Celebrating two decades of ACT
by Sean McQuaid
It might be the most important coffee table in PEI theatrical history. That table belonged to civil servant Gerry Gray, who was hosting fellow theatre enthusiasts in his living room one wintry Sunday evening on March 19, 1995. They had gathered around Gray’s table to discuss forming a permanent community theatre group on Prince Edward Island.
Then as now, PEI boasted lots of theatre—year-round professional operations such as Theatre PEI and Off Stage Theatre (both now sadly defunct), plus seasonal enterprises like the Charlottetown Festival and Victoria Playhouse.
There were also scattered amateur productions, school musicals and Confederation Centre Christmas plays, but the coffee table assemblage wanted more—more and better community plays more often, staged by a permanent ongoing community theatre group. As actor Barb Rhodenizer put it, “In order to have performance opportunities, they needed to be created.”
Some of them had idly discussed this idea since at least 1993, and Gray had been courting Confederation Centre administrator David Sherren as a potential director for this theoretical theatre group.
Sherren eventually said yes, and the coffee table crew put their money where their mouths were: a membership fee of 25 bucks apiece made them all founders of a group semi-anticlimactically dubbed ACT (a community theatre). “Does exactly what it says on the tin,” as the old UK saying goes.
Early ACT members included Sherren, Gray, Rhodenizer, Jennifer Anderson, Wallena Higgins, Blaine Hrabi, Doug Huskilson, Ben Kinder, Allie McCrady, Ed Rashed, Greg Stapleton, Karen Swanson, Rob Thomson and more. Some were current or future theatrical professionals while others were gifted hobbyists, but 25 dollars bought them all a little slice of local theatrical immortality. It also purchased a pair of step ladders which became the minimalist set for ACT’s first production: Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s classic celebration of small-town life.
Youthful cast member Greg Stapleton was somewhat star-struck at their first script reading. “I remember the passion in that small room with that group of people,” he recalls. “Being 18 at the time, felt pretty special to be a part of something with such elite stage performers.”
Two months after the coffee table summit, Our Town opened at le Carrefour de l’Isle-Saint-Jean. The public responded enthusiastically, including professional actor Nancy McLure (later an ACT member). “It was magical,” she recalls. “I was so very proud of the cast and crew. I was an audience member and the show made me fall in love with theatre all over again.”
Twenty years later, ACT is one of the most enduring and influential groups in PEI theatre, staging well over 50 shows.
Full disclosure: two of those later shows employed this writer (ACT member circa 1998-2000), one secret of ACT’s success being expansion. From the start, they reached out to recruit thespians of all ages from all corners of the PEI theatre community. A wide array of theatre folk have cycled in and out of the group, helping foster variety in ACT’s performance catalog and a sense of a larger community among their ranks.
“We have [mostly] avoided the thing that destroys many amateur theatre groups sooner or later,” says longtime member Terry Pratt. “The impression you have to break into the coterie of insiders to participate in any significant way.”
Local theatre luminaries like Bunty Albert, Olivia Barnes, Dean Constable, Greg Doran, Doug Gallant, Adam Gauthier, Greg Hughes, Ron Irving, Nils Ling, Keir Malone, Sara McCarthy, Fraser McCallum, Rex McCarville, Nancy McLure, Dave Moses, Laurie Murphy, Jonathan Stewart and dozens more all played roles in the ACT story, some briefly and others for years.
Multiple members cite detail-conscious stage manager Wallena Higgins as key in setting a standard of excellence for ACT. Sherren (who left to run professional company Theatre New Brunswick), Pratt, Richard Haines, Brenda Porter, Paul Whelan and others have directed various productions successfully for the company, giving ACT a solid creative track record. Gray credits Karen Swanson with the “mammoth job” of staying in personal touch with ACT’s early members to keep them informed and engaged.
Gray also praises pivotal ACT mainstay Rob Thomson, who has served as administrator, ambassador, emcee, publicist and everything in between while doubling as one of the company’s best actors. “I don’t think Rob Thomson ever gave less than 150% in whatever task he was doing,” says Gray.
Pratt became the ACT board’s first “Director of Theatre,” a position overseeing the selection of plays and directors, keeping both varied to avoid repetition and burnout. He believes ACT’s formal executive management structure has helped make the group stable and prosperous, so much so that ACT even bought its own building in 2004: a Beach Street warehouse, nicknamed “the Beach House,” where the company builds and stores its sets as well as housing ACT’s costumes, props and assorted mementos.
Beyond ACT’s financial and creative success, current president Brenda Porter is proudest of their development activities: “We provide workshops and play readings, lend costumes and set pieces to other theatre groups, encourage attendance at local productions.” Perhaps most notably and commendably, ACT took over management of the PEI Community Theatre Festival after Theatre PEI’s untimely demise.
UPEI professor Greg Doran credits the company with helping sustain a year-round PEI theatre audience despite the province’s often-seasonal theatre industry, and helping to build up PEI’s theatre community. Montreal-based writer Jonathan Stewart agrees: “ACT plays an essential role in building community, training artists, and making the Island a unique and fun place.”
Quite a laudable litany of achievements, all built on the quixotic foundation of those 25-dollar investors assembled around Gerry Gray’s coffee table twenty years ago. Or as Rob Thomson ably sums it all up, “We made something good happen.”
—Sean has compiled an appendix of additional ACT production history which is available below: