(December 22, 2020)
So, let’s get something out of the way at the get go. I am not always a “glass half full” kind of guy.
In fact, I’m more like a “where the heck is the glass? Is there anything even in the glass? Oh look, I dropped the glass and its broken into tiny little pieces on the ground, one of those pieces will probably stick in my foot!” kind of guy.
Let’s just say I’ve had a tough time walking on the sunny side of the street for the last little while, but on the bright side … Christmas is coming, and with Christmas comes good food, possibly a cocktail or 2, thoughts of family, and gifts, which in my case means new socks!
Now, I don’t know at what point in a person’s life gift socks are received with rejoicing instead of disappointment, but I have come to appreciate the simple pleasures of slipping into a pair of new socks. I’m going to hoard them, save them for a rainy day, and when it really seems that the planets are aligned against me, I’m going to fight back with a colourful foot-hugging wool blend. So, onwards and upwards! A brave new year! May all your glasses be half full …with socks.
Now if I could only figure out why all my new socks are kind of damp, and why they smell of dog …
(November 18, 2020)
was once again a happy, happy, smelly dog … and I stepped in it
Which about sums up our current predicament doesn’t it? This pandemic … an early sense of optimism, tempered by a dawning reality, a passage of time, a moment of inattention … and we’ve stepped in it again.
(November 9, 2020)
Reflections on Programming
When I was a kid growing up in rural Halton County, I spent what felt like months in the act of haying. To those who have never hayed it looks like a benign enough past time. Fresh air, sunshine, the sweat of honest labour, it seems so refreshingly wholesome somehow, with clear progress and its associated satisfaction at the end of every day. The truth is somewhat different, of course, as many of us know, and can be defined by one word: “chaff”. Chaff is the fine barbed particles and dust-like bits that fill the air as soon as hay bales start to be tossed around. It is present ALL THE TIME when haying, in the breezy field and the stifling haymow alike, it sticks to that “honest sweat” we talked about and creates an intensity of itch that I have not experienced since.
As you can see, I have a clear relationship with haying, and so when playwright Dan Needles in last season’s “Ed’s Garage” allows his title character to weigh in on the effects of the “oversized round hay bale” on the rural status quo, I can immediately identify. The importance of this “identification”, this seeing an aspect of ourselves in a character portrayed on stage, gives us a “way in” to the play, to the story the playwright is trying to tell, and to the tribal experience of watching that play in the company of fellow audience members. It’s not that we can’t understand or enjoy a story that doesn’t reflect our experience in some way, it’s just that when it does, it allows us to see our own experiences from a slightly different perspective, and in the hands of a talented playwright that is a powerful tool indeed.
I’ve always felt that good programming should be a combination of stories that reflect our community in some way, and stories that may also challenge the way our community views the world. The aforementioned “Ed’s Garage”, “Buying the Farm” by Shelley Hoffman and Steven Sparks, and Norm Foster’s “Mending Fences” all reflect a comic rural perspective. The same could be said of Ken Cameron’s “Harvest” and Michael Healey’s award-winning play “The Drawer Boy”, and yet they push an audience a little further from their comfort zone. In “Harvest” the characters are dealing with the devastating destruction of their family home by its use as a “grow-op”, so although the piece is comedic, it has a darker side. “The Drawer Boy”, too, has its comic side, but ultimately draws us down a path that examines the effects of both violence and mental illness.
Laughter is a great medicine, and heaven knows it’s a medicine sorely needed in our current circumstance, but it’s good to think as well, and a good play often allows us both. As for haying? Well, I’m glad to say that the closest I’ve come to it of late is in watching “Ed’s Garage” at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre.
(October 8, 2020)
This time last year we had just concluded the most successful season in our 42 year history, followed by a vibrant Playwrights’ Festival that saw public reading of both “Smarty Pants” by Shelley Hoffman and Steven Sparks and “Our House” by first time playwright Murray Furrow. We had managed to pay down most of the debt on our building and had managed to bolster both building and operations reserve funds as a hedge against possible “rainy days”. Well you know what they say: “Sometimes it never rains but it pours!”
This Fall is obviously a little different, but we have been able to cling to some normalcy. There was no summer season for us this year, but we were able to invite 45 patrons into the theatre for a live reading of Jamie Williams’ “Pinkerton Comes to Prospect” in a socially-distanced and somewhat reduced Playwrights’ Festival. It was great to have something live back on the stage again! Thanks to government wage subsidy programs we have been able to keep our core group of employees at work as we make plans for the future.
In other years we would be announcing next year’s playbill at about this time and we would have approved a budget for next year as we start to assess this year’s financial year end. Well that process has certainly been “interesting”, but I’m happy to say that we have struck a budget for next year and we have a season in mind. We’re going to delay the announcement of that season for a while yet as we see what the next few months bring, but be assured that we’ll be actively planning for that season launch, and it will only be a matter of time until we invite patrons back through our doors. When we do, we are confident that our patrons will be safe and comfortable, and that safety protocols put in place will ensure the safety of all.
Huge “thank yous” to our hard-working staff, a dedicated Board of Governors, and to all our supporters out there in the community of Port Stanley. We couldn’t do it without you.
Where do new plays come from?
In the 15 years that I’ve been the Artistic Director at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre we have produced 72 plays within the structure of our summer programming. OK, they have not all been plays, strictly speaking. 16 of them were concert- based productions with only loose connecting material that linked the musical content, but that still leaves 56 plays. Any way you look at it, 56 plays is a lot of characters, a lot of words, and an almost inconceivable amount of work. And here’s the kicker … you only get paid for that work if the play you write actually gets produced. If it doesn’t hit the stage, all you get for your trouble is a pile of paper that sits in a drawer somewhere. Most playwrights have a few of these “desk drawer masterpieces’ tucked away … I have three of them myself. So, this playwrighting thing is a bit of a gamble, and really it’s kind of a minor miracle that we get any new plays at all.
Of the 56 plays I spoke of, 12 were premiere productions that went through our new play development process. In this process, we first of all identify likely plays that we think will fit into our programming, we then assist the playwright with dramaturgical advice during the re-write phase (most plays come to the stage through a progression of multiple “versions”), and finally we workshop the piece with actors and present a public reading. The public reading provides the final piece of the puzzle … you, the audience. Without an audience, there is no play.
Any play is a partnership between the playwright, the actors, and the audience, and its vital for the playwright to participate in this partnership before he finalizes what hopefully will go into rehearsals for a full production. I think a few of the “regulars”, patrons who have faithfully attended multiple Playwrights’ Festival readings, might feel that it is the audience feedback session that is the crucial component for the play’s development, but truth be told, the playwright gets most of the information he needs from simply sitting in an audience and gauging responses moment to moment as his play unfolds.
We hope to produce at least two plays next season that will have come through our new play development program, and if we do, you’ll now know a little more about where they came from. Its not an easy gig, this playwright thing, and just remember next time you enjoy an actor’s work onstage … without the playwright’s work that actor wouldn’t have a whole lot to say.
(September 8, 2020)
Planning for the Future
So … you’re standing backstage in a theatre, you’re not sure which theatre, you just know it’s a theatre. It’s dark, you can hear the sounds of an audience, maybe they sound friendly, maybe they don’t. There is somebody, perhaps an assistant stage manager, pushing you towards the stage insisting that you are late. A play is about to begin and apparently you are in it, but you don’t know the play, you don’t know your lines, you don’t even know what role you are playing. But it’s so ingrained, “the show must go on”! You are in a blind panic, but you step into the lights regardless, as the lights hit you, you glance down and … you are naked.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a description of the classic “actor’s nightmare”, and it often occurs during tech week or at a particularly stressful time in the rehearsal period as your subconscious tries to deal with the stress and nerves that can surround the phenomena of live performance. And aside from the “naked” part it describes pretty well the way many of us have been feeling as we try to plan for the future. Here at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre, we spent the early days of the pandemic reacting to the situation. We focussed on following health guidelines, we started working from home, Zoom became our new friend, and reluctantly we began the process of dismantling our off-season programing and the wonderful season we had planned for the summer of 2020. We were in damage control mode as we contacted ticket holders, subscribers, sponsors, and renters, and tried to come to terms with the fact that our revenue stream had been reduced to a trickle, and that our fiscal situation had gone from “record breaking” to “dire” in a few short weeks.
Fortunately, we have a determined group made up of staff, volunteers, community partners, and Board members, and we have now moved beyond simple damage control. We have spoken to all our ticket holders (well nearly all), many of whom either donated the price of their tickets or deferred them until next season. We have leaned on the financial reserves prudently accumulated from a series of successful summer seasons, we’ve tried to keep in contact with our community through increased website development, and heightened use of social media, and we have begun actively planning for the future. We’ve been active in reaching out to other theatres, in looking at how we can share resources, how we can become stronger as a cultural community, and how we can try to minimize the devastating effects of this pandemic on artists everywhere. As a sector, we were one of the first to be locked down and will probably be one of the last to be fully reopened.
As we contemplate the days to come, as we conduct intensive strategic planning, and a reassessment of what it means to be a small-town summer theatre, one thing has always been certain: we will find a way. It won’t be easy and we’ll need your help. We don’t know everything we need to know, we don’t know when social distancing will no longer be needed, we don’t know when a vaccine will be available, but we do know that we’ll figure it out. We will have actors on our stage again and audiences in our seats, and we will do it in such a way that everyone will be safe. In fact, that will be happening sooner rather than later, as we’ll be staging a “socially distanced” live reading of a brand new play on Saturday September 19th as part of a reduced annual Playwrights’ Festival, and as we plan for some limited “special” programming over the winter. It will allow us to figure out safety protocols and social distancing, and to invite you back into your theatre.
So, there it is. We’re moving forward, we’re planning for a re-vitalized future. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still have that dream, but it’s a dream now not a nightmare. I’m still not quite sure what play I’m in, but thankfully, for everyone involved … I’m fully clothed.
(August 4, 2020)
It seems a long time ago now, but last summer we had six opening nights, six first nights, six beginnings all of them followed by stories. They were all Canadian stories, and at least one of them was brand new. On each of those opening nights I would stand up onstage before things got underway and I would thank our sponsors … corporate sponsors, season sponsors, show sponsors, media sponsors, community partners … and you would always applaud their generosity, as is only right and proper.
But here’s the thing, when I made a point of thanking the Ontario Government as represented by the Ontario Arts Council the applause would be only lukewarm at best. When last I put pen to paper, I spoke about how hard it can be sometimes to ask for help, and upon reflection it seems that perhaps its also hard to appreciate that help when it’s given. It’s easy to criticize government … municipal, regional, provincial or federal, we’re pretty much equal opportunity when it comes to finding fault with those we have elected to look after our best interests. I do it all the time. In fact, I’d say I’ve almost elevated it to a full-time hobby!
The Ontario Arts Council is an arms length provincial body funded but not operated by the Ontario Government. Depending on the political stripe of that government the coffers of the Ontario Arts Council have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the talented group of people who operate the organization have always managed to keep it alive, and over the years have channeled much needed funds to many companies just like the Port Stanley Festival Theatre, and by connection, to communities like ours.
So, a heartfelt thank you to the Ontario Arts Council, thank you for over ten years of annual funding, thank you for the understanding and the moral support, and thank for helping us support the wonderful community that we are a part of here in Port Stanley, Ontario.
May our applause be long and loud!
(July 14, 2020)
It’s not always easy to ask for help.
I’ve never been very good at it to tell the truth. As a kid, I’d always rather muddle through on my own, hope for the best, and then be smugly pleased with myself if, against all odds, things worked out alright in the end. Maybe it was misplaced pride, childish male arrogance, or perhaps some weird post-immigration British upper lip thing but asking for help always made me feel like I was lacking something as a person. So, 9 times out of 10, I’d try to tough it out.
Needless to say, things didn’t always pan out and there were consequences … a really bad Grade 12 calculus grade, a knee injury that almost ended my competitive running career, and an attempted body-job on my Mother’s car after a fender bender that I was convinced she would never notice. She did …
Fortunately, several decades later my perspective has changed.
It’s OK to ask for help. It can be humbling sometimes, but that’s OK too, and sometimes people really want to provide that help, they want to reach out, and that “reaching out” can be the basis of a real sense of community.
As a not-for-profit we reach out all the time, to private donors, to government agencies, and to business sponsors. Over the next little while we’re going to shine a light on some of those sponsors. Some have been with us for many years, some are brand new, some, because of their own difficulties in these troubled times have had to reduce their sponsorship, and some have been able to stay the course, but without their support we would not have survived.
So, when you see us feature these folks on this page, don’t just pass them buy, give it a read, follow a link or two, and get to know some of the people who’ve decided to give back to their community.
Because, you see, we reached out, we asked for help, and they gave it…
(June 30, 2020)
Simon says …
In the spring of 1968, my life changed. I stepped off the “Empress of England” in the port of old Montreal and I learned a whole lot of things in a very short period of time.
I learned that cars could be the size of a small country, that people said, “you’re welcome” when you said, “thank you”, and that hockey was very, very important.
I learned that hockey was played on ice, that it was a game that contained a certain amount of violence, and that the Montreal Canadiens were the best hockey team in the world, ever, without exception, bar none … I learned about BBQ’s, peanut butter, and maple syrup.
I also learned that 10 year old boys didn’t go to school wearing knee socks and flannel shorts, that apparently I spoke “funny”, that I was something called a “limey”, and that at lunch recess “limeys” ate their lunches on their own.
Not every lesson I learned was an easy one, and in the beginning it sometimes seemed that the only way to fit in was to deny completely the person I was before.
But eventually I learned some perspective, that most of the changes in me would be imperceptible, gradual, and virtually painless, that there would always be people in this country who were “newer” than me and that they deserved my generosity, and that the Montreal Canadiens were not in fact the greatest hockey team in the world, and that that title (in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary) rightfully belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When I was 12 we went home to England for a visit with family in the old country. It was great, it was familiar, people drove on the right side of the road, and football (soccer) reigned supreme. But then something strange happened. I opened my mouth to say “hello” to my grandparents, and I could tell by the look in their eyes that I now spoke “funny” on that side of the Atlantic. And that was when I realised that England wasn’t home for me anymore after all. In two short years my home had become Canada. It still is.
I still talk funny on occasion, I’m still waiting for the Toronto Maple Leafs to prove their worldwide supremacy, and I still worry about the reception that some newcomers receive when they come to this country, but I am and always will be proud to be a Canadian.
Happy Canada Day everyone!