Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Why We Celebrate

By Brandon Moore, Communications Coordinator

There’s nothing like the first day of Theatre Ontario Festival.  There’s energy everywhere: at the hotel front desk as we’re checking in and spotting a friend we haven’t seen in a year, or in the hospitality suite as we pick up our workshop itinerary for the week, or in the auditorium as we settle into our seats.  There’s a feeling of promise that we’ll make that connection—a connection with someone who knows the solution to the problem challenging our theatre company, a connection with an idea at an adjudication that will make our own work richer, or a connection with a play that will change us forever.

It starts with the participating community theatre companies themselves.  There’s a common experience found in the stories that we share.

Our host, Domino Theatre is celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, their first full season in a new home which began its life as a hockey arena.  Sixty years ago, Domino’s first production—Jean Paul Sartre’s In Camera (best known as No Exit)—was performed at an Odeon movie theatre, running between films.  At the last moment, the movie was changed and the audience was a very different crowd than anticipated.  The actors were booed, items were thrown, and police were called in to quell a riot.

Playwright Judith Thompson received her theatre nurturing at Domino Theatre: her mother Mary volunteered on many shows, bringing Judith in a bassinet leaving her to sleep contentedly backstage.  Also among the Domino alumnae is Tim Chapman, Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Coordinator, who acted with the group when he lived in Kingston as a student at Queen’s University—appearing with Judith in a production of Dracula.

Theatre Night In Merrickville (TNIM) opens Festival on May 15 with David S. Craig’s Having Hope At Home.  Merrickville is an artist’s community of a thousand people about one hour from Ottawa, and is known as “the Jewel of the Rideau.”  TNIM rents the local community hall, moving into an empty black box on a Sunday with their equipment and their seating, and moving out a week later after the Sunday matinee.  Having Hope At Home was closing on the same day as the Eastern Ontario Drama League Festival Awards Brunch in Belleville.  Director Margaret Shearman had to call Merrickville from the awards venue with the message, “Don’t trash the set!”

TNIM have led a nomadic existence in recent years, as previous rehearsal spaces have been sold or re-purposed.  Having Hope At Home was rehearsed in a community centre in nearby Eastons Corners, and the set was built in an unused bay of a local volunteer fire department.

Theatre Ensemble (previously known as Theatre Intrigue Society) from Windsor performs Dennis Kelly’s Orphans on May 16.  As described by co-producer Theresa Ouellette-Klein, Theatre Ensemble has recently re-branded to better describe their focus as “an ensemble of cast and crew working together towards a common goal.”  Working on Orphans was one such collaboration.  When one actor had to drop out, the director stepped into the role, and the cast directed each other.  Crew were invited to all rehearsals, providing feedback to the actors as well.  It was rehearsed in church basements, and they rented the Capitol Theatre for their performances.

Theatre Ensemble’s focus is two-fold working with young people and developing original works.  In the summer, the youth wing will be presenting Shakespeare In The Park, and they have received a grant to perform an original War of 1812 musical at three re-enactments this summer.

Michele and Terry Browne in Markham
Little Theatre's Mending Fences
On May 17, Markham Little Theatre (MLT) presents Mending Fences, the first of two Norm Foster plays at Festival.  MLT rents the 530-seat Markham Theatre for a four-night run of their shows.  In the Spring of 2006, through the hard work of corporate fundraising and applying for municipal and provincial grants, they were able to purchase and renovate a building on the grounds of the Markham District Heritage Museum to create “Backstage”—a rehearsal hall, workshop, storage, and office space.

The cast of Mending Fences includes Terry and Michele Browne, husband and wife winners of the Best Actor and Best Actress Awards in the Comedy category at the 2012-2013 Association of Community Theatres—Central Ontario Festival.  Terry was also in the cast the last time MLT participated in Festival, travelling to North Bay in 2008 with Outlaw (also by Norm Foster, and like Mending Fences directed by Kathryn DeLory)—with a set designed by Michele.

The cast of Espanola Little
Theatre's Looking
Closing the Festival on May 18 is Espanola Little Theatre (ELT) presenting the week’s second play by Norm Foster, Looking.  ELT is renowned for its ability to create small effective sets, easily transportable in a van or small truck.  As Looking’s Producer Lisa Gamelin explained, that skill came in handy for this production.  It was first presented in partnership with the local Legion as dinner theatre.  When ELT’s planned QUONTA Festival production fell through, they decided to remount Looking, rehearsing in cast and crew members’ living rooms, and performing for two nights in a local high school before the remount in North Bay.  The stage in Kingston will be the fourth venue for this production.

Director Walter Maskel was an English and Drama teacher at the local high school—the production includes former students Richard Gamelin (in the cast) and Mike Boivin (sound).  Coincidentally, both Walter and TNIM’s director Margaret Shearman were honoured last year with Theatre Ontario’s Michael Spence Award, honouring outstanding contribution to community theatre in their respective regions.

Festival adjudicator John P. Kelly
The connections also take place at Festival’s numerous educational opportunities for enthusiastic community theatre practitioners.  Mornings feature the detailed adjudication of the previous night’s performance by our adjudicator, John P. Kelly.  All Festival attendees can listen to the detailed adjudications, and observe the adjudicator and companies discuss interpretations, strategies, and techniques, taking away a few insights for your own future productions.

On Wednesday afternoon, Liz Schell, Domino Theatre member and Portsmouth District Councillor, will lead a tour of the historic Portsmouth Village.  The Village is home of the oldest penitentiary in Canada and the Olympic Harbour that hosted the 1976 Olympic sailing competition.  You’ll also hear the story of The Convict Lover, based on the book by Merilyn Simonds, with the Festival theatre’s original incarnation featuring prominently.  As we talk about how theatres need to understand the distinction between “theatre in the community” and “theatre of the community,” it’s invaluable for community theatres to be able to understand and reflect on their own communities.

On Thursday afternoon, John P. Kelly will lead a “highly-illustrated” talk (all illustrations given by the audience) on the great art that has seduced him continuously for forty years.  Questions will be bandied about like “What is stage movement?” “Is theatre a visual art any more?” “Who is the boss in rehearsal?” “What does PACE mean on stage?”  “Does competition improve standards?”  Bring your questions.  Disagreement is expected.

Playwright-in-Person John Lazarus
Friday afternoon features our Playwright-in-Person John Lazarus, and will include a reading from his work-in-progress called Sex With Feminists, set in 1974 “when the so-called Sexual Revolution was overlapping with Second-Wave Feminism, and a lot of us were trying to have it both ways, with complicated results.”  He’ll also talk about the principles of playwriting and—if time permits—lead workshop games for constructing plots and creating dialogue.  Playwright-in-Person is made possible by a grant from the Playwrights Guild of Canada, funded by the Canada Council..

On Saturday afternoon, Theatre Ontario Executive Director Carol Beauchamp and Blyth Festival General Manager Deb Sholdice will lead our second Community Theatre Discussion Forum.  These conversations on community theatre are an opportunity to identify challenges we can collectively address to work towards a successful future.  Our first session in Aurora has already sparked some enthusiastic conversations and potential collaborations.

Every night closes with a celebration of community theatre at the Green Room parties.  These nights are opportunities to talk about the shows, catch up with old friends, and meet new ones.  We honour the evening’s performance and the spirit of imagination, collaboration, and determination seen on and off the stages of Ontario’s community theatres.  On the last day we celebrate with awards, recognizing excellence and setting off more passionate debates.  We say goodbye, grateful for the connections we’ve made and sustained, and looking forward to the next celebration.

For more information about Theatre Ontario Festival 2013, visit the Theatre Ontario website

Curious about last year’s adjudications and workshops? Catch up on Festival 2012 blog posts on our archives

Thanks to Anne Mooney, our Community Theatre Coordinator, for her research for this post.

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