Handcrafted wine. White sand beaches. Picturesque trails. All those delicacies of life have become tightly associated with the southern Ontario community of Prince Edward County. But what you may have yet to discover is that at night, when the beaches are quiet and the wineries close, local theatre thrives. Adding to that theatre culture is Festival Players, the region’s only professional summer theatre company.
“The county boasts a wealth of riches in terms of artists and artisans,” says Graham Abbey, the company’s artistic director. “The region encompasses everything from the classical arts to the culinary arts to the wine industry, which is an art form itself. [We at Festival Players hope to] enrich the experience of residents and tourists alike who can come and see great theatre and great artists perform.”
Festival Players’ 2019 summer season features small cast ensembles, one person shows, improvisation, and traditionally scripted plays. We had the opportunity to speak with some of this season’s performers about what they were looking forward to most about working in Prince Edward County. Two responses seemed to echo from one interview to the next. Actors anticipated enjoying the daytime activities the Prince Edward County is known for, like beach going, winery tours, and exploring the surrounding nature. And, everyone was unanimously most passionate about performing for the audiences that Festival Players attracts.
“I love the audience,” says Melody A. Johnson, writer and actress of her solo show Person of Interest. “They’re so responsive and pretty raucous in a good way. They’re up for a show and laughs.”
Actors attributed this responsive and encouraging atmosphere to the county itself. They described the county as a welcoming and relaxed community with a strong appreciation for the arts. Many of the actors we spoke to mentioned the abundance of art-centred attractions available in the area. These attractions include, but are not limited to local craft shows, art galleries, a sculpture garden, and the rustic barns scattered around the region that have been refurbished and are now used as functioning establishments.
“The thing about performing in Prince Edward County is that the atmosphere during the day is a little more relaxed than in larger cities, so the audience tends to be a little more relaxed as well,” says Gavin Crawford, solo performer in the Festival Players’ production of Every Brilliant Thing. “Sometimes in Toronto you get a Friday night crowd who’s been working all day and they’re kind of like, ‘Alright, buddy. Entertain me.’ Whereas in Prince Edward County, when people go to see theatre, they’re looking for a fun night out, but it’s not the only fun thing they did that day.”
For some, the love of the arts and the supportive environment cultivated by the county is what drives them to perform there.
“We often look for places to work locally and create new work together,” commented the duo developers and stars of The Script Tease Project, an improvisational play. “There are so many places in our own backyard that support live theatre and independent productions. We really want to treat those folks to our latest ventures.”
In addition to running a full summer theatre season, Festival Players is also hosting an event known as Wellington Water Week. The music and art festival gathers artists from around Canada to raise awareness of issues surrounding water and to appreciate water as a resource. Water Week musicians also acknowledged the uniqueness of Prince Edward County audiences.
“Performing in the county is so special!” says Danika Lorèn, a vocalist singing in Water Week. “They have an amazing community of artists and art lovers. It’s the perfect audience for new ideas. I have been able to both perform and create in Wellington and some of my best work has come from those experiences.”
“Prince Edward County is a very artistic region and I’ve always been attracted to it as an artist,” notes Abbey as he reflects on the community in the area. “The county is a real muse and as I go out there, [I continue to] get inspired by the region itself.”
It seems Abbey was inspired by the region to select this season with the theme of community front and centre. We had the chance to chat with several performers from the 2019 summer season about the idea of community in regions like Prince Edward County and in the work they’ll be doing this season.
Editor’s note: Please note that these responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Festival Players of Prince Edward County’s 2019 summer season runs from July 9 to September 1. For tickets and more information, click here.
Gavin Crawford performs one-man show Every Brilliant Thing written by Duncan Macmillan, with Johnny Donahoe
Because it’s an island, [Prince Edward County] has its separate areas, but everyone travels from one area to another, so it seems like a broader community. There are a lot of expat Torontonians in that community, which is weird for me because I (almost) know as many people in Prince Edward County as I know in Toronto. As far as the play [Every Brilliant Thing goes ...], it’s about everyone coming together to tell a story; and even if they don’t know the story that they’re telling, they do near the end. It’s a small play in terms of intimacy. It’s not meant to be performed in a giant space with 700 people. It’s a small group of people that have gathered together. It almost harkens back to sitting around fires. It has that kind of feeling, because it’s not necessarily performed in one particular spot; it’s all over, in and amongst the people in the audience. You’re not just watching someone stand in one spot. It’s someone amongst you telling a story and will occasionally turn to you and ask somebody who’s nearby to assist with the role of telling that story. And I think it gives it that community feeling. Like everyone’s around a campfire and having a shared experience and one person’s guiding the game, but everyone’s involved in the game.
Nigel Bennett will be in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar
I was born and raised in a little village in England, a little village called Essington, and we knew everyone. All the families knew each other. I used to go and play as a kid and if I did anything wrong, my mom knew about it before I got home. Because sort of the jungle telegraph had gotten the message back to her before I got back to her. And that’s disappearing because people are moving onto the big cities and large towns, but that’s one of the great things about a small community. Small communities look after themselves. They take care of themselves in a way that cities don’t. Cities can’t because they’re too big. In Outside Mullingar, everyone knows each other. It has a deep history. The character I play has personally had the farm, but obvious his parents had the farm for 120 years. It’s that sort of depth of time that people have lived in the same place. And that’s rare nowadays.
Matt Baram co-developer and performer of The Script Tease Project
I know that improvisation as an art form unto itself is the idea of collective creation. We write the shows by ourselves on the spot with audience suggestions. It’s not like we’re doing a show for them, we’re doing it together and creating it based on things that are happening in the community. Also it’s inspired by two pages from a playwright and together we create it. At the end of the hour it’s a brand new play that’s never been seen before and will never be seen again. Only by the members of that community.
Naomi Snieckus co-developer and performer of The Script Tease Project
If we did the play without the community it would be called Dinner, like the rest of our lives. So we need the theatre to make it less like a snapshot of our life. We’ve been doing these shows for so long and like Matt said, improv is such a celebration of the community since we create it together. There was a tipping point: I remember doing a show and suddenly I was like, “Oh, this show brought these people together,” and we shared a common laugh and a common heartbeat for an hour and a half, so it’s a really extraordinary thing to share for sure.
Melody A. Johnson will perform her one-woman show Person of Interest
I talk a lot about the village [in Person of Interest], Roncesvalles Village, which is Little Poland, so there’s that influence [related to community]. [In the play,] I talk about the ice cream truck, which has a certain sound in this neighbourhood as opposed to the old place we used to live and there’s a couple of public schools and it’s a real great vibe in terms of the parents and children around here. There’s lots of kids. My son’s now fifteen, but this story took place when he was five years old, so go back in time to Roncesvalles Village then and tell the story through the 2010 lens and I talk about the world at that time; we had a power outage in Toronto, but we never had major catastrophes happening. Thirty-three miners were trapped in a cave in Chile and there was BP spilling oil into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico and in our little village things were okay until the upheaval with the neighbours. They became kind of notorious through the school as they were parents with kids at the same school. But Person of Interest is all about our house and living in this end of Toronto, which is a lovely area, but if you have difficulties with your neighbours it’s like a black cloud leaving your house every day.
Wendy Thatcher will be in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar
Community is community no matter where you are. I live in Toronto, and the area that I live in, I feel like I’m living in a community because I know the area and my neighbours. I think with somewhere like Prince Edward County, it’s different because it’s smaller and people know each other and they probably look out more for each other. It’s got that close feel to it.
Danika Lorèn will sing as part of the programming for Wellington Water Week
Performing in the county is so special! There is an amazing community here of artists and art lovers, and therefore it is the perfect audience for new ideas. I have been able to both perform and create in Wellington and some of my best work has come from those experiences. This year, I will be performing with CollectÌf, my creative family! We are so excited to bring our adults-only comedy cabaret “Watering Hole” to The Stache. I love that this show brings classical music’s mischievous side to a community culture hotspot, and I know that Wellington is ready to have some fun with us. I can’t wait to be back!