Martha Mann has been an award-winning designer for theatre, film and television for over 50 years. Her first designs that were seen by an actual audience were for Hart House Theatre working for Robert Gill. She has designed both sets and costumes for theatres across Canada and in the United States. Highlights of a lengthy career include A Fitting Confusion, Macbeth and Julius Caesar for Stratford Festival; and Don Carlos, Romeo et Juliette and Aida for Boston Lyric Opera; Intermezzo for Glimmerglass Opera Theatre and New York City Opera. Film and television work includes Glory Enough for All—The Discover of Insulin, The Sound and the Silence and three of the Anne of Green Gables films. As head of design for the Drama Centre, she designed over 30 plays for Hart House Theatre during the Centre’s tenure.
Hart House 1958-59–1969
- Production design for George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island
- Production design for Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
- Won the design award at the Dominion Drama Festival
- Resident Designer and Head of Design
“Originally, women were not allowed in Hart House at all. By the time I was there, women were allowed in after 4 o’clock. In those days, it was very much frowned on to have your own tea kettle and make your own cup of coffee. So you had to go outside and hope that a male friend would come by, and if he didn’t, you would just approach some stranger and say, ‘Look, here’s—whatever coffee cost in those days, probably a quarter—get me a cup of coffee.’
“You literally couldn’t go get something to eat unless some man or student got it for you. You think about it now and it’s just insane.
“Strangely enough, theatre design in this country has always been a profession that women were part of. So there wasn’t a lot of the ‘what are you doing here?’ attitude. It taught me a great deal, but it was an enormous challenge. I was 19 or 20 years old when I was a student at the university. I was working with a professional carpenter who had been doing this for twenty years and a professional electrician, and it was, very intimidating. But, on the other hand, I probably learned more about theatre practice in those years from those two men than I have learned from anybody since. So that was the good side of it, but certainly it was a challenge.
“And the other challenge was that theatre design was in its infancy in this country, and it was kind of an out-in-left-field interest. You’d tell people what you were doing, and they’d kind of look at you like you didn’t know what you were talking about. Like you must be visiting us from the moon or something. So that was always a challenge.
“In those days, the Hart House Theatre workshop was in the basement of University College and there was no washroom. So in the dead of winter, we were carrying buckets from Hart House through the back entrance behind Soldiers’ Tower, and carrying scenery or paint in the dead of winter was always a great challenge.
“I was able to create a costume shop that was really good. People who have gone on to do some really important work in the Canadian theatre worked for us from time to time. Although the Drama Centre has long since left Hart House, I think the work that I set up while we were housed at Hart House has really continued.
“There’s a Hart House connection to one of my more recent projects that was very exciting. As you probably know, I did the costumes for the Anne of Green Gables movie. But the connection there for me was that Kevin Sullivan (Anne of Green Gables’ producer), who has gone on to be an incredibly successful Canadian film producer, was a student at Hart House when I was at the Drama Center. And, he acted and he was terribly good-looking, so he got cast as every romantic lead in practically everything he did. He built scenery and he did props. And that was my initial connection with him.
“In my career, one thing that was the most exciting for me as a designer was the work that I did at the New York City Opera, and also at the Washington Opera. The Washington Opera because I was doing a world premiere, and the New York City Opera because it was a production that had not been performed in the United States in over 50 years. I was working at one of the most important Opera companies in the United States and you can’t help but think that’s pretty exciting.”
On Frederick Mann
“My father, Fred Mann had aspirations as a young man to be an actor. He came to a fork in the road when he was offered an interesting professional opportunity that was out of the country. He eventually he turned it down. He had quite considerable success as an actor. I look at the reviews that he got and I gather he was very good. They seemed to much admire what he did. He was not a student at the University of Toronto, so he never acted in official Hart House productions. But, he probably acted way more at Hart House than most people did because in those days because Hart House was used almost constantly as a rental space for various organizations.
“He appeared with people like The Shakespeare Society’s Brown Lockard who was the producer-director. He did a couple of productions with Professor G. Wilson Knight, who was an eminent Shakespearian scholar and who was for a brief time a professor at Trinity.
“In the lobby of Hart House Theatre, at the end wall, there is a huge vinyl-cut mural. It was a production of the Tempest by Wilson Knight in the 1930s, and in the bottom right-hand corner are two little people who are basically the comic characters. One of them is my father.”