Magnus Theatre is mourning the loss of its founder and first Artistic Director, Burton Lancaster. A Canadian theatre legend, Lancaster worked in professional theatre in both North America and Europe for over 50 years, mainly as Artistic Director, Producer, and Theatre Administrator. He founded six theatre companies during his career, the largest being Magnus Theatre. Lancaster passed away at the age of 83 after a battle with Alzheimer's.
Before coming to Thunder Bay, Lancaster was already an established director in Europe. He decided to start a theatre company in North America, where he had previously worked on a few shows. Having already worked with the who's who of the British stage of the time, he confidently looked to set up a new theatre in a place he had never been to, on a continent upon which he didn’t live. As the legend goes, he chose the location by closing his eyes and randomly placing his finger on a map of North America. Other stories say he threw darts at a map. Lancaster himself said that he knew the location needed to be a city of at least 100,000 people.
Regardless of how he decided, Burton Lancaster chose Thunder Bay as the home for his new theatre.
Once he arrived, plans for a theatre and the hunt for a venue began. Before finding a permanent home, performances were held at various venues around town, some of which were dilapidated and crumbling. One of these, called The Spike, was in the East End. After a performance, Lancaster was driving through the neighbourhood, and came across an old hall on the corner of McLaughlin and Connelly. It had a For Rent sign in the window. The old Slovak Hall in the East End soon became the small and charming home of our theatre company for many years. He initially called it Theatre Northwest, later changing the name to Magnus Theatre Northwest, the official name of Magnus Theatre today.
Lancaster served as the Artistic Director of Magnus Theatre until 1977. After leaving Magnus Theatre, he worked with a variety of theatres across Canada. In 1983-86, he founded the Lakeshore Summer Festival in Cobourg, Ontario. From 1998-2003, Lancaster worked at the Showboat Festival in the Round, in Port Colborne, Ontario. From 2005-2008, he was Artistic Director of Theatre One in Nanaimo, BC.
Thom Currie, Magnus Theatre’s current Artistic Director, shared his personal connection to Lancaster.
“I am very saddened at Burton’s passing. I had the privilege of following this great theatre artist twice in my career: Here at Magnus Theatre and at the Showboat Festival Theatre in the Round. Burton Lancaster was a true gentleman and a great theatre artist, whose impact and influence on Canadian Theatre will be felt for generations to come,” said Currie.
Magnus Theatre’s Board President, Katy Commisso, agrees. “Magnus Theatre owes its very existence to Burton Lancaster’s vision nearly 50 years ago. We are deeply saddened by his passing but we are honoured to continue building on his brilliant legacy.”
Magnus Theatre will dedicate the 2019-20 Mainstage Season to Burton Lancaster.