Producing professional summer theatre in Perth since 2010 with the Classic Theatre Festival has been a magical experience, one that feels like an annual family reunion as we reconnect with the friendly, familiar faces making the annual trek to this heritage town to enjoy our productions from the golden age of Broadway and the London Stage.
While plays of this era – which this summer include Neil Simon’s comedy I Ought to Be In Pictures, George Bernard Shaw’s satire Arms and the Man, and the J.B. Priestley’s mystery An Inspector Calls – leave audiences with the satisfaction of being well-entertained, there’s another side to the Festival that roots us in our community and provides audience members with a deep feeling of human connection.
That other side is made up of a number of Classic Theatre Festival program initiatives that benefit community organizations, provide meaningful training, mentorship, and employment opportunities for young people in a job-starved rural environment, and open up free seats to socially and economically marginalized community members.
Since our founding in 2010, the Festival has partnered with groups ranging from women’s shelters and libraries to refugee sponsorship groups and service clubs seeking an end to polio to raise over $60,000 through a series of community benefit performances. Bringing together a committed community for an evening’s entertainment creates a special buzz in the theatre, while providing other audience members with an educational opportunity about getting involved with these worthy organizations.
Meantime, young people in our Youth Theatre Training Program work with professional artists to develop a series of theatrical historic walking tours that bring to life the stories and characters of Perth’s colourful heritage history.
Many of training program’s performers first start out with us in the early spring with an annual touring play focused on youth issues, promoting discussions on how to make our communities more teenager-friendly through our Listen Up, Lanark County! project.
They then graduate to take on roles in the summertime’s annual Perth through the Ages, a “play that moves” and which runs five mornings a week from 11 am to 12 noon. As Perth celebrates its 200th anniversary, this year’s story focuses on relations between early European settlers and the Algonquin people. The Algonquins’ 10,000 years of history and experience in this area proved invaluable in helping the settlers survive their first years, including introducing them to the wonders of something called maple syrup. The Friday night Lonely Ghosts Walk (7-8 pm) will feature a story of Perth’s growth as a distillery town, and the feisty women who lobbied for temperance and fought alcohol’s ill effects.
For many audience members, a signature initiative of the Festival is the Save-a-Seat program, born out of a long family tradition. My parents (Bernard Behrens and Deborah Cass) were part of that post-war generation that founded professional Canadian theatre, appearing in the early years of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and touring with the Canadian Players when not appearing on CBC radio and TV. As products of the Depression, when inexpensive movies and live theatre seats provided a rare respite from the misery of poverty, they always believed that the magic of live theatre should be made accessible to all.
Since the Classic Theatre Festival’s founding in 2010, we have been able to partner with a variety of social service agencies throughout Eastern Ontario to open up over 1,200 free seats so that low-income community members could attend the theatre in dignity. For many program recipients, it’s the first time they’ve experienced live theatre, and they want to become involved as volunteers. Save-a-Seat thus helps break the social isolation imposed by poverty and promotes community cohesion. It is partially funded by a massive loonie and toonie used book sale running all summer long in the theatre lobby. It is not uncommon to see supportive audience members hauling bags of used books to contribute to the sale as they walk into the theatre.
The power of theatre to bring people together under one roof and share in an emotional, cathartic experience is a timeless one. It has been rewarding to combine a community commitment with artistic excellence at the Classic Theatre Festival, and while my parents are no longer with us, their portraits hang in the theatre lobby as a proud part of Canadian theatre history. We humbly walk in their footsteps.
Tickets to this summer’s Classic Theatre Festival (June 22 to September 11) are available online at www.classictheatre.ca or by calling toll-free 1-877-283-1283.