Festival Players of Prince Edward County
The County without Theatre is like actors without a stage.
Written by Alison Lawtey
Shakespeare’s soliloquy, “All the world’s a stage”, sums it up nicely. Today’s stage, however, is all too often a screen, with the audience binge-watching Netflix in sweat pants from the couch, muscles atrophying and eyes bulging, beet red. Change scenes to a life-affirming weekend in Prince Edward County will certainly recharge one’s batteries, as it puts on quite a show for all senses. Not only does this include sampling the talents the unique terroir yields; sophisticated wines, earthy craft beers, and farm-to-table culinary delights: an integral part of the cast is Festival Players of Prince Edward County.
With over a decade of entertaining audiences under their belt, Festival Players is crucial to The County’s colourful palette of artistic expression. In true County fashion, the company has offered up performances in settings unique to the area; from a century-old barn, a converted church, to tents at vineyard estates. As outgoing Artistic Director, Sarah Phillips, takes a bow from her tenure spanning from 2007 to 2016, The County is thankful for her impressive array of productions, and grateful for setting the scene for bold new narratives going forward.
Enter stage left: Graham Abbey is famous for playing many characters on major Canadian stages (he’s in his 19th season at the Stratford Festival, Mecca of Shakespearian plays in Ontario!) and screen (notably, The Border on CBC) and founding the award-winning Groundling Theatre Company in Toronto. Graham willofficially takes the spotlight as Festival Players’ Artistic Director in 2018, but has been very much involved in shaping an exciting season of theatre for 2017.
When asked what drew him to be the leading man of the Festival Players, Abbey chuckles, “I came out here with my wife about a year and a half ago having heard so much about it, and simply fell in love with The County. To be cliché about it, it just sort of spoke to my soul!” He continues, “It’s a beautiful place to be, and I started to dream about the possibility of doing some theatre out here. I knew about the reputation of Festival Players, who’d been doing great stuff for a decade, and was thrilled when they approached me during their search for a new Artistic Director with the possibility of leading the company through this next period of time.”
As part of his vision for Festival Players, Abbey is looking to create “interesting, eclectic spaces in Wellington”. By this, he means the addition of new venues: storefronts, pop-ups, and an outdoor space on the grassy lawn behind the United Church where Festival Players will pitch their theatre tent in 2017. His ambitions expand to “building a permanent year-round theatre which could run shows all year long” – a big win for visitors and residents alike.
“I think it would be interesting to have a small, intimate-sized playhouse”, Abbey responds when asked about the suitability of The Regent Theatre as a potential venue. “I love The Regent. The Regent, obviously, is gorgeous with a very storied history, and they bring beautiful things through there. I’m a huge fan of intimate spaces as well.” My favourite spaces at Stratford have been (some of) the smaller spaces.” (Intimate being defined as about 100 to 150 seats.) “And that’s not only to house our projects, but for lots of groups in the community”.
The company’s outdoor premier of the 2017 summer season, Hippolyta’s Wedding: A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare, Abbey describes as “a beautiful introduction to Shakespeare for all ages, and I hope it’s something (people) will come out and enjoy.” Audiences can also look forward to the other outdoor opener, Stones in his Pockets, a hit Irish comedy; and a Canadian classic, Mary’s Wedding, making its debut in the indoor pop-up space (the 60-seat storefront venue also in Wellington). Their series, Festival Players Presents will start with the Dora Award-nominated, The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy by Eric Woolfe, which will run in September in this new and intimate venue. Another exciting new tangent will be Cold Read nights hosted at The Drake Devonshire, where actors will read new scripts fresh off the writer’s printer.
In comparison to Stratford, where Abbey grew up and entered the world of theatre, nurturing art at a grass-roots level and getting young people engaged is both his personal experience and his want for this region. With both local and imported talent (such as four-time Broadway actor, Bruce Dow) teaching kids thespian craft, it will keep the pipeline of talented players in The County for generations to come.
“As we get deeper into that digital world, we need the simple story telling that live theatre is”, Abbey ponders. He also goes further back to his earlier childhood in Niagara, where he was first introduced to all forms of live art – music, dance and theatre – in outdoor settings, making him nostalgic: “And live…there’s something irreplaceable about that.” His goal is to replicate this here.
Taking a page from the same script about how fond childhood memories can transform into inspiration, two new Festival Players actors reflect on how their summers vacationing in PEC whet their creative appetite so much as to lead these artists to set up more lasting ties here.
Anna Hardwick, playing Hippolyta and Titania in Hippolyta’s Wedding, hails from Ottawa, and vacationed in The County throughout her childhood. Continuing to meet here for family occasions once she moved to Toronto, her love for the region blossomed into enterprise.
“Two years ago, I bought a place in Picton – The Ferg – a vacation rental boutique accommodation that I have with a business partner,” Hardwick informs. “I love this place! I’m here as often as possible. I love working here, the community, the artisans, and the entrepreneurs.” Acting is one of the many hats Anna wears: she also writes and produces movies, teaches yoga “on the side”, and manages her vacation property. Many of her creative endeavours can be found at annahardwick.com.
Living with one foot in Toronto and the other in The County, Anna remarks “you can make a life in both places, and that’s my dream. The quality of my life, and sense of connection I have with nature that I have by spending time out here has increased tremendously.” Joining Festival Players combines her love of The County and acting.
Gabriella Albino, another new addition to Festival Players, is playing Hermia (one of the young lovers), also in Hippolyta’s Wedding. “I was born and raised in Toronto, but my connection to The County happened about five or six years ago when my brother moved out here to start farming,” explains Albino. “My family is really connected to the farming community (here).” Her brother is both a farmer and an artist himself – a musician, in his case.
Albino also grew up camping at The Sandbanks, and recalls those times fondly. With her parents’ and brother’s recent farming property investment on the Picton/Bloomfield border, she anticipates spending plenty of quality time with her family in The County once again this summer, while she makes her debut as a Festival Player.
When asked their views on how The County has a tendency to inspire all forms of artistic expression, Hardwick shares, “I’m just amazed with the explosion of the music scene…The Hayloft Dancehall and other music venues that really attract great names. And people are moving here, like my pal Justin Rutledge and others that come out to build their lives here…visual artists, writers, filmmakers…there’s a ton of that activity out here. I feel really supported and inspired!”. Abbey adds his view, “The art scene here is just burgeoning! The theatre scene is alive and well, the art scene on all levels – music, culinary – take your pick! It’s a real playground for all kinds of artists.”
Albino gives her thoughts on the season ahead: “I just love the play and especially classical theatre. I just graduated from a classical theatre program (at the George Brown Theatre School), so this is what’s been in my bones for the last three or four years.”
To summarize what makes The County a natural incubator of theatre, we turn to the wise Oscar Wilde: “The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life.” How apropos for theatre to be flourishing in The County!
For ticket sales please visit FestivalPlayers.ca/