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  • Phil Jenkins

Theatre Wakefield’s show goes on after 20 plus years

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Theatre Wakefield didn’t exist. The curtain went up in 2002, and since then, with a rotating cast of directors, producers, actors, playwrights, technicians, board members and venues, it has been busy.

Take a moment and reflect on the many moments you've been seated in a room, while your fellow Hills residents have made a script and score come to life and put tears of laughter and sadness in your eyes. You, in turn, have rewarded them with a thunderclap of applause.

“Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,” says one of the greatest playwrights, Tom Stoppard, and it's got some truth to it. But time and again, Theatre Wakefield has pulled off a success on opening night, as everyone involved in the play has risen to the occasion, sometimes even rising above it.

In those 20 years (math wizards will have spotted that it's strictly 21-one years, but COVID messed up the counting), the cast of volunteer locals involved in mounting the plays numbers in the hundreds, if not several hundred. Everyone involved over the years has made sure the show must go on. To name them all would fill a phone book. They know who they are, and the community is grateful.

Many of the local talent will be on hand when Theatre Wakefield celebrates its 20(ish) years of treading the local boards on Saturday, Nov. 25, in the Wakefield community centre, the arena for dozens of productions since it became Theatre Wakefield's home turf in 2009. The special anniversary evening is free for locals and boasts live music, food and a whole lot of memories to toast to. Free tickets are still available on the Theatre Wakefield website.

Robert Rooney, who passed away in January 2016, was there from the beginning of Theatre Wakefield. The Rooneys, Brenda and Robert, a formidable producer/director team, moved to Wakefield from Toronto in 1996. By then, Robert had amassed a serious theatrical cred sheet, including working at Stratford, Toronto and Banff. Those who worked with him usually have at least two things to say: He could be gruff and pushy, but he could push actors beyond their own supposed limits. Over the next two decades, Robert and Brenda raised the cultural bar in La Pêche to head height with film and theatre festivals, early productions involving local talent, such as “Dreamcatcher”, an Ian Tamblyn play and film camp.

The era of Scott and Eric Hébert-Daly’s Theatre Wakefield involvement began when Peter Gillies and Robert approached Scott about writing a play with a local flavour in the early 2000s. Scott, a drama teacher and his partner Eric, who worked in politics, had moved into Masham in the summer of 2000. The comedy “Much Ado About Lizzie” was the result – a play about the late Queen making a royal visit to the Gatineau Hills. Mounted in the old community centre (a two-storey whiteboard shed where the skateboard park is now), it was a success and proof that the community had the talent and enthusiasm to continue making theatrical magic.

The pair’s playlist culminated in the audacious production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”, which ran for five-and-a-half performances (a power cut halfway through the final performance saw the cast perform highlights outside in the rain).

In my time with Theatre Wakefield, I have been on both sides of the curtain: in the audience and as an actor playing Charles Dickens, the ghost of Christmas Past, the narrator in “Into the Woods”, a TV anchorman in “Nun of It”, a Swedish farmer and a zombie (typecasting), and worked under five directors – Robert Rooney, Scott and Eric Hébert-Daly, (or Sceric as I call them), Claude Laroche, Rae-Anna Maitland and Scott Powers. Thank you, Theatre Wakefield, for the memories, the friendships and the weight loss.

In the wings, so to speak, of the playmakers is the board of directors, who decide which plays get made and then chase the funding and grants that are the fuel of local theatre. The seemingly tireless Andrea Rowe is the present chair of the board, and the artistic director of the annual illuminating TaDa! Festival has, in a sense, risen through the ranks. She started as a stage manager on “Balconville” and became co-chair of Theatre Wakefield in 2019. She and the board are the stokers who keep the theatre train running, and in the 10 years she has been involved, her calm demeanour has always settled the inevitable storms in teacups that arise when amateur egos and frayed nerves collide. She has retained her cool through it all because, as she says, “First of all, none of us are getting paid; it’s just for fun, to learn something new, spend time with a crazy bunch of people and have a good time.”

A perfect closing line to bring down the curtain on this article. Exit, stage left.


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