The artistic director of the Classic Theatre Festival

May 11th, 2018 | By | Category: Connecting With, Featured

Why has a small town in Eastern Ontario become the Mecca for theatre productions bringing both amateur and professional performers to the stages of not one, but at least three venues?

It has a lot to do with unleashing hidden talent already in the community, but also by bringing in performers well known to theatre, offering programming seldom available or seen in a small town. It also has a lot to do with someone taking hold of an idea and running with it. Laurel Smith is the person who took on the challenge of bringing classics from the golden age of Broadway and the London stage to Perth eight years ago, and who has never looked back.

Mary Cook talked to Smith about the main thrust of professional theatre in Perth, and how it all began.

Y@H: What gave you the idea to bring professional theatre to Perth?

LS: We’ve always been fond of the summer theatre experience, so after 20 years in the Toronto theatre world, we decided to start our own in an under-served part of the province. We looked throughout Ontario for opportunities, and Perth fit the bill as a beautiful location, with great restaurants and overnight accommodations to welcome theatre tourists.

I developed the mandate for our new project while working at the Shaw Festival as an Assistant Director. I love plays from Shaw’s lifetime, and so we decided to focus on that golden age of Broadway and the London stage from the early 1900s to the late 1970s. There’s something incredibly universal and accessible in so many of those plays that we all still relate to.

Y@H: How did you get started?

LS: We started the Festival in the summer of 2010 as a project of our parent company, Burning Passions Theatre. We were able to secure several start-up grants, and had a very successful first season with lots of tourists from Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal. The audience reaction was really moving, from a group of war brides who remembered seeing one of our shows when it was first produced in 1943 in New York City, to a cancer survivor who said the Noel Coward comedy we produced made him feel revived and hopeful. It’s those kinds of personal connections, touching hearts, helping people laugh through hard times, that make doing this such a rewarding vocation.

Y@H: How does the theatre you produce differ from the others in Perth?

LS: We are the Ottawa Valley’s only professional theatre company, so we hire some of the top theatre artists from throughout Canada who have devoted their careers to the pursuit of theatre. Audiences will probably recognize familiar faces from other Canadian stages, as well as from frequent appearances on TV and in film. We also draw a largely tourist audience with a focus on the fully-rounded theatre experience, which includes theatre history lobby displays, pre-show talks at the half hour on the history and context of the play, and a Save-a-Seat program that has opened up over 2,000 free seats to low-income and socially marginalized
community members. Amateur theatre can be a great starting ground, and while many of our performers recall first appearing in a school play or community production, they went on to receive intensive professional training that they continually upgrade throughout their careers.

Y@H: Once you got the idea, how did you entice professional performers to the Perth stage?

LS: We had great relationships with professional theatre artists from our time producing theatre in Toronto. We were fortunate that many of these artists were willing to come to work with us in Perth. Many of them have returned again and again and become great friends with the families they billet with in Perth. One actor, Scott Clarkson, returns for his 8th consecutive season this summer. At the same time, in order to explore new members for our artistic team, we hold auditions and interviews each year so that we can keep up-to-date on the talent that’s out there.

Y@H: What is your role as artistic producer?

LS: I’m responsible for the overall success of the organization, in terms of operations, finances and programming. This includes developing short- and long-term business plans, as well as hiring and supervision of the all human resources, developing artistic programming, overseeing fundraising and marketing strategies, and financial management. I also direct all the mainstage plays and the dinner theatre, and I write the scripts for both historic walking plays.

Y@H: Who picks the plays?

LS: I choose the plays, in consultation with Associate Producer Matthew Behrens, who implements community outreach, fundraising, marketing and theatre facilities management. We look for great stories that are accessible, universal, and have something to say about the mysteries of the human experience.

Y@H: We know your performers are professionals, is there a role for local non-professionals as well?

LS: We have a youth training program that hires local youth to perform in our very popular historic walking plays, Perth through the Ages and the Lonely Ghosts Walk, as well as our new Classic Dinner Theatre, which we’re doing in partnership with Michael’s Table.

Y@H: Tell us about that very first performance in Perth. Did the town respond positively?

LS: We were very pleased with the results of our very first performance in Perth, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. There were a lot of people, believe it or not, who had never attended a live theatre show before, and have become long-standing attendees ever since! The town immediately saw the benefit of professional theatre with that first season because lots of dollars were spent by audiences locally in shops, restaurants, and staying at bed and breakfasts. Last year the festival pumped over $1.5 million into the local economy, a major boost for a town of 6,000.

Y@H: I’m sure you are not in this alone. What about costuming, and props, and all the essentials that are part of the staging … how does that all come together?

LS: I am very fortunate to have an amazing team that I work with. In addition to Matthew, the design team consists of Ottawa’s Roger Schultz (he won the Capital Critics Circle Award last year for Best Set Design on our annual mystery play), Renate Seiler (from Carleton Place) for costume design and Wesley McKenzie (originally from Cobden, now from Toronto) for lighting design and production management.

Y@H: Tell  us about the Classic Theatre Festival.

LS: The Classic Theatre Festival is a very busy operation with 16 shows a week this summer. On the mainstage we present three professional productions of classic plays from Broadway and the London stage at St. James Anglican church at 54 Beckwith Street East in Perth, which we transform into a professional theatre venue. It’s a magical space where the first focus is on making visitors feel at home: they learn about the story, the playwright, and the context of the shows in pre-show talks, they can browse our massive loonie/toonie book sale, and they can learn about Canadian theatre history with our lobby displays.

We also produce Perth through the Ages and the Lonely Ghosts Walk, both historic walking plays that bring to life the rich characters and stories from the town, performed on the beautiful heritage streets of Perth, starting at the Perth Museum on Gore Street East.

New for 2018 is the Classic Dinner Theatre, at Michael’s Restaurant in Perth, which is already proving very popular.

Y@H: How responsive is the community to classic theatre?

LS: Our audiences respond very positively to this era of theatre, as it provides them with an opportunity to often relive their growing up years, as well as experience some of the most beloved plays in the theatre repertoire. People of all ages relate to the feeling of the plays from this era, and so we see a broad range of visitors from pre-teens to people in their 90s.

Matthew is at every show, and he always comes home with stories about the enthusiastic feedback he receives as people leave the theatre. Many of them wait at the stage door to meet the actors, who are always happy to chat about the show and what’s going on in their careers. It’s very much a feel-good experience for everyone involved on both sides of the footlights.

 Y@H: Where does the money come from to finance your productions?

LS: About one-third of our revenue comes from box office. The remaining revenue comes from grants, sponsorships and donations.

 Y@H: Share with us the names of some of the professional performers you have been able to bring to Perth.

LS: This season we look forward to welcoming the following actors to our Festival: Scott Clarkson, Victoria Houser, Catherine Bruce and Fraser Elsdon in There’s Always Juliet; Catherine McNally, Anna Burkholder, Douglas Hughes, Nicholas Rice, Colin Legge and Kyle Orzech in Mrs. Warren’s Profession; and Jeffrey Aarles, Jessica Sherman, Lauren Horejda, Darla Biccum and Sheldon Davis in Angel Street.

 Y@H: How long does it take to pull a production together? When do you start preparing?

LS: It takes a year to prepare for the summer season, so during this summer I will be choosing the plays for our 2019 season. Then the design team starts to meet and prepare ideas during the fall; we begin our production meetings in the late winter, and continue our planning right up until we move into the theatre venue. At the same time, we audition during the fall and contract our artists during this time. We then hire our local summer staff (our youth actors, front of house, and assistant stage managers) in the spring. It takes us two weeks to prepare the theatre venue, rigging our rented lighting system, setting up the stage and audience risers, and building our sets. We begin rehearsals for the first play at the same time, and open after two-and-a-half weeks of full-time rehearsal. We then run the show for three-and-a-half weeks, and begin rehearsals for the next play while the first play is running. We then do a rapid changeover – in a day-and-a-half –  to change the set from one play to the next. We then repeat this for the final show, and then strike the venue within a week after the last show has closed.

 Y@H: What can we look for this season?

LS: There’s Always Juliet is a re-discovered comic gem about whether love at first sight truly exists, by John van Druten and plays June 22 to July 15.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, is the ultimate family mystery show, a very witty mother-daughter conflict about the source of the family’s wealth. It plays July 20 to Aug. 12.

Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton is also known as Gaslight, and it’s a gripping cat-and-mouse thriller about an unsolved murder that was one of the longest running shows in Broadway during the 1940s. It plays Aug. 17 to Sept. 9.

For more information visit classictheatre.ca or call 1-877-283-1283.

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