members as participants. Djanet Sears is the Senior Playwright in Residence; Fevered Sleep from the United Kingdom, and Theatre Replacement and Youtheatre are companies-in-residence.

2019: The Lab focus this year was on large scale theatrical projects, with Bea Pizano as Senior Playwright in Residence. Jenna Rodgers becomes the Lab’s Dramaturg, and June Fukumura joined as Assistant Dramaturg. Partnerships with UK’s Bruntwood Prize/Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Australia’s Melbourne Theatre Company and the US’s National New Play Network continued to bring acclaimed international playwrights to the Lab.

Writers making their first visits to the Lab between 2013-2019 included Trey Anthony, Ins Choi, Jeff Ho, Anita Majumdar, Cliff Cardinal, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, Susanna Fournier, Pamela Sinha, Sherry Yoon, Falen Johnson, Niall McNeil, Kim Senklip Harvey, Christine Quintana, Makambe K. Simamba, Tara Beagan, Catherine Hernandez, Evan Placey, Yolanda Bonnell, Rhiannon Collett, Chloé Hung, Frances Koncan, Maiko Yamamoto, Tamyka Bullen, Anika and Britta Johnson.

During the 2018/19 season, 37 plays developed at the Lab during Director Brian Quirt’s tenure (2013-2019) are presented to audiences across Canada and in Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, United Kingdom and the United States. Eleven of those were on tour, for a total of 50 runs. The Lab prioritized challenging and changing the gender and cultural makeup of Canadian theatre. Twenty of those productions were plays created by women; 18 by artists of colour.


2020: The Playwrights Lab is cancelled as the global COVID-19 pandemic shuts down performing arts facilities and programs around the world. The focus for this Lab was to have been multi-lingual playwriting, exploring the growth across Canada of writers incorporating multiple languages into their work. Designed with Senior Playwright in Residence Jovanni Sy, the language-focused Lab would have included writers working in more than a dozen languages, including several Indigenous languages.

Although the Lab residency can’t take place, the Lab initiates a long term partnership with the Stratford Festival of Canada to co-commission three projects. Inspired by our investment in large scale plays and multilingual creation, three bold new works are commissioned and offered Banff residencies as they are developed by both companies: Leanna Brodie and Jovanni Sy’s Salesman in China; Hiro Kanagawa’s Urashima; Makambe K. Simamba’s Mwana MulenaThe Drum Major Instinct.

2021: In-person programs at the Banff Centre continue to be prohibited due to the pandemic, so the Playwrights Lab conducts an online edition and invites the playwrights whose 2021 residencies were cancelled, including Senior Playwright in Residence Jovanni Sy. The Zoom sessions include opportunities to write together – from a distance – and a series of online panel discussions and dramaturgical conversations that enabled the Lab and the writers to talk about their work across languages and share stories of working during lockdowns. A new faculty position – Indigenous Creator in Residence – is inaugurated by playwright Kenneth T. Williams to ensure that going forward the faculty’s dramaturgical team always includes an Indigenous artist.

2022: Residencies resume in early 2022 as the Banff Centre slowly reopens its campus. The April 2022 Playwrights Lab is one of the first to return, with a smaller cohort of playwrights than before the pandemic and due to financial constraints without an acting company for the first time in many decades. Given the rise of digital theatre making during the past two years of lockdowns, the Lab focus is on hybrid play creations that incorporate live and digital elements. Faculty include Senior Playwright in Residence Tara Beagan, Métis Creator in Residence Colin Wolf and Assistant Dramaturg Kodie Rollan. The Lab is leaner, but the joy in being together on campus generates a powerful and intimate residency experience.

2023: The Playwrights Lab marks its 50th edition with a focus on plays and stories engaging with the land / sky / water, exploring this through Indigenous lenses and issues such as climate, migration, ecology, borders, refugee crises, or environmental justice. Senior Playwright in Residence Carmen Aguirre and Indigenous Creator in Residence David Geary join the dramaturgical team as Brian and Jenna mark their 10th year of collaboration on the Lab. Eden Middleton joins the team in the new position of Apprentice Dramaturg. Co-development of the Banff Lab/Stratford Festival commissions continue with each playwright receiving a development residency at the Banff Centre, and partnerships with the National Theatre School, NNPN, Bruntwood Prize and other global organizations are revived, and international playwrights return: Roshelle Fong (Australia), Nathan Maynard (Tasmania), Silvia Peláez (Mexico) and Janice Poon (Hong Kong).

50th Anniversary Projects

As part of our anniversary year, the Lab initiated several significant projects to celebrate 50 years of supporting playwrights and the creation of new Canadian works.

  • We have updated the history of the Lab on the website which now includes a list of all 538 playwrights that have attended since 1974, with the titles of the 837 plays they worked on in Banff: Banff Centre Playwrights Lab Participants.
  •  We are requesting playwright participants to donate a copy of any published plays developed at the Lab to the Banff Centre Library – if your Lab project went on to be published, please contact the Library to share a copy!
  • We are developing several oral histories about the Lab.
  • We have published an anthology of short essays by Playwrights Lab participants between 2013-2023, with contributions from more than 35 playwrights, dramaturgs and choreographers from eight countries. 
  • And we are inviting playwrights and dramaturgs to Banff in June by hosting the 2023 International Dramaturgy Conference of the Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas.
Playwrights 2022

Banff Playwrights Lab in 2022: Standing (left to right, back row): Vickie Ramirez, Marlene Ginader, Marcus Youssef, Mary Vingo, Garry Williams, Devin Mackenzie, Hiro Kanagawa, Matt Miwa, Jonathan Mourant, Michael Caldwell, Nathan Medd (Managing Director, Performing Arts), and Colin Wolf (Métis Creator in Residence). Standing (second row from back): Eden Middleton, Anika Johnson, Jenna Rodgers (Lab dramaturg), and Marie Beath Badian. Sitting (second row from front): Davinder Malhi, Tom Hill, Adjani Poirier, Monice Peters, Cecil Castellucci, and Brian Quirt (Lab Director). Sitting (front row): Kodie Rollan (Lab Assistant Dramaturg), Tara Beagan (Senior Playwright in Residence), and Beth Kates. Photo by Jim Olver.

I first attended the Banff Playwrights Colony in 1976, when playwrights slept three to a room in Lloyd Hall, except for David Fennario, who lived in a tent in the Tunnel Mountain campground."

Frank Moher, 1976 (A Man in Wood)

“Being in the mountains, in the breathing trees and surrounded by like-minded artists from all walks of life and all over the world impacted not only me as an artist, but also as a being that is part of that nature. My work flourished being nurtured by the environment, but so did my heart, soul and mind. Miigwetch.”

Yolanda Bonnell, 2018 (White Girl in Moccasins)