As 2014 drew to a close, the Classic Theatre Festival’s Artistic Producer Laurel Smith was in a reflective mood,looking back on 5 successful years of a project that was inspired in part by her stint at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2008.
“I always loved summer theatre, and for years, our company, Burning Passions Theatre, had been considering possible locations to start our own,” Smith says. “When I was at the Shaw, it convinced me that the time was right and so, after 20 years in Toronto, we decided it was time for a change, and when a friend showed us the Perth Visitor’s Guide, we thought it was worth taking a peek.”
Although Smith and Associate Producer Matthew Behrens had been in Perth about a decade earlier as part of a touring show – they played at a local community theatre space during a blizzard and so did not have much opportunity to survey the town – they decided in 2009 that they should investigate. As luck would have it, it was a freezing Sunday in February and, with ice on the sidewalks and most stores closed, things did not look particularly promising. However, a trip to the Perth & District Union Library followed by lunch at a restaurant on Foster Street provided all they needed to decide Perth would be home.
“It was clear that Perth was a beautiful town with a sense of civic pride, even in the dead of winter. At the same time, the idea of bringing the only professional theatre company to the Ottawa Valley was exciting, while the Town’s focus on heritage fit perfectly within our mandate to produce plays from an earlier era,” Smith says, adding that monthly meetings with the Chamber of Commerce as well as community members and Town staff throughout the spring and summer confirmed the decision to relocate.
Since that time, the Festival has staged five successful summer seasons of hits from the golden age of Broadway and the London stage, drawing thousands of tourists annually, working on packaging opportunities with local restaurants, accommodations, stores, and attractions, and generating several million dollars in economic spinoffs for the local community. Smith has also been particularly active in the tourism sector, promoting Perth to a wide audience across Eastern and Central Ontario, Western Quebec, and New York State, while also serving as Chair of the Board of the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization (OHTO).
“A key goal for us has been to combine professional artistic quality with a community feel. A key part of what makes us tick – like a lot of groups in Perth – is the hard work of our amazing volunteers who are eager to be part of this wonderful community all summer long,” Smith says. “The Festival is like a big stage where you can bring your special talents as a photographer, a set builder, a painter, an usher, and that special feeling was clearly evident when we were designated top ranking in customer service by the OHvation program through the OHTO.”
While employing some of Canada’s top talent and attracting tourists from a wide range of communities, the Festival is firmly committed to the community it calls home, having raised over $50,000 for a variety of local causes, from the End Polio Now campaign of the Rotary Club and Friends of the Library to Lanark County Interval House and a refugee resettlement program. The Festival’s Save-A-Seat program has also provided hundreds of free tickets to low income members of the community who otherwise would never be able to enjoy live, professional theatre.
While the Festival has been the recipient of a number of award nominations, from Ottawa Tourism’s Best New Company and the Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts to the Capital Critics Circle and the Land ’O Lakes Vision Awards, Smith is most proud of the way theatre and the magical power of storytelling have brought communities together. “Among our favourite memories is when a group of war brides came out to enjoy a Second World War romantic comedy we staged in our first year. They came up on to the set, met the actors, and had their pictures taken. Sharing stories about their own memories of over half a century ago made it such a magical night.”
Smith also fondly recalls the visit of Marjorie de Hartog, whose late husband, Jan, wrote the marital comedy ‘The Fourposter,” which the Festival produced in 2011. “She was this amazingly elegant presence who spoke of the golden era of British film during the 1940 and 50s as well as life on a houseboat with this amazing man who wrote one of the most beloved plays of the 20th century.”
Smith is also proud of the work that the Festival has done with scores of young people who have been able tocomplete volunteer hours, engage in mentoring opportunities, and gain paid summertime employment and resume-boosting positions for those considering a career in the arts. “Young people played a lead role in our ‘Perth through the Ages’ historic theatrical walking tour last summer and became fantastic ambassadors for our town for the tourists who came out to learn about our history.”
Looking ahead to 2015, Smith says incremental expansion of the Festival’s summer programming will continue to pull in ever larger numbers of tourists with the subsequent economic benefits to the Town of Perth and surrounding communities. On tap for next summer are two mainstage plays: Neil Simon’s comedy “Barefoot in the Park” and Frederick Knott’s gripping thriller “Wait Until Dark,” as well as a brand-new play for the “Perth through the Ages” historic walking tour, along with a new feature, “The Lonely Ghosts Walk,” running each Friday evening during the summer. The Festival’s annual Holiday Season Sale, on until December 31, provides a 20% discount on all tickets and the opportunity to pick dates later on in 2015. To take advantage of the special, call 1-877-283-1283 or visit classictheatre.ca.