Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Sunday Read: Greg Wanless looks back at 30 years at Thousand Islands Playhouse

Greg Wanless and Mo Bock in The Melville Boys

With Kathryn MacKay, associate
producer and wife
Reaching Middle Age
An Artistic Director looks back at a lifetime in the Islands
by Greg Wanless

The First Ten Seasons 1982-1991
The first decade of the Thousand Islands Playhouse could be typified as one of high energy, constant excitement and surprises. I had come from performing at the Stratford Festival with the intention of creating a similar festival in Gananoque, and my enthusiasm was matched by that of countless business people and theatre artists who worked alongside each other to transform the Canoe Club into a functioning professional theatre space.  In the first year, I even called actors such as Hume Cronyn and Martha Henry – and programmed two classics (Comedy of Errors and The Beggar’s Opera) and one contemporary piece (On Golden Pond)  for the inaugural season. Interestingly enough, it was the final show, Beggar’s Opera, that outsold everything. The others had houses of 35-75 people, but that show was getting 100 people a night – mid week! We were always on the edge, survival was not an issue – but the second two seasons each doubled the attendance figures of the previous season.

Fiddler on the Roof, 2001

From the start, the company was always driven to exceed expectations – and we must have, since audiences braved the spiders and mosquitos and kept returning for more.  Even with our best intentions at the start, we were constantly driven to upgrade the facilities. In 1985 we added air conditioning and had a major grant to raise the roof, turning the space into a “real theatre” rather than just a dance hall with seats on risers. Money came in from the Eastern Ontario Development Corporation to help, and the roof was physically raised eight feet and the seating was increased from 27- to 330 seats.

By 1991, the company had arrived at a five show season, with several actors such as Mo Bock, Matthew Gibson, Timm Hughes and Marcia Tratt (all of whom will return this season) appearing regularly. Canadian writers were introduced to the programming mix from the second season onwards, with Billy Bishop Goes to War kicking off this  "new trend in Canadian theatre" in 1983.  Canadian highlights during that decade also included a Theatre Passe Muraille production (The Farmer’s Revolt), Norm Foster’s first play (The Melville Boys, ’85)  and the first three installments of the Wingfield Series (1988, ’89 and ’91)  alongside internationally popular works such as Noises Off, Sleuth, Jacques Brel and Crimes of the Heart.  But it was the addition of musicals, beginning with Man of La Mancha in 1988 and followed by Little Shop of Horrors in 1990 that continued to influence the company’s drive to improve the buildings to enhance and support the quality of the work on stage. (cont'd)

Les Miz, 2008

Jessica Greenberg and
Mark Crawford in Mary's Wedding, 2006
The Next Ten Years 1992-2001
During the second decade, the Playhouse “hit its stride.” It had become a major presenter of Canadian work, with 80% of the programming now created by Canadians. We led the charge to help encourage the Canada Council to support not just first productions, but improved/developed subsequent productions of original Canadian plays. It also soon became obvious that the musicals such as Anne of Green Gables and Guys and Dolls needed better production facilities and improved theatre and backstage space. A million dollar fundraising campaign was launched in 1999 that not only raised the money to finally establish the Springer Theatre as the space it needed to be, but also enabled the Playhouse to have a $250,000 endowment fund. In 2001, a memorable production of Fiddler on the Roof, with a record 28 cast members onstage, proved just how wise the decision to fund-raise had been.

The Third Decade 2002- 2011 
Early in the new millennium, the Thousand Islands Playhouse began a series of facility moves that would eventually lead to what we hoped would be the sort of “theatre destination” we had originally envisioned. The company’s old production facility, the ValuMart building, was sold to the Town of Gananoque in exchange for a lease on the current production centre near the Historic Village. Early in the decade, we had also heard that the Fire Station on the hillside above the Springer Theatre, was going to become available in the near future. We knew that we had fairly well turned the Springer Theatre into the space it needed to be, but always wanted to extend the company’s scope and further the types of artistic offerings we could produce. A flexible space in the Firehall would permit that. (cont'd)

Heroes - Mo Bock, John Dolan, Greg Wanless, 2007 
(photo credit: Kaufmann Photography)

In 2004, the company acquired the Firehall, renovated it over seven short months, and raised another million dollars.  Having these two facilities would be the envy of any Artistic Director across the country while acknowledging that there are challenges building the audiences for the newer kinds of theatre experience the Firehall has been able to present. The past nine years at the Firehall have enabled the company to offer a truly wide range of experiences to the public, as well as contributing a much- needed cultural and community space for the use of Gananoque’s residents and businesses. We tend to offer the kind of theatre people would immediately gravitate towards in bigger cities, but here we’ve had to prove ourselves a bit. While the Springer Theatre continues to offer comedies and musicals, with “adventures” taking  the form of productions staged outdoors, new plays, and the Music Series, the Firehall has presented 24 productions that have ranged from tour-de-force one-person shows such as The Syringa Tree and I Claudia  to innovatively staged plays such as Trying, Mary’s Wedding and the 2011 production of The Drowning Girls.

Just days before the Thousand Islands Playhouse celebrates its 30th birthday on June 26, there will be a patron event that highlights 30 years of community contributions. Since this is my last season with the company, it will be particularly poignant – but also a perfect time for everyone to look ahead to the possibilities in the next 30 years.

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[Some corrections were made on this article.]

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