Summer theatre season is in full swing in Southwestern Ontario. From original Canadian plays to repertoire hits from Broadway, it’s a time to sit back, sing along and reflect on the artistry of our region. From London, there are three locally operated professional theatres in easy driving distance: Port Stanley Festival Theatre, Huron Country Playhouse and Playhouse II in Grand Bend, and the Blyth Festival. We are not neglecting the renowned Stratford Festival, which runs from May to October, but that is a story unto itself. This article celebrates the vibrancy of smaller, local summer theatre.
Besides theatre, a great thing about these locations is that fabulous food is found alongside. Port Stanley offers fresh perch. Blyth has the lovely Part II Bistro, recently named a fan favourite in Huron County. Grand Bend is home to F.I.N.E, A Restaurant, featuring the talents of chefs Erryn Shephard and Ben Sandwith, and nearby are Hessenland Inn and Eddington’s of Exeter. These theatrical towns also offer the perfect setting for a summer’s picnic pre- or post-theatre, with local bounty readily available for your picnic basket and to take home in your cooler.
Port Stanley Festival Theatre
Newly renovated, this 202-seat professional theatre runs from May to September. The theatre always offers a Norm Foster play, but part of its mandate is to develop new Canadian works. This season there are two world premieres and one new comedy, all by Canadian writers. Artistic director Simon Joynes presents a new comedy starting July 6th, Birds of a Feather, billed as a battle of competitive bird-watchers. It is followed by another premier, This One, by Denise Mader, starting on July 27th. This solo performance should appeal to eatdrink readers who love pecan pie — and really, who doesn’t? Closing out the season is The Birds and the Bees by Mark Crawford. This is his follow-up play to Stag and Doe,which ran in previous summers at Port Stanley and at Blyth.
“The changes that we have made will not only expand the experience for our patrons with 51 more seats, brand new HVAC systems, and more washrooms on the second floor, but we have also added a new office suite for our administrative staff, a new workshop space and new backstage facilities for our actors,” says Melissa Kempf, Theatre Manager.
The theatre is in the town hall, which also houses the local library and some shops. Last summer more than 15,000 patrons attended performances, with nearly half of them coming from London. It’s a pleasant drive to Port, and enroute are roadside fruit and vegetable stands.
Huron Country Playhouse I & II
As part of the Drayton family of theatre, Huron Country Playhouse and Playhouse II are much loved by cottage owners and residents in Lambton and Huron counties. Road trippers find it a perfect spot to combine a beach walk with some laughs, song and dance and general feel-good entertainment for all ages. This is a great place to bring the whole family — or send them there so you have the cottage to yourself for a few hours!
The playbill features Broadway blockbuster repertoire such as its own Canadian version of Mamma Mia! Clearly, with more than 55,000 tickets sold in 2015, summer theatre-goers love this kind of entertainment. Last year the bit hits were Legends … of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Chicago — squarely aimed at boomers and their families. This year the popular Legends series continues with Canadian Legends, conceived and directed by Artistic Director Alex Mustakas, with the venerable Neil Aitchison as Constable Archibald F. Inkster (until July 16th). It will be followed by Anything Goes. Over the 13-week season, Huron Country Playhouse will feature four productions while the smaller auditorium, Huron Country Playhouse II has a 10-week season featuring three productions, including Norm Foster’s Hilda’s Yard.
Since 1975, the tiny village of Blyth has swelled with up to twenty thousand additional visitors each summer, who are attending performances at the Blyth Festival. The theatre is situated on Queen Street (Highway 4), in the historic Blyth Community Memorial Hall and Centre for the Arts. The building also has a small art gallery and a basement hall for exhibitions and events. The Centre is a year-round hub for arts in Huron County with other performances in the theatre space. But it is summer theatre with a distinctive Canadian flair that draws in the visitors. Don’t be surprised to spot Alice Munro in the audience, and iconic theatre folks who slip over from Stratford to experience emerging Canadian talent.
“Blyth Festival has premiered 127 scripts, with over half going on to second or multiple productions in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. Works that originated in Blyth have won major Canadian theatre awards, including the Governor General’s Award, the Chalmers Award and the Dora Mavor Moore Award,” says John McHenry, Director of Marketing & Development at Blyth Festival.
This season Blyth Festival will celebrate two milestones: The Birds and the Bees by Mark Crawford is its 200th production, and is the Festival’s 125th world premiere to be staged. Four productions run in repertoire through the summer. A new play on the Donnellys of Lucan promises to shed more light on the tragic tale.
Rural hospitality shows its friendly face in Blyth as theatre-goers can attend “Country Suppers” most Friday and Saturday evenings beginning at 6:15. Suppers are held at either Trinity Anglican Church, Blyth United Church, Blyth Legion or Walton Hall. At intermission, enjoy a local Cowbell beer, crafted in Blyth by the Sparling family. The brewery will open in 2017 for visitors, but is already supplying local establishments in Huron County.
Right across the street from the Festival are two popular dining spots that have added an energetic vibe to the village of 1000 year-round residents: Queens Bakery for lighter fare, and Part II Bistro for casual fine dining (run by Chef Peter Gusso, who has dedicated himself to the development of a culinary scene in Huron County). Don’t miss his Scrim’s pork spring rolls and the duck breast with local Blyth goat cheese. A long-time favourite with actors is The Blyth Inn — affectionately called “The Boot” — featuring pub fare.
It’s a summer to kick back and enjoy local entertainment “in your own backyard.” Stratford has a stellar season underway, but we are privileged to have other wonderful opportunities to enjoy locally produced professional theatre.
Port Stanley Festival Theatre
302 Bridge Street, Port Stanley
Huron Country Playhouse & Playhouse II
70689 B Line, South Huron (Grand Bend)
Blyth Festival Theatre
423 Queen Street (County Road #4)
Jane Antoniak is a regular roving reporter for eatdrink magazine. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations at King’s University College in London.