Thursday, 30 October 2014

Building Connections at Ontario Summer Theatre

By Erin Keating, Program Coordinator

On a crisp fall day in early October, just when the changing of the leaves was at its most vibrant, I left downtown Toronto with our E.D. Bruce Pitkin, and drove up north to the picturesque Muskoka region, where at a rustic inn on the shore of Lake Joseph, Artistic Directors and General Managers from theatre companies across the province were converging to share ideas, resources, and experiences at the Annual General Meeting of Ontario Summer Theatre.

Formerly known as ASTRO (Association of Summer Theatres ‘Round Ontario) since its inception nearly twenty years ago, this past year marked a major overhaul for the organization—bringing in a new name, new brand, new logo, new website, and new resolve. Under the hands-on leadership of the Ontario Summer Theatre (OST) executive committee—with Port Dover’s Lighthouse Theatre Festival’s A.D. Derek Ritschel at the helm—OST has become the strongest it’s been in many years over the past twelve months, with no signs of slowing down the new initiatives any time soon.

The mandate of Ontario Summer Theatre (OST) is to bring together summer theatre companies of all shapes, sizes and ideologies—from one-person run theatre companies like the Actors’ Colony Theatre in Bala (who served as AGM host) to heavy hitters like the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake—to foster partnerships and creative opportunities, collaborate on marketing strategies, and keep connections alive, well, and informed, among Ontario’s summer theatre companies.

The strength of the organization is two-fold. As an entire unit—with its span from the north-east corner of Morrisburg (Upper Canada Playhouse) to south-west side of Petrolia (Victoria Playhouse) and 19 other theatres in between—there is great weight and influence to the organization as a united front. While also, there is lots of room for opportunities among regional allies—an advantage that was realized and developed at this year’s AGM with the appointment of positions tongue-in-cheekily titled “whips” for each region—named because their role is to whip their region’s theatres into united action.

Other valuable steps forward that were covered in the annual wrap-up included the new streamlined website that was launched earlier this spring and populated over the summer with delightful travel stories of blogger Anne Heathcote as she traveled to many of the OST member theatres (have a read of some of her adventures at

The new and much-anticipated OST postcards were unveiled as well, to be distributed by all the companies once next summer’s season starts. These practical pieces of shared marketing material are meant to be used as actual postcards, to be mailed by patrons to friends if they see a show they like—a fun way to send recommendations and encourage word-of-mouth. And with the line “You won’t believe what’s playing in our backyard!” across the front of the postcard, it’s an evident recognition and celebration of the talent and amazing productions that can be found all around the province, whether in a barn (like Globus Theatre in Bobcaygeon and Westben Arts Festival in Campbellford), on the waterfront (like St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott and 1000 Islands Playhouse in Ganananoque) or passing through town in a travelling caravan (like Driftwood Theatre).

Perhaps the most valuable part of this two-day AGM in the heart of cottage country was not the official meetings themselves, but after the meetings wrapped for the day, when everyone was able to let our hair down, have dinner and drinks, talk projects, talk experiences, have the opportunity to get to know each other face-to-face when these opportunities don’t present themselves very often. This is so important not only because exchange of ideas—especially in a room full of exceedingly creative minds—can provide inspiration, improvement, and opportunities for collaboration, but also because making new connections and reinforcing existing connections will only strengthen the unit, thereby strengthening each individual in turn. And that, to me, is what Ontario Summer Theatre is all about.

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