The Orillia Stage Company has made official what has been rumoured for some time: a three-month professional summer theatre season in Orillia will open in June 2014. It’s exactly the type of programme Orillia City Council had hoped for…..except it won’t be performing at the City-owned Orillia Opera House.
The comprehensive season consisting of four shows, both supported by numerous local business partners and linked to the bus tour and hospitality industries, has the potential to bring visitors to Orillia in numbers that have not been seen in years. A fifth show will be presented in the fall in Gravenhurst.
An experience team in both business and theatre
It is no coincidence that the key players behind The Orillia Stage Company are names that are closely associated with Orillia’s theatre history and tourism industry. Mary Lou Kempton, a group tour specialist based in Orillia, has years of experience working with the travel and hospitality industries and a long association with Orillia summer theatre through her association with The Sunshine Theatre Company and its past incarnations. Kempton has put together the comprehensive marketing and partnership programme that includes not only meal, accommodation and theatre packages but also the issuance of special ‘Downtown Dollars’ that can be used for purchases at the Orillia merchant partners.
Artistically, the programme will be driven by David Fanstone, certainly no stranger to Orillia theatre. Over his 25 years or so or of theatre work, Fanstone’s productions have brought literally tens of thousands of visitors each summer to see theatre in Orillia. His departure from Orillia in 2008 has coincided with a sharp drop in summer theatre attendance at the Opera House once the City took over full artistic and managerial control.
It’s the OCC not the OOH: A new venue for theatre in Orillia
It is notable that The Orillia Stage Company has chosen a new and innovative location to perform the Orillia portion of their summer programme. Rather than using the City-owned and operated Orillia Opera House, the company has rented a former movie theatre now owned by the Orillia Community Church (OCC) on Colborne street in the heart of downtown. Kempton and Fanstone discovered this location a few years ago and negotiated its availability with the congregation this past spring. For decades this building was a popular downtown movie cinema, lastly under the Stinson brand name, until sold in the mid 2000’s. The new owner, the OCC, has since extensively renovated the building.
The former-cinema-now-OCC does not in any way resemble a typical church, and its 165 seat theatre facility lends itself well to theatre. Fanstone explains ‘It’s a real theatre with comfortable raked theatre seats (22” wide), a built-in console for lights and sound control, a movie screen for scenery projection or video that can be either hidden or exposed.’ The addition of theatre lighting, some repainting, and other minor adjustments will result in a theatre that is right-sized and comfortable for both the audience and cast. As for the church congregation itself, Kempton comments ‘They didn’t know anything about theatre when we approached them, but they’ve been very supportive. It’s a wonderful spot, right downtown, very accessible.’
Four shows and a total of over 50 performances will be presented in Orillia as follows:
Hank & Patsy’s Heavenly Hoedown: June 10th – 21st…Hank Williams & Patsy Cline in a ‘fantasy duo performance’
Angie: June 28th – July 12th..A lounge singer reaches the crossroads in her professional and personal life, with songs by Gershwin, Cole porter and more.
Rocky Road to Dublin: July 15th– July 28th…Three Irish lads in an ‘Impish Revue’
Nunsense: July 31st – August 23rd…a comedy favourite around the world, with nuns going to great lengths to save their convent after a fatal cooking incident
Plenty of opportunity for local talent!
Throughout his career as an artistic director of theatre in Orillia, Fanstone has used an Equity/non-Equity hybrid when casting his shows. The result is that, starting 2014, area talent will no longer be shut off from the summer stage in Orillia as has been the case with the City-financed programmes of recent years. In fact, auditions for area talent will be held in January, well ahead of any auditions in Toronto. It’s a head start and a heads-up for those locals who would enjoy working in a professional environment. Fanstone is excited about the potential talent audience might see. ‘I can think of about twenty absolutely fantastic ‘nuns’ in the local female population who could audition for Nunsense.’ And has been Fanstone’s practise in the past, the company will run under Equity rules and pay structures as required. ‘There are a lot of ways to work with the Equity rules. I find if you go and tell them [Equity] what you want to do, they will come back and tell you the best way to do it. They work with you.’
First Orillia, then on to Gravenhurst
The OCC theatre facility is not available in September due to the congregation’s own programming needs, hence the move to Gravenhurst for 19 performances of Stage Door Canteen, a show that Fanstone in fact presented in Orillia back in 2007. There the show schedule will mesh with that of the historic tour boat ‘Wenonah II’, sister ship of the famous ‘Segwun’ that plies the waters of the Muskoka Lakes.
In both towns, a number of Saturday performances will be offered, again a pleasant change from the Orillia-run past, and an opportunity for local audiences not on a vacation schedule themselves.
The show offerings reflect a targeted demographic who would enjoy light entertaining shows anchored by familiar music from the past or near-past. ‘These are the type of shows we did before, and with great success.’ explains Fanstone. ‘The people who come to summer theatre are mostly interested in musicals.’
If you plan it, they will come!
Planning has been underway since this past June, a year prior to the first opening night in 2014. Such advanced planning is necessary due to the nature of the tour market in Ontario. Bus tours in particular prepare their own year well ahead of time. In order to offer an attractive offering to touring groups through these professional companies, Kempton had to contact and negotiate with downtown merchants and restaurants well in advance of what those businesses had become used to recently. Fanstone adds ‘You have to stroke the people who bring the people.’ Kempton agrees. ‘The people I deal with, the tour operators, need the information now to put into their publications. And if you don’t do that, then you don’t get those people.’
Interestingly, some City of Orillia staff pundits have suggested that the daytrip-by-bus is a thing of the past and that the only solution is to pursue the overnight visitors looking for a multi-day getaway. This has been reflected in the performance scheduling of recent seasons that were clearly aimed at filling mid-week hotel vacancies. ‘It [the daytrip industry] has changed’ Kempton admits. ‘The tour operators I talk to are still there. It has dropped a little bit; but it’s still there. There are some huge companies and lots of daytrip business out there.’ As for the demise of the bus tour market, Fanstone observes ‘Mirvish, Drayton, Stratford and Shaw for example would miss about a third of their business if they ignored the bus tour market.’
Kempton’s and Fanstone’s observations are confirmed by the latest audience numbers from Stratford’s 2013 season. Globe and Mail columnist J. Kelly Nestruck comments (November 20) on the 11% increase in attendance, saying ‘…new initiatives such as ….a $20 round-trip bus from Toronto [are] among the factors credited with the turnaround.’
Despite having not been ‘stroked’ for the past few years, Kempton says Orillia is quickly finding its way back onto the daytrip map. ‘I’ve had very good response that includes the largest tour companies.’
A package for every market segment
However, the overnight visitor is important too, and the Orillia Stage Company and Kempton together have developed a compelling package that should bring tangible business, and broad smiles, to a number of participating merchants. The Orillia portion of the season will fly under the banner ‘Gourmet Getaways’. For $147 per person, packages include a dinner, lunch, show, and an overnight stay at the Stonegate Hotel, plus $10 of Downtown Dollars to spend as visitors see fit. A similar package is offered under the ‘Fall Colours Getaways’ banner in Gravenhurst.
Season ticket marketing is also beginning immediately, and offers a flexible 5-show voucher valid for any combination of shows for $120, versus the single ticket price of $30.
Despite the nastiness and innuendo that accompanied his departure from the Orillia Opera House venue several years ago, Fanstone himself has maintained a soft spot for Orillia and the lakeside City’s potential for summer theatre. Fanstone also looks forward to working with local artists and has maintained contact with a number of talented individuals during his absence.
Without doubt, Fanstone and Kempton have proven to be a good blend of business and artistry in the past and are looking forward to reuniting after a six year gap. ‘We enjoyed working together, we enjoyed doing the shows, and this is a chance for me to focus just on the shows and ensuring the audience has fun. I do best when unencumbered.’ Staging his season at the OCC theatre relieves him of the burdensome distraction of the past.
City-managed theatre: remind us again….why?
With such a comprehensive and complete theatre tourism package offered to visitors and Orillia businesses in 2014 by the private sector, one wonders why there is a need for the City itself to pursue and subsidize its own 94-show summer theatre programming as described in the City’s recently issued Request for Proposals (RFP). While claimed by staff to be demanded by Council under the same tourism mandate, this RFP, suddenly announced in late October with a 14 day application timeline, seems redundant. Nevertheless, it is now in the consideration stage, with a recommendation for contract award by staff to Council expected by month’s end.
In the meantime, thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of The Orillia Stage Company, Orillia can be assured that a comprehensive season of professional summer theatre in the heart of the City is possible without government intervention.