Blyth Festival is a professional repertory theatre that endeavours to enrich the lives of its audience members by producing and developing plays that give voice to both the region and the country. But does that well ever run dry?
Artistic Director Marion de Vries insists, “Never! The well overflows with inspiring characters and stories, compelling history and burning current issues that are a never-ending source for playwrights.”
Besides its unique history of producing original Canadian plays and, of course, its location, de Vries has strong feelings about what sets Blyth Festival apart.
“We have never wavered from our vision to create, develop and produce new plays that explore and reveal the specific nature and character of this community and region, and rural regions across Canada. You can see West End or Broadway anywhere. A Blyth Festival experience is authentic. When you see it here, you’ve seen it first!”
2014 is Blyth’s 40th season and de Vries decided to renew the vow to Blyth’s original mandate in her own original way stating, “I’m a farm girl born and raised, and I’m a trained and experienced theatre professional — I’ve relied on my artistic ‘guts’ and instincts to choose a slate of great plays that will give the audience a range of experiences — drama, comedy, music, history — all under the theme ‘Where the Heart Is!’ Human emotion is what theatre is about to me.”
Although the multi-tasker is a director, playwright, dramaturge and producer, she admits she can’t do everything — although she’s tried. “Stage management and sewing — I failed at both!”
Ha! Can-do de Vries even wrote a musical debuting at Blyth this season, Kitchen Radio (co-composed by David Archibald). Who doesn’t love a country musical? De Vries describes it this way: “The central character is the lonely young wife of a bank manager in the late ’60s, whose best friends are the female country music stars she listens to on her kitchen radio — until she moves to a small farming town and gets entangled in the lives of the women who live there. Really great women characters played by some of the best performers in Canada. It is going to blow your socks off.”
And what of the future of the festival?
“There’s a renovation in the works to give the theatre a face-lift with new seats, equipment and improved facilities while maintaining the historic character. By the time this theatre turns fifty, Blyth Festival should be everyone’s destination to see wonderful, original, real Canadian theatre.”
Never experienced Blyth? I have. Expect delicious pie, country suppers, super-friendly peeps, music, the Art Gallery, a quaint historic main street. Authentic theatre in beautiful Huron County near the shores of Lake Huron. What’s not to love?
Drayton Entertainment is one of Canada’s most successful professional theatre companies. Alex Mustakas is the founder and Artistic Director and expanded his success to include seven venues across Ontario: Drayton Festival Theatre, Dunfield Theatre Cambridge, Huron Country Playhouse and Playhouse II in Grand Bend, King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, St. Jacobs Country Playhouse and the Schoolhouse Theatre in St. Jacobs.
I’m exhausted just thinking about it. How on earth did he do it? Mustakas states, “I get way too much credit. I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by a dedicated Board of Directors and an incredible administrative and production team, who are as passionate about live theatre as I am. Growth has been completely organic. Local residents’ enthusiasm and support allowed me to dream bigger than I ever imagined possible. There was no calculated plan for expansion; rather, our growth was fueled by a desire to make quality arts and cultural programming affordable and accessible to areas throughout the province that have historically been underserviced.”
In the mid-’90s, when Drayton was selling out every seat, Mustakas recognized the opportunity to do business elsewhere — hence the expansion. While many theatre companies are struggling to maintain their subscription base, let alone attract new patrons, today the umbrella organization under Drayton serves more than 250,000 patrons with 20 productions, and 896 performances annually. This summer, just the two Huron Country Playhouses alone are offering two of their most ambitious productions to date, Les Misérables and Peter Pan, from August 7 to August 30.
Just how does one successfully balance the competing demands of quality productions, fiscal responsibility, and community integrity? Mustakas suggests, “We live in a world where smaller theatres can come and go with the whim of funding programs. Government subsidy for the arts is extremely important, and I am a strong advocate for this. The reality is that arts organizations must strike a balance between artistic integrity and fiscal responsibility in order to be self-sufficient for the long term.”
Mustakas calls that “show business” with emphasis on both words. “The only way to ensure our survival in an industry that is both fragile and unpredictable.”
Echoing de Vries, Mustakas says, “Theatres contribute to quality of life — our spiritual, emotional, moral health and these days, to our economic health. The realms of art and business can work together … There is an art to running a business, and there is a business to be made in running an art.”
Donald D’Haene is Editor of donaldsdish.ca. Twitter @TheDonaldNorth and email: firstname.lastname@example.org.