Forty years of memories: Upper Canada Playhouse milestone

SOUTH DUNDAS – Some people likened it to a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

In the spring of 1984, a group of local South Dundas citizens, all from very different backgrounds, united in a strong, shared desire to bring live theatre back to this area. They planned to take over the old Prince of Wales tent theatre, which had been left abandoned in a field off Upper Canada Road since ‘A Night to Remember’ closed in 1981. This group optimistically hoped to stage their first productions that very same summer – with opening night only three months away.

The 450 seat tent theatre had sat empty and neglected for a long time. There was rain damage to the seats and leaks in the canvas shell. The outdoor washrooms were in poor condition. Wildlife had been making themselves at home around the stage, dressing rooms and props areas.

However, with Greg Wanless, artistic director of Thousand Islands Playhouse, agreeing to transfer his Gananoque productions of ‘1837: The Farmers Revolt,’ and John Gray’s critically acclaimed ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ to the newly named Upper Canada Playhouse, the citizen board decided to go ahead. Gerry Rosenquist and I “went to the Bank of Nova Scotia and arranged financing (signed by us) and we bought the theatre,” Doug Grenkie explained. That first board of Upper Canada Playhouse included: Doug Grenkie, president, John McAllister, secretary, Gerry Rosenquist, treasurer and Gay Cook, Gordon Thom, Wendy Gibb, Shelley Bentley, Ron Sullivan, Roger Croxall and Jean Jeacle, directors. One of their first decisions was to hire 25-year-old Mark Morton as artistic director (pictured below).

A graduate of theatre from Queen’s University who had directed a number of shows, Mark was ready for the challenge, although he joked (with Leader reporter Louanne Munhall) that part of his job was simply going to be “getting the pigeon poop off the floors.” He went at the task of creating the theatre with a passion. So did the board members and other volunteers. The Phoenix was indeed rising.

Three hundred theatre goers came out for the opening night of the new theatre and watched as Bob Cook (SLPC general manager), Doug Grenkie, president of the board, and MP and communications minister, Ed Lumley, officially undid the slip knot that opened the Playhouse. Granted, in the weeks ahead, shows sometimes still had to halt in mid scene when too much rain seeped through the tent roof. And there were some startling moments when a snake was discovered in the ladies rest room: raccoons occasionally had to be “escorted” off the premises. But the Playhouse board persevered.

As Jane McAllister, wife of original board member John recalled, “The first productions, ‘The Farmers Revolt’ and ‘Billy Bishop,’ in my mind were still among the best theatre productions ever. The sets were amazing and innovative considering the extremely small budget. Those shows were excellent.”

In the early years, finances were certainly tight. The board sought many ways, in meetings that were often very “lively,” for keeping the funds to survive coming in. “The board decided to sell tickets on a beautiful Lincoln town car,” John McAllister laughed, “which had to be fetched from storage at UCV before every show and put on display at the front of the theatre. Driving that car was the fun part for me. However, we almost lost our shirt on this great fundraising scheme which, fortunately, deterred me from ever entering the marketing field in lieu of teaching.”

Shelley Bentley also recalled those early lean years. “We sold tickets on quilts. How many craft shows did I run and how many bread puddings did David (her husband) make to sell at lunch? Can we ever forget the ‘Greater Tuna Marathon’ fundraiser with Marshall and Mark at the Playhouse? And another fund raiser where three of us – Mary Rose, Wendy Gibb and I – got up on stage and performed “9-5,” with our MP in the audience,” a performance highlighted by a hilarious and unexpected table collapse that Wendy may never forget. Anything to raise enough funds to keep the Playhouse alive.

Yet wonderful Playhouse productions followed. ‘Ernest and Etienne,’ ‘Love Letters’ (with Peter Gzowski) and as Shelley put it, “the poignancy of seeing the Locke family gathered to watch the first night of an original play, based on Williamsburg’s Dr. Locke, ‘ Hands of Healing.’ Then came a kind of theatrical miracle.

Odonto Corporation, which had a small factory right in the village of Morrisburg, was closing its doors. With the incredible support of the general manager of the toothbrush factory, Nick Lee, the company decided to turn the building over to the board, to become the new home of Upper Canada Playhouse.

This was a former factory, and set up as a factory, but it was a solid, permanent structure and the board and community volunteers threw themselves into the challenges of painting, building and adapting the site for a theatre. Doug Grenkie recalled bringing chairs from the Cornwall Theatre, which was closing down. “They told us we could bring all that seating to the Playhouse, and I got a truck and drove stacks of chairs to the theatre: many of the board unloaded and hauled every one of those seats inside.” Forty years later, that building has become a centrepiece for the community and for visitors to South Dundas, drawing thousands each season to see the shows.

Artistic directors, along with the volunteer boards, are the heart and soul of any theatre. Upper Canada Playhouse has had some outstanding and very talented directors at its helm since 1983. They include Mark Morton, 1983-1986, Marshall Button, 1987-1996, Gregson Winkfield, 1996-1998, (between 1998 and 1999 shows were outsourced) and Donnie Bowes (pictured right), who signed on in 2000 and is still with the Playhouse.

Bowes had performed in ‘Hands of Healing.’ “When I was asked to come down as artistic director, I was happy to do so. I knew the theatre, knew the area and knew the audience which enabled me to pick up where others left off.”

Over the years, there are few who would not agree that Upper Canada Playhouse has also become a strong economic focal point for South Dundas. “UCP has created jobs, interest, tourism, creativity and an anchor for the larger community.” John McAllister said. “It is obvious that UCP has realized those goals and endures to this day and for the foreseeable future.”

People in this community do not refer to “the Playhouse”: they speak of “our Playhouse.” It is very much at the heart of South Dundas.

Over the last 40 years, the Playhouse has welcomed many, many local groups to its stage, and supported those organizations in every way, technically and artistically. In 1990, Marshall Button invited the senior theatre students of Seaway District High School to the Playhouse where, with members of the school band, the teenagers staged their first “professional show”, ‘The Hobbit.’ Staff at the Playhouse worked with the young actors and the stage crews, also allowing them to explore and experience the technical and business sides of mounting a show. Other Seaway productions followed over the years: ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Looking Glass Land,’ ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ There are generations of adults in this area who will always remember those Playhouse experiences as high points in their lives.

The Iroquois-Matilda Lions Club has been able to call the Playhouse home for virtually all of their community productions, from ‘Bottoms Up,’ ‘Monday Always Leads to Murder’, ‘The Count Will Rise Again,’ to their 2023 production this April, ‘Drop Dead!’ The Playhouse has been a constant and wonderful supporter of such community groups. St. James Anglican Church has also staged fundraising shows in the Playhouse (‘Aunt Maggity’s Dark and Stormy Night’).

The Playhouse continues to be the home of the St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage, an organization run by a volunteer board of music lovers, who have been able to bring performers to the Playhouse (with its technical amenities and welcoming atmosphere) like Hawksley Workman, Natalie McMaster and Dan Mangan. The SLAS and the Playhouse also create a professional venue for young performers, just starting their careers, through the Intimate Acoustics concerts.

A strong indication of just how successful Upper Canada Playhouse has become lies in the fact that a playwright of the stature of Norm Foster regularly chooses to premiere some of his latest plays on the Playhouse stage. Actor/director Jesse Collins and composer/director Chris McHarge have both written musicals that were first performed on the Playhouse stage. Over the years, the Playhouse has been able to add an outstanding rehearsal hall, a new box office and administration wing, new washrooms, and a renovated backstage area, including a professional workshop.

When COVID struck and shut theatres down, the Playhouse weathered those desperate times because the entire community rallied behind it and raised funds to keep their theatre alive during the ‘Help the Playhouse Get On With the Show’ campaign. A powerful sign of the strength and success of Upper Canada Playhouse rests in the fact that in its 2023 season, the Playhouse was operating at 81 per cent capacity. “A lot of theatres would give their eye-teeth for that!” Donnie Bowes said. “It places us among the most successful theatres for our size in the business. When actors and musicians come here, they still call ours the best audiences in the business. They are really impressed with the size of our crowds.” Play-goers come from Montreal, Kingston, Ottawa and the US. On November 13, Bowes will formally announce the Playhouse’s exciting line up of productions for its 2024 season, as great theatre continues to thrive in South Dundas.

The Playhouse has always been able to depend on the strong, on-going support of an active and dedicated board of directors. The 2023-24 board includes Geraldine Fitzsimmons, Joanne Notman, Lauren Harriman, Brad Parks, Dwayne Sprague, Barry Fawcett, Tom Morrow and Greg Millard. These local volunteers work tirelessly to keep this wonderful addition to the cultural, social and financial life of South Dundas thriving.

On Saturday, October 28, at Matilda Hall, Upper Canada Playhouse is going to celebrate 40 years as a vital part of this community. Join the board and staff and guests for a fun-filled evening that will acknowledge and honour the Playhouse, our Playhouse, as a unique and vital part of our community. As director Bowes says, “We’re adapting to the changing times like everyone else. We plan to be here for another 40 years!”

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