It’s a sign that summer is coming when the season begins for regional theatre companies. Theatre-goers can look with anticipation to Stratford, Blyth, Grand Bend, Port Stanley and Petrolia for a change of dramatic scenery.
The grand dame of Ontario theatre is coming off a successful season, both financially and artistically. Stratford experienced a very strong 2016 season with posted revenues of more than $62 million (providing a surplus of nearly $700,000) and attendance of more than half a million people. Of note was a 25% increase in attendance for Shakespeare productions, led by Macbeth, directed by Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director of the Festival. As well, there was an increase in people under 18 attending shows. Possibly these statistics went hand in hand with the fact that more school groups attended Shakespearean productions tied to curriculum. Still, it bodes well for Stratford that it is building a future audience. And what’s good for the Festival is good for the municipality. There is now a twice-daily bus service from Toronto to Stratford, which generated almost $14 million in spin-off economic benefits for the region.
Stratford Festival also sees benefits in adding food to the program. This year there will be Treasure Hunt Lunches. Families can pick up a bagged lunch and go on a scavenger-style search of downtown Stratford before seeing Treasure Island. In July, a series called Table Talk, with buffets and lectures, will be offered before certain performances.
In 2017, to mark Canada’s 150th, the Festival is centered on exploring questions of identity. “In this sesquicentennial year, it is important that we not only celebrate but also reflect on what it means to be Canadian, says Cimolino. “I think the 14 beautiful and powerful plays of the 2017 season will help us to re-examine our identity as a nation, and us as individuals. We will look at how we prepare our face to the world, deal with our hidden desires, or balance our self-interests with the environment around us — ideas that we will delve further into through the events of the Forum. We have also commissioned The Breathing Hole, by Colleen Murphy — an epic allegory that is one of the most ambitious and unique pieces of writing I have seen in years. Each of the three acts breathtakingly captures a snapshot of this country’s development, from the moment of First Contact, through a startling encounter with the Franklin Expedition, to a profoundly moving conclusion in a future ravaged by climate change.”
Previews for the 65th season are underway at Stratford.
Heading up towards Lake Huron, about an hour and half north of London, is the uber-Canadian theatre company —Blyth Festival. Situated in the recently renovated former town hall, Blyth prides itself on superior Canadian productions. So it is natural to expect something special from Blyth for the 150th. Those who remember the Stork Club of Port Stanley, or watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve to the twang of Auld Lang Syne, are in for a treat. Blyth opens its season with previews on June 28 and 29 and officially opens on June 30 with the world premiere of Mr. New Year’s Eve; A Night with Guy Lombardo by David Scott, directed by Gil Garratt, Artistic Director. Garratt says they don’t have to do something special for the 150th because Canada has been celebrated with every show for 43 seasons.
“With more than 130 world premieres to date, The Blyth Festival has been the foundation many of the country’s hottest playwrights have built their careers on. The Blyth Festival is the place to see the country’s finest new works, all written by Canadians, directed by Canadians, and performed by Canadians, for the most adventurous audience in the land,” says Garratt.
Huron Country Playhouse
Drayton Entertainment operates theatres across Southern Ontario including the Huron Country Playhouse and Playhouse II, a few kilometers into the farmland from the lakeside village of Grand Bend on Lake Huron. Hugely popular with school and bus groups, tourists and day trippers, Huron Country Playhouses provide a lot of toe-tapping entertainment for cross-generation summertime fun. Almost 60,000 people attended shows at Huron Country last summer.
“There’s a lot of variety on stage this season in Grand Bend,” says Alex Mustakas, Artistic Director of Drayton Entertainment. “There are grand scale musicals with familiar stories loved by everyone, rare gems with incredible music and fun characters that make audiences laugh and sing, larger-than-life comedies with outrageous plots and even more outrageous characters and so much more. I know audiences are in for a real treat this season.”
The season begins on June 3 with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, followed by an Elvis tribute musical All Shook Up. A new comedy by Ontario playwright Norm Foster opens on June 28 in Playhouse II. Jonas & Barry in the Home is about two seniors looking for love in a nursing home. As with all Foster plays there is certain to be light-hearted relationship and sexual humour.
Port Stanley Festival Theatre
On the shores of Lake Erie is the recently renovated Port Stanley Festival Theatre. PSFT opens on May 23 with the very patriotic Oh Canada, We Sing for Thee! starring Leisa Way and the Wayward Wind Band. This production, along with a gallery style showcase of Canadian musicians, has been sponsored by Celebrate Ontario under the Ontario 150 Community Capital Program Grant.
Port Stanley Festival Theatre produces a number of Norm Foster plays, and 2017 is no exception. On June 7 the PSFT presents Foster’s production of On a First Name Basis which will be performed by two of the theatre’s favourite actors, Susan Johnston-Collins and Terry Barna. This production will run until Canada Day.
Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia
You can’t get anything much more stereotypical Canadian than a show called Fiddler on the Moose! This “musical ride across Canada” runs May 2-19 at the Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia, deep in Southwestern Ontario. Promising cover versions of songs from The Tragically Hip, Stompin’ Tom Connors, The Guess Who, Bareknaked Ladies and more, this will be a fun ride for devotees of Canadian content.
Canadian playwright Mark Crawford’s new comedy, The Birds and the Bees, will be staged from May 30 to June 17. A hit at both Blyth and Port Stanley last summer, the show intertwines beekeeping with romance — with plenty of hilarious twists. Oh Canada!