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Profiles of Alberta Women

Elsie Park Gowan

Personal life

Elsie Park Gowan (nèe Young) was born in Helensburgh, Scotland on September 9, 1905. In 1912 her family immigrated to Canada, making their new home in Edmonton. As a young woman Elsie earned a teaching certificate from Camrose Normal School in 1922 and worked as a rural teacher from 1922 to 1926. In 1926 she left teaching to pursue higher education at the University of Alberta. She spent five years at the University of Alberta, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History, and graduated in 1930 with first class honours.

It was during her time at university that Elsie was first seriously involved with the world of theater, an involvement that would flourish into a decades-long career as an important playwright in the story of Albertan and Canadian theatre. She also met Dr. Edward Hunter Gowan, a member of the University of Alberta Physics Department and an important support for her throughout her career. The couple married in 1933, and went on to adopt a son, Gary. Of Edward, Elsie said that he was “the only man I had ever met who was willing to let me go as far as I could.”1

While at the University of Alberta, Elsie joined both the University Dramatic Society and the Literary Society. Her involvement with both organizations offered her outlets to explore ideas about historical economic and social issues through both performance and writing. An important influence on her was Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, then director of the Dramatic Society and instructor in theatre, who was a vocal activist for theatre and for whom Elsie performed in numerous plays while at school. During her time as a student, Elsie served as president of both the Dramatic Society and the Literary Society, and worked as the women’s editor for The Gateway, the University of Alberta’s student paper.

Playwright career

After finishing university, Elsie embarked on what would become a twenty-year career in theatre in Alberta and Canada. Between 1930 and 1958 she wrote over two hundred scripts for radio and the stage, and helped to establish a voice for play-writing in a western Canadian context that was distinct from both traditional subjects and structures of imperial Britain, and the theatre traditions of central and eastern Canada.2

Her first play, Homestead, written in 1931 after a summer spent in Rocky Mountain House, marked her as a pioneer in the genre of the folk play in the context of Alberta. The genre’s focus on legends, customs, vernacular, and experiences of the common people came through in her narrative, which centered around Freda, a rural woman who struggles with the isolation of homesteading, the restrictions of her marriage, and a marital affair with a bachelor neighbour. The play was first performed under the title The Man Who Wouldn’t Fight Back, staged by the Edmonton Little Theatre in 1933. In 1935 it was entered into the Alberta Regional Dominion Drama Festival by the University of Alberta Dramatic Club under the title of God Made the Country.

When reviewing the play, Malcom Morley, one of the regional adjudicators for the festival, accused the play of being too domestic, suggesting that Canadian plays like Gowan’s paint a picture of Canada as a ‘land of stoves,’ and are not representative of Canadian life. In response, Elsie wrote:

It’s just Mr. Morley’s bad luck that we misguided playwrights have tried to create drama distinctively Canadian. We believed that the quality of our lonely land might be found in its far places … that its reality might be best known by those who live close to its prairies and forests and mountains. We imagined a dramatic theme in the impact of these tremendous forces on the spirit of man.3

Defending Canadian theatre and promoting it as a unique and legitimate form would be a theme throughout Elsie’s career. In 1940 she responded to English actor and manager Maurice Colbourne, who criticized Canadian theatre as moribund and lacking the will to live. Elsie again put pen to paper, writing in the Edmonton Journal:

I had a few words with Mr. Colbourne when he was here. When it was mentioned that I wrote plays, he remarked that he would like to see them on the London stage, for if they remained in Canada they would be performed only by amateurs. I told him that I was not concerned whether they appeared in London or not, for inexperienced amateurs sometimes were able to express more real emotion on the stage than the professional.4

Despite skepticism and criticisms, both Elsie and western Canadian theatre flourished and grew throughout the 1930s. Her scripts won the Carnegie Trust Competition for playwriting, first in 1934 with The Giant Killer, an anti-war drama, and then in 1935 with The Royal Touch, a play that looked at the role of the monarchy in modern society. In both cases, the plays were put into production soon after winning the competition.

In 1936 Elsie engaged in collaborations with fellow writers William Irvine and Gwen Pharis Ringwood, a friend and fellow female playwright in the Canadian scene. With Irvine, Elsie collaborated on the farcical political play You Can’t Do That. Though the original plot and script were Irvine’s, Elsie rewrote the entirety of the script, injecting her witty and humorous approach to dialogue. However, when the play was published, only Irvine’s name appeared on the list of authors, an oversight caused by Irvine not informing his publisher of the collaboration.5

Elsie’s collaboration with Ringwood would prove to be more fruitful to her career. In 1936 CKUA, the University of Alberta’s radio station, commissioned them to write a series of historic radio plays for production by the CKUA Players. For CKUA, Elsie and Ringwood wrote New Lamps for Old (1936-1937), a ten-play series, and The Building of Canada (1937-1938), a sweeping series of twenty one-act plays set over three hundred years of Canadian history. Both series, first performed by CKUA, were subsequently picked up by the CBC and broadcast over their network.

With New Lamps for Old and The Building of Canada Elsie established herself as a playwright for the radio. The format also held a strong appeal for her, as it allowed for experimentation that was not always possible given the technical limitations of theatre. Additionally, she found the one-act structure to be conducive to the production of tight, concise script-writing, wrapped in the larger structure of a play series over which she could explore a variety of interlinked subjects.6 After embracing radio as her outlet, Elsie would go on to write over two hundred scripts for the radio, and saw her works broadcast all over the world, including in America, Britain, Australia, the Caribbean, and South America.7

Later in her career, Elsie focused her talents on the production of multiple, large-scale pageants celebrating the history of Alberta. In 1954 she wrote Who Builds a City, a pageant for Edmonton’s golden jubilee that followed the growth of the city from 1904 to 1954 from the perspective of one family. The pageant, which was staged at the Edmonton Gardens arena, featured a local cast of three hundred actors, dancers, singers, and musicians, and was performed to a crowd of six thousand.8 Of similar scope was her next pageant, The Jasper Story (1956-1960), which celebrated the history of Jasper in three acts: Fur, Gold, and Steel. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, The Jasper Story incorporated carts, horses, a huge case of dancers, singers, and musicians, and even the nearby railway and trains! As with Who Builds a City, the narrative of The Jasper Story followed a single family over generations.

In all of her historical scripts, Elsie put her history background to use, working to ensure historical accuracy while focusing on the lives and experiences of the common peoples who lived in the periods depicted. In 1977 she was offered another opportunity to engage with Canada’s peoples and their histories with A Treaty for the Plains, a commission to write a re-enactment of the signing of Treaty 6 in Alberta on its one hundredth anniversary. Elsie spent weeks conducting historical research and interviewing seniors in the area to produce her script. The pageant was performed outdoors to a crowd of more than four thousand, and included local indigenous community members in traditional dress, a program of traditional dances, and a “complete Indian village” erected by the local bands.9

Throughout her career she was involved in a variety of theatre organizations, contributing to educational efforts as well as community theatre groups. She was a core member of the Edmonton Little Theatre, an amateur group whose first director was Elsie’s former mentor, Elizabeth Sterling Haynes. After joining, Elsie contributed to the group by writing, acting, and directing, and by serving on the executive from 1933 to 1948.10 In 1933 the Extension Department of the University of Alberta founded the Banff Theatre School, now known as the Banff School of Fine Arts. Along with Haynes, Elsie served as one of the new school’s first faculty, working there as an instructor and adjudicator. She was also involved with Studio Theatre, the University of Alberta Drama Department’s theatre company. Elsie performed with the group in various productions, and saw the company perform some of her pieces, including a staged version of her radio play Breeches from Bond Street.

Elsie’s career as a playwright came to a close in 1958 with the death of her husband, after which she turned from writing to teaching. In 1959 she took a position as a high school teacher, teaching creative writing and matriculation English at Ross Sheppard Composite High School until 1969. During her time at the Ross Sheppard, the school put on a production of Elsie’s The Last Caveman in 1967. After a decade of teaching at Ross Sheppard, Elsie left to serve as a writing instructor working with senior citizens. However, by her late eighties she was forced to retire due to health concerns, including Parkinson’s disease. Elsie died in Edmonton on February 2, 1999 at the age of ninety-three.

Though born in Scotland, Elsie Park Gowan’s career as playwright shows her to have been a true woman of the Canadian prairies. Her prolific work in the field of theatre let her influence be felt across the stage and radio, and marked her as a voice for both western Canada and Canadian women in a country seeking to distinguish itself from its imperial British roots. Her distinct voice, as well as her organizational and educational efforts, helped to shape the face of theatre in her adopted home.

Read more about Elsie Park Gowan


1 Anton Wagner, “Elsie Park Gowan: Distinctively Canadian,” Theatre Research in Canada/ Recherches théâtrales au Canada 8, no. 1 (1987): 68-82.

2 Moira Day, “Gwen Pharis Ringwood and Elsie Park Gowan: Writing the Land, 1933-1979,” in Writing Alberta: Building on a Literary Identity, eds. George Melnyk and Donna Coates (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017) 175-199.

3 Wagner, “Elsie Park Gowan," 68-82.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Moira Day, “Elsie Park Gowan’s (re)-Building of Canada, 1937-1938: Revisioning the Historical Radio Series Through Feminist Eyes,” Theatre Research in Canada/ Recherches théâtrales au Canada 14, no. 1 (1993): 3-19.

7 Moira Day, “Elsie Park Gowan,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, December 14, 2013,

8 Day, “Gwen Pharis Ringwood and Elsie Park Gowan: Writing the Land, 1933-1979,” 182.

9 Ibid., 192.

10 Wagner, “Elsie Park Gowan,” 68-82.

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