“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 indeed sad news, Smith takes hope in the words of author Arundhati Roy, whose widely-read essay on the Covid crisis points out that, despite the losses and challenges, the pandemic is a portal to new possibilities.
The new possibilities are to be found in the Festival’s parent company, Burning Passions Theatre (BPT), which has a quarter-century history of theatrical practice under its belt. Before the Festival was founded in Perth in 2009, BPT was a highly active company working both in Toronto and around the province on a variety of projects engaging professional artists, community groups, and schools. When the company was launched in 1998 in Toronto, words of praise were received from the likes of Margaret Atwood and then-NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin. The company developed and staged new works (a tradition which continued over the past five years with both the Listen Up! Youth theatre project in Lanark County and the Festival’s walking plays), provided opportunities to produce classics like the acclaimed “Shaw in the City” series, and served as a platform for mentoring and training new generations of theatre artists.
“Until we can return safely to the live stage, our plan is to work virtually with theatre artists across Eastern Ontario,” says Smith. “We have begun planning for a new play development program, reflecting voices and stories that are often untold or under-represented. We will also be developing a new training/mentorship program for Eastern Ontario theatre artists to hone their skills across the full breadth of theatrical production (playwrighting, acting, design, production). At the same time, we will be exploring new opportunities to return to live audience performance once it is safe to do so.”
While Festival audiences will miss the annual trek to Perth, Smith is confident that the show will go on, but in different forms and in new stories, in the years to come.
“It’s been quite the journey, and while words cannot express the depth of our sadness, we also know that tears can nurture the seeds of new growth and new beginnings, and we plan to be ready for those possibilities when we can all fully emerge from this difficult, challenging time,” she concludes.