There is an embarrassment of riches in the theatre world of Southwestern Ontario as you plan what to see in 2019. Within an hour’s drive of London is vibrant local summer theatre in places such as Port Stanley, Blyth, Petrolia, Grand Bend and St. Jacob’s where comedy, musicals and emerging Canadian productions shine. London’s Grand Theatre’s “world curious — London proud” theme continues to gain steam with some epic stories this winter including Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and the return of the Black Donnelly’s tale Vigilante. The nationally renowned Stratford Festival has grown into a nearly eight-month season including previews and extensions. All eyes are on Othello and Billy Elliot the Musical, among a dozen interesting performances.
What is special is that competition for patrons does not necessarily create silos between all these theatre companies. This winter Stratford superstars Seana McKenna and Megan Follows are starring and directing at the Grand Theatre in London, for example. At Christmas, Stratford’s Sean Arbuckle returned to the Grand’s Spriet Stage as Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. Moreover, late last year, two theatre leaders in our region won major awards for their work in theatre on and off the stage. Anita Gaffney, Executive Director of Stratford Festival, was named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN). Locally, the Grand Theatre, led by Dennis Garnhum, won a prestigious Pillar Community Innovation Award. In speaking with Gaffney and Garnhum separately, both commented positively on the state of theatre in our region.
“I think it’s wonderful and it raises all boats to have this kind of activity in Southwestern Ontario,” says Gaffney. “It cultivates arts and artists. To have the whole industry firing on all cylinders is positive for the whole landscape,” she says.
Garnhum is equally buoyant about the future of theatre here, especially because the Pillar Community Award was for a project that brought free theatre to youth via the 100 Schools Tour. Not only do such programs have community impact by broadening the cultural experiences of youth from many backgrounds, ideally they also cultivate a future generation of theatre-goers.
“I think it is a great time to be presenting theatre in Southwestern Ontario,” says Garnhum. “We are all better together. There is a lot of theatre in this part of the world. I love that Stratford is nearby. We can see Coriolanus at Stratford and then run to Port Stanley and have a good laugh at a comedy and then to Blyth to discover a new piece of work of Canadiana and then we, at the Grand, fit among it — my programming is meant to be complimenting all that. It gives me a great lens to pick plays. It shows me that people are curious. It makes an opportunity that people really want to see theatre and they are committed.”
The theatre world is certainly bettered by the work and accomplishments of Gaffney and Garnhum, and their awards are well-deserved by them and by their teams. As well, their work alongside the employees and actors ensures a financially healthy theatre industry, which in turn allows the creation of more special stage experiences that are accessible to larger numbers.
Gaffney, along with Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, has steered the giant Stratford boat towards financial stability by eliminating a $3.4 million deficit. She has posted an operating surplus every year since being appointed Executive Director six years ago. The Festival is in Gaffney’s blood. She was born and raised in Stratford and began working there when she was 27, as a publicity assistant. She is also recognized for bringing diversity to the workplace. Her team proactively seeks a diverse workforce. Stratford also has a focus to bring the theatre experience to tens of thousands young people through school visits. Most recently, Stratford is working to take film versions of the productions out to wider audiences, especially youth without easy access to Stratford. The Festival now employs 1,000 people in season and it is recognized as an important driver of traffic to the culinary and retail scene in Stratford.
“I think that the world needs theatre right now,” says Gaffney. I think we need places where there are stories that give us inspiration and help us with isolation. I think having an experience in a room together, all listening to stories and seeing something together that makes you reflect on what is happening in the world, is a real positive thing. The best thing we can do for mental health is to escape for a few hours to get into Billy Elliot or A Chorus Line for pure enjoyment, or as a pause for thought. It is important as isolation and disconnection is happening. Theatre has a role to connect people, to feel they belong and they are not the first people to go through things,” reflects Gaffney on the importance of her work beyond fiscal success. To this end she is credited with combining her financial mindset and passion for theatre with heading lobbying efforts to inspire the creation of the $27-million Arts Investment Fund in Ontario.
Garnhum is equally passionate about the important work the Grand is doing to make theatre accessible to youth through the 100 Schools Tour project., Garnhum says his love for theatre was ignited as a young student in London, when theatre was brought to his school. “The best way to inspire people to fall in with theatre is to bring it to them, to expose them to it. Too many people are intimidated by it — they think the Grand is an imposing building, we may not know the etiquette,” says Garnhum. “My job is to figure out how to ignite and inspire. I do believe people want to see theatre and they are rewarded by having a good time. There will be more of that coming forward for sure.”
Congratulations to Gaffney and Garnhum and their teams, who continue to build the theatrical experience for all in Southwestern Ontario and beyond.