Monday, 3 February 2014

Roar of the greasepaint part of Woodstock and Tillsonburg community theatre

[Photo: Norm Foster’s Jenny’s House of Joy features, from left, Rachel Gander, Jennea Smith and Debbie Prentice (Photo by Ted McLauchlin)]
By Geoff Dale
The two Oxford County communities may be nearly 40 kilometres apart but Woodstock and Tillsonburg share a common bond – the love of theatre.
In 2016 Theatre Woodstock celebrates 70 years of entertaining the region and beyond. The company has produced about 280 adult productions and since 1996, with the creation of its youth group CAST, many more involving young people.
“Thousands of people have learned lines, sewn costumes, hammered sets, hung lights, run sound, sold tickets, or swept floors  and thousands more have participated as members of the audience,” said artistic director Bonnie Hartley.
“Together we share the magic of creating live theatre, transforming that same stage into infinite somewhere elses while showcasing local talent. I am always thrilled to hear audience members say that ‘this was better than anything on TV’ because they feel more involved.”
Hartley said the company draws talent from a wide area with actors, directors and technicians willing to drive long distances through winter storms to work on a show in Woodstock.
“We have a solid reputation within the Western Ontario Drama League (WODL) and have hosted festivals that bring in performers from across the province,” she added. “As a teacher I always found that acting and role play are the best way to teach people empathy, and appreciation of others.
“I became involved with Woodstock Little Theatre back when I moved here in 1972 as a way of meeting people.  I had no theatre background but was soon ‘bitten by the bug’ as I started working backstage on shows, then acting and finally directing.
“There have been many changes over the years; but it is heartwarming to see that some of our original members now have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren sharing in the magic of theatre.  I’m thrilled to be part of that legacy.”
Woodstock’s theatrical legacy dates back to the 1800s when, in 1853, the town hall was built with a market at the bottom and a social stage above. Some interesting historic facts:
The Opera House was built in the 1890s with fly space, backstage, dressing rooms and balcony boxes. It was purchased in 1908 by the Griffin Amusement Company and renovated to a 1500 seat theatre with orchestra pit.
In 1893 the Griffin opened its door to local performers and by 1939 the Princess Theatre, Royal Theatre and the newly built Woodstock Collegiate Institute’s stage joined the list of venues offering concerts, minstrel shows and vaudeville performances.
In 1947 the new Woodstock Little Theatre (WLT) performed several one-act plays in the recreation hall of the former army training centre at the Woodstock Fairgrounds.”
“In the late 60’s and early 70’s there was no government money to support the arts,” said Hartley. “One year we received a subsidy for a professional artistic director who had received free training in England in return for sharing his skills with community theatre groups.
“John Palmer, as artist-in-residence, lived with various TW exec members over his term and took one play Tango all the way to the Dominion Drama Festival in Kelowna BC.”
By the early 80s the company had outgrown Hunter Street, so The Capitol, several churches, and The Perry Street Fire Hall were considered.  At one point the City tried to move the company to the new Community Complex but the group contributed $25 000 to a study that showed theatres function better in the downtown core where there are restaurants and other arts facilities.
In 1993 a proposal was submitted for the development of the Market Building where a 250 seat theatre would occupy the east end, and a restaurant would hold down the other. The Market Centre Theatre opened March 24, 1996 with the first production Anne of Green Gables. The newly named Theatre Woodstock was now the prime tenant.
In 1996 the new young company CAST was formed with Jennifer Paquette as the major force behind this project. It now produces five shows a year as well as running a summer camp.
The award-winning TW hosted the WODL Festival on March of 2009. There were 250 volunteer participants and more 1000 tickets were sold.
Long-time participant Don Hastie said the company has provided local merchants with thousands of dollars in sales and has also brought regional, provincial and national honours to the city, proving the group worthy of its "Award Winning Theatre" designation.
“We have been proud presenters of local historical plays that showcased famous or infamous stories of our heritage, like the very successful The Swamp Murders based on the Birchall murder trial, Sister Aimee, an account of the life of Aimee Semple McPherson and True Gold: The Joe Boyle Story. The last was put on in a huge tent.
“The theatre has provided me with countless hours of friendship with those who wander into see a show or participate. I've been around almost 45 years with my first show in 1970.”
Jennea Smith, a director, costumer and third generation member said, “Theatre Woodstock is my second family and home.  I have been around its productions most of my life and have learned so much from my time there.
“My grandmother started taking me to rehearsals and events and shows as a small child and I've had my hand in theatre in some way, no matter where I am. It's where I have fun, work hard and grow.  My biggest focus has been costumes.”
Theatre Woodstock’s current production is Norm Foster’s Jenny’s House of Joy, directed by Rob Coles and produced by Pat Bell. It is on from Feb. 7-15.
Theatre Tillsonburg

Down the road, one of Theatre Tillsonburg’s founding members Laurel B. Beechey said the wildly popular cultural creation exceeded any visions she had of its future when it was founded in 1981.
“We have a beautiful building, the Otter Valley Playhouse, which we purchased and renovated only nine years after the group was formed,” she explained. “Over the years we have had a few Trillium and municipal grants to help with renovations and the purchase of much-needed equipment.
“Over the years we’ve enjoyed wonderful local seasons. Show sponsors have been there to augment our ticket revenue and help both our building and productions on stage. That we have survived shows a marked change in Tillsonburg, from being a sports town in the past to a more balanced community that supports both sports and culture.
“Now those children and teens, even adults that might not fit into the sports mindset, have a place both to grow and shine.”
While there had been various groups performing amateur theatre in Tillsonburg over the years, Theatre Tillsonburg was not formally established until 1981. The first production, Come Blow Your Horn, was performed in the fall of that year. Since then, it has quickly grown around a solid core of individuals determined to make live theatre a strong force in Tillsonburg’s cultural life.
Theatre Tillsonburg’s stage was in the Community Centre’s Lions Auditorium, where performances were staged on a converted bingo/band stage. Members rehearsed, built and stored sets at the Till-Cable TV studios, moving everything four days prior to opening night.
“The auditorium had a slanted ceiling which played havoc with the acoustics; a flat floor that allowed only the first few rows to see the stage and no off stage wings or storage space,” Beechey recalled. But it was easier to rent than school gym stages.
“The group took a major step forward in organization and in permanency, when it was incorporated as a non-profit corporation on November 12, 1986. This was followed by the successful application for charitable tax status in 1987, enabling us to give tax deductible receipts for donations.
“Realizing audiences were dwindling because they were becoming less tolerant of the poor sight lines; we were determined to acquire a building of our own. This was a big project, not only to meet our needs but to convince a sports town that theatre was worth the investment.”
The company was fortunate because a building was available at reasonable price. The group, led by Tom Heeney and Denis Noonan, were working with the Rotary Club, doing large musicals at the time. They met with the Hungarian Association and in the process the old Hungarian Hall became the new home of Theatre Tillsonburg.
A name-the-building contest was staged for the public. The new home for the company became known as the Otter Valley Playhouse, on a picturesque country site on Potters Road. Money was raised through private and corporation donations, along with provincial grants. The building was substantially refurbished with volunteer labour, and officially opened in November 1990, with a lavish production of Man of La Mancha.
The playhouse showcases a large Green room that doubles as a rehearsal hall with dance mirrors, make-up tables, a costume area and a props room as well as storage lofts, sheds and kilns for all the company’s flats, risers, staircases and large props. The large property also allows for outdoor events and excellent parking.
“Over the past 25 years we have upgraded our technical departments, acquired a scrim, replaced our backdrops; made our patrons more comfortable, and refreshed the wear and tear on our building,” Beechey added.
“We have taken advantage of various Theatre Ontario, WODL and other workshops and seminars in most on and offstage departments. We’ve entered many WODL Festival competitions and hosted several Mini-Fests. We are now in our 32nd season and the spring of 2014 the company will present its 138th production.
“Theatre Tillsonburg produces a successful Theatre Summer Camp for children, training and readying them for our summer Teen Theatre. That’s where teens work, producing their own show in August. These experienced young people are welcomed to our regular season which consists of three shows in November, February and May.
The Otter Valley Playhouse is also rented in between shows to other performance groups.
“In the long term, Theatre Tillsonburg hopes to expand and improve the building and continue to contribute to the cultural life and enrichment of our community,” Beechey said.

Theatre Tillsonburg is presenting The Foursome from Feb. 6-9 and 13-16, produced by Don Fonk and directed by Melanie Watts.
This article originally appeared at The Beat Magazine.

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