Curtain Falls on Classic Theatre Festival, But Burning Passions Will Go On

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” – Arundhati Roy After a decade as one of Lanark County’s marquee summertime entertainment experiences, the Classic Theatre Festival has been forced to suspend opreations due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. The only professional company in the Ottawa Valley, which annually brought to town top talent from the world of Canadian theatre, television and film to perform hits from the golden age of Broadway and the London stage, the Classic Theatre Festival was a tourism draw that pumped more than $12 million into the local economy. “Due to the ongoing pandemic that forced the Classic Theatre Festival to postpone our 2020 season, and the uncertainty that extends well into 2021 and beyond, the company cannot sustain this large-scale event during the pandemic,” said Artistic Producer Laurel Smith. “A Festival of our size cannot operate in this new high-risk environment, where the long-term planning timelines that are critical to our viability are not currently feasible.” The decision to suspend the Festival was a “devastating” one, Smith says, and came during “the saddest board meeting we have ever attended.  Our board was so invested in this project, working as volunteers in Front of House management, as ushers, as cheerleaders for what was a really unique experience.” The Classic Theatre Festival left a huge cultural footprint in the town of Perth and beyond. Its anchor was its critically acclaimed, award-winning productions on the mainstage (for the last six years at the St. James Anglican auditorium, which was transformed annually into a professional theatre space). But there were many other moving parts to the company that draw tens of thousands of tourists to town, from historic Perth through the Ages walking plays that animated downtown streets in and around Matheson House as well as night-time “Lonely Ghosts walks,” to the sold-out dinner theatre shows in collaboration with Michael’s Table. The Festival was also lauded as a model of community engagement, from its ability to hire and train dozens of young people each summer (teaching new skills while also funding post-secondary education!) to its legendary Save-A-Seat program, which opened up thousands of free seats to low-income and socially marginalized community members across Eastern Ontario to attend professional theatre in dignity. In addition, hundreds of volunteers helped usher, paint sets, and host out of town performers and technicians, building deep and lasting friendships that will outlast this gloomy period. “A key part of our success was also based on the partnerships we built with Perth and area restaurants, accommodations, and stores, enabling all of us together to offer visitors to town a full range of experiences,” said Smith, who in addition to helming the Festival, played a leading role in promoting tourism to Perth through her work with the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Association as well as local and regional organizations. While this is… Continue reading

The Things I Miss the Most at the Theatre: A Pandemic Reflection

By Matthew Behrens, Associate Producer, Classic Theatre Festival July 4, 2020 It’s the first Saturday of July, and, as a creature of habit, I bolt out of bed, my mind ticking off an extensive checklist. It’s a three-show day in Perth, Ontario, so there’s lots to do. A rapid succession of questions speeds around my mind like particles in a semiconductor. I need to open the database and check the final audience numbers. Are any free seats available for latecomers? Is the concessions stand fully stocked? Do we have enough of the ever-popular ice cream sandwiches? Which summer student working front-of-house will be in the parking lot to welcome the senior bringing three boxloads of summer reading for our massive book sale? More questions. What does the weather radar show, as we have a full complement attending our outdoor historic walking play at 11 am? How are the numbers for Tuesday’s dinner theatre show? Is that group from Casselman on time to arrive at Michael’s Table for lunch? Are all the props needed for rehearsal lined up and ready to go? How early can I call the person who left her sweater in Row C at yesterday’s matinee? Call back Perth Manor to let them know we were able to find a seat for their guests at the Sunday matinee. Will I remember to bring a visiting actor that extra pillow they had requested? I sit by the phone (before 10 am, the box office number goes to our home to catch the early bird inquiries, and they often start coming in at 7:30 am!), as I anticipate waving to my partner, Artistic Producer and Director Laurel Smith, heading out for rehearsal for our second mainstage production. During such busy times, we are like ships passing in the night. But today, as I sit in front of the computer, stare at a silent phone, and wonder why I haven’t seen Laurel leave yet, a bolt of reality shuts down the superconductivity pinging in my brain. Right. Yes. It’s 2020. There’s a pandemic on, and live theatre with full houses is not taking place anywhere on the planet for the first time in centuries. Centuries. Think about that. While storytelling has been around since the beginning of our species, that unique quality of sharing tales in a certain physical space with other human beings is, during this time, too dangerous to risk undertaking. Like theatre companies around the globe, ours is going through a truly existential crisis amidst a larger context, where billions are suffering the fear and pain of something that could strike out of the blue, scientists are racing to find a Covid-19 vaccine, and animated discussions conclude that our collectively destructive way of life will continue to produce such crises unless we seriously change our ways. For those of us who work in the live arts, we face critical questions about how – and if – we can ever get back to gathering in enclosed, packed spaces to… Continue reading