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Summer theatre is booming and attracting tourism to smaller Ontario towns. The Port Stanley Festival Theatre sits adjacent to the new Pat and Ali Shakir Patio. It's part of the thriving business district, with shops and boutiques, along the village's Bridge Street.


Comedies, Canadian works and community building dominate regional theatre scene this summer

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[Giving up the Ghost]

Warmer temperatures compel us to stop hibernating in front of the television and to hit the road to lakeside towns or inland villages to see live theatre.

Picking plays that boost attendance and tourism in summer-centric venues is one of the important facets to putting together a winning stage bill, according to Simon Joynes, artistic director of the Port Stanley Festival Theatre (PSFT). “Theatre is a big economic driver,” he explains. “We support our community by bringing 15 to 20,000 people to the village each summer.”

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[Like Father, Like Son? Sorry]

That responsibility is manifested in smart marketing, like putting on the Norm Foster play Lunenburg for a long run in June. “Norm’s a big crowd pleaser. With a four-week run early in the season, we’re getting a lot of people into the community.”

Callandra Dendias, Victoria Playhouse Petrolia’s (VPP) program co-ordinator, agrees, saying the popularity of the big musical revues and comedies that the theatre is known for are proving so popular that their season has been extended on both ends, beginning earlier on April 30 and ending later on October 27. “Our expanded summer season and two Christmas shows are intended to help boost tourism in southwestern Ontario,” she adds.

The popularity of regional theatres is also boosting their international recognition, according to Alex Mustakas, artistic director for Drayton Theatres. That organization’s success in premiering bigger productions has “put us at the top of the list for Broadway to assign rights. We were the first in the world to be granted the rights to do Mary Poppins,” he explains.

The regional theatres in southwestern Ontario prioritize Canadian works, with two of them – Port Stanley and Blyth – solely staging plays by Canadian authors, many of whom are local. “We work with new writers to produce Canadian stories, stories about the place we live,” explains Gil Garrett, artistic director of Blyth Theatre.

He’s especially proud of two local works, Jumbo and In the Wake of Wettlauffer. The former tells the story of the world’s highest paid entertainer of his time – Jumbo the Elephant – and his final performance and death in St. Thomas. The latter is a “ripped from the headlines” work, says Garrett.

This real-life tragedy reflects the stories of Elizabeth Wettlaufer’s victim’s families and is a sensitive, thoughtprovoking treatment that “starts the kinds of conversations we can’t have in the contemporary mediatized world,” according to Garrett.

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To celebrate its 45th season, Blyth Festival Theatre is staging a repeat performance of Cakewalk, a play previously staged in 1984. “It’s the very fun story of a small town that holds a Canada Day cake baking contest and the five increasingly competitive women who enter it and become quite cutthroat in their tactics. One even enters her daughter’s wedding cake without permission to do so,” says Garrett.

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[The Wildest Town in Canada]

In its first run of the season, the PSFT is premiering the work of London playwright Jeff Culbert. The Wildest Town in Canada: Donnelly Songs and Stories “is a concert of stories and spoken word,” says Joynes.

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VPP is also celebrating national pride with its staging of the New Canadian Curling Club, by Stratford resident Mark Crawford, which had a “sold out run at its Blyth premiere.” Adapted from Bram Stoker’s classic, a musical version Dracula will be playing at VPP this fall in the run up to Halloween.

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Mustakas is excited to be bringing the Canadian premiere of Rocky to the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend. He’s directing the production and calls it “challenging because it was written cinematically, with 14 scenes in act one.”

For the seven Drayton stages, Mustakas agrees that picking the summer’s roster of plays is complicated. He fulfills the mandate of summer theatre goers, with “a mix of big musicals, comedies and the occasional drama.”

He feels that Rocky will have wide appeal because it’s a story that nearly every one can relate to. “It’s Rocky’s story but it’s also (Sylvester) Stallone’s story – he wrote it in three and a half days – of an underdog who became a champ.”

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[Murder for Two]

Huron Country Playhouse is not without its own Canadian flavour, featuring Glory, the true tale of the Preston Rivulettes and You’ll Get Used To It, The War Show. “We chose this one because of the 75th anniversary of D Day,” explains Mustakas.

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[In the Wake of Wettlaufer]

It may be difficult to pick among the many offerings at southwestern Ontario’s regional theatres this summer but you’ll be richer for the experience.