Ever since Perth’s Classic Theatre Festival began performing hits from the golden age of Broadway in 2010, it has maintained a program that opens up blocks of free seats, making professional theatre accessible to all members of the community, regardless of income. Begun with a grant from the Perth & District Community Foundation, the Classic Theatre Festival’s Save-a-Seat program has offered over 600 free theatre tickets to individuals who can access them at the Salvation Army, through Lanark County Social Services, The Table, YAK, and various other agencies that serve residents surviving on limited incomes. Other groups have included First Nations Deer Lake evacuees who were then being housed in Smiths Falls, and residents of women’s shelters.
“The program was originally inspired by a 2009 letter to the editor we saw in the Perth Courier,” explains Artistic Director Laurel Smith. “Sue Cavanagh of Lanark County Child and Youth Poverty Action Network discussed in poignant detail the opportunities missed by at least 12% of children in Lanark County who cannot go to birthday parties, attend after school activities, have a pet, enjoy the arts, and, on a more direct level, miss out on one or more meals in a day. “It was a reminder that behind the gorgeous facades of Heritage Perth and the other communities in Lanark, we have a hidden poverty that is not just economically marginalizing, it is also socially isolating. Save-a-Seat breaks that social isolation and can serve as a step into re-integrating into the community. Some of those who first met us through Save-a-Seat have become volunteers.”
Smith also points out that the Classic Theatre Festival serves as a significant economic driver in the summer, bringing thousands of tourists to town whose spending in stores, restaurants, and accommodations has a positive economic impact that results in increased employment and related social benefits. Following a partnership with the Perth Museum last summer that featured a Canadian Theatre History exhibit, Save-a-Seat was renamed in honour of the parents of the Festival’s Associate Producer, Matthew Behrens.
“The Deborah Cass/Bunny Behrens Save-a-Seat program was named for my parents because they toured this country with Canadian Players in the early years of the Stratford Festival, bringing theatre to the people and making this magical experience accessible to all,” says Matthew Behrens. “They were also very committed to the idea of social justice and equality, so we figured that combination of community commitment and artistic excellence should be remembered in an active, living program like Save-a-Seat.” Bunny Behrens lived at Lanark Lodge until he passed away in September, 2012, but during his time in Perth was memorable as a raconteur whose stories of the golden age of Canadian and British theatre included his own early days at the Bristol Old Vic, where he acted with (and was also a drinking buddy of) the late Peter O’Toole, who passed away in early January 2014.
Charitable, tax-deductible donations to the renamed Deborah Cass/Bunny Behrens Save-a-Seat program can be made by writing a cheque to Burning Passions Theatre, PO Box 2121, 57 Foster Street, Perth, ON K7H 1R0 or online at: