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Compiled by Sean McQuaid

Past and present ACT members share some insights on the company’s origins and evolution as they celebrate ACT’s 20th anniversary…

Gerry Gray (ACT founder)

During that first year Karen Swanson did a mammoth job. Not only was she in the committee that developed ACT’s Constitution and By-Laws (which was first published in November 1995), she personally contacted each member by phone to remind them of upcoming events. The success of that ‘personal touch’ was evident everywhere but nowhere more so than our ACT Out’s [organized social gatherings of ACT members]. We were normally able to get group rates for our members because our participant numbers were so high. Later we used Talk Mail and eventually email, but nothing was as successful as those personal calls. 

We also used ACT ONE to help keep everyone informed. I don’t remember when the first one came out but the second one was out in December 1995.Valerie Moore was the first of a number of editors that worked with the newsletter.

It was wonderful how everyone in ACT took ownership of the group and their tasks within it.

I don’t think Rob Thomson ever gave less than 150% in whatever task he was doing. He continues to give everything even today - he was part of that team that so successfully put on this year’s Community Theatre Festival.

Terry Pratt wasn’t there for Our Town but he was there for Our Town’s Post Mortem. So he was definitely one of the ACT old timers (maybe we should start a hockey team)!! 

Our connection with the Centre included the crew even in those days. Garnie Gallant and Paul Druet were early mentors but it was Dutch Thomson who was the first scheduled workshop. It was scheduled for October 1995. It had to be postponed for some reason, but it did take place and it was particularly special as the equipment was not the new equipment. I think Paul Druet holds the record for conducting the most workshops for ACT. But the local crew have been very generous with their time and skills.

Even people who have only been with us for a short time have had wonderful impact. Early on, one person had us serve Tea/Coffee and goodies on proper china during Intermission. You wouldn’t believe how many comments I got about that.

It would be difficult to find anyone who has had a more significant impact on ACT over these 20 years than Wallena Higgins. Her attention to detail consistently brought all the shows she stage managed to a level not normally enjoyed by amateur groups… Wallena takes great pride and pleasure in doing a good job. I think she takes less pleasure talking about it. She frequently asks not to be credited with her task as her enjoyment is in doing it rather than having a record of doing it. 

—For more of Gerry’s thoughts on the founding and history of ACT, see his 2009 essay at this link: http://www.actpei.ca/ind...

Terry Pratt (actor/director/administrator)

I was out of the country for four months, Jan-April, 1995, when ACT began and produced OUR TOWN.  But I remember emailing (and these were early days for email) Rob Thomson during that time and saying that Charlottetown needs a permanent amateur theatre group.  I was amazed and delighted to find it was already coming into existence. 

After its first year or so, the group began to see that, rather than an "Artistic Director" who would direct or at least choose all shows, we needed a Board position of "Director of Theatre".  This person would be charged with looking down the road, encouraging potential directors to present play-ideas to the Board, and stick-handling the overall scheduling of productions approved by the Board, to prevent overlap and burnout, especially among the crew and, of them, especially the management level of producer, stage manager, and director.  This change was in no way critical of David Sherren, who was much admired and who continued to direct under this new arrangement, until he left to become Artistic Director of Theatre New Brunswick, a professional company.

I was the first Director of Theatre and began the job for the 1996-97 season.  Early on, I wrote for the ACT newsletter a description of how this method of choosing, approving, and monitoring productions could work.  I'm pleased that, after 20 years, the model still holds up, mostly.  

I believe that, for the most part though not entirely, we have avoided the thing that destroys many amateur theatre groups sooner or later: the impression you have to break into the coterie of insiders to participate in any significant way. 

In general, I think that ACT has survived and prospered (with now about $35,00 in the bank, after a high point [after JC Superstar] of about $46,000) because it has embraced bureaucracy: a constitution that is followed or amended with due procedure, regular turnover of officers, an AGM, monthly meetings that are chaired according to the normal rules of order, minutes circulated with promises of action noted and followed up on at the next meeting.  This has provided a superstructure that is larger than any play or any season, meeting with Triumph and Disaster and treating those two imposters just the same. Also the idea of regular, well-chaired meetings with minutes is mimicked by the production teams for individual plays, under a Producer who must report monthly to the Board.

Another secret of success is that people shift roles frequently. It's true that there are many who only want to act, but there is also a significant number who will act, crew, build sets, sit on board, assistant-stage-manage, find or create stage properties, put up posters, sell tickets at the door -- whatever is required at the time.  All of these are learning experiences, and all add up to a damn fine hobby.

I will conclude by saying that the acquiring in 2004 of what we call the Beach House, our warehouse on Beach Street, has also been a major factor: no more stuffing costumes in someone's closet and flats in someone's garage, or searching desperately for place to build a set (we went through twenty leads for THE GONDOLIERS, 2003, before finding an inadequate space in the West Royalty Business Park) and then getting rid of the set pieces because of no place to store them (the beautiful MIKADO set of 2001 was auctioned off or burnt), or holding meetings in restaurants.  The Beach House holds a lot of memories, including all our posters, some of which are real gems.

Barb Rhodenizer (ACT founder)

In order to have performance opportunities, they needed to be created. It was both exciting and a little bit intimidating. Would we be able to recruit the necessary talents both on stage and perhaps more importantly off stage to create the kind of experience we hoped to share with others, including our audience? The commitment of those who launched ACT enabled that to happen. Given the rather modest requirements of Our Town and the cooperation of so many others, that first show proved that with belief, passion and a lot of hard work, dreams could be realized. And on that foundation- and possibly knowing no better- we carried on. And now, 20 years later we celebrate a rather remarkable history of producing and supporting theatre and creating an inclusive and encouraging organization which we believe benefits so many. 

David Sherren (ACT founder) 

I’ve been asked to provide some remembrances about the founding of ACT and its inaugural production of Our Town. Given that entire beings have been created and graduated from high school since that time, I don’t know if my recollection of events should be relied upon. If memory serves, I had little to do with ACT’s founding and the success of its first production.

You see, it’s all Walter Learning’s fault. Shortly after Walter joined Confederation Centre as its first year-round Artistic Director, I plunked myself down in his office and arrogantly told him he needed to direct a community theatre production of Our Town so as to solidify his place in the Island community. While he never did direct Our Town, our meeting had a lasting impact: not long after, I successfully persuaded Walter to direct the first of what was to become Confederation Centre’s annual Christmas show. I subsequently produced and directed several of these myself, which brought me into contact with some of ACT’s founding members.

But then, I may have misremembered because, now that I think of it, it’s all Allie McCrady’s fault. After years of tinkering as an actor on PEI, I came to the realization that I would much rather direct, and Allie gave me some of my first directorial opportunities working on Charlottetown Rural High School’s biennial musicals. Once again, these productions brought me into contact with some of ACT’s founding members.

But then, how did that lead to ACT’s formation? Well, it’s all Gerry Gray’s fault. I had asked Gerry to choreograph the Rural musicals and I recall that he started every conversation we had with, “Want to start an amateur acting group?” Before we knew what we were committing to, several of us were meeting in Gerry’s house to discuss such heady topics as, “Should ACT be spelled with or without periods?” I proposed Our Town as ACT’s first production because it’s a great play needing a big cast with a wide age range and would be cheap to produce. Plus, I was not going to let Walter thwart me…

But then, I was lucky in that it’s all the fault of the PEI amateur acting community. After working alongside many of that talented group during that time, I knew that it would be easy to cast Our Town and, indeed, the extraordinary cast of that production exceeded my expectations.

But then, I would be remiss if I didn’t say it’s all Wallena Higgins’ fault for being the best stage manager I could ever hope for and it’s all the fault of the people who worked tirelessly as crew, publicity, and Front of House. Those unsung heroes helped make Our Town a joyful and truly community-based experience.

But then, faulty recollection or no, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all the audience’s fault. After all, if the audience didn’t encourage it by buying tickets, ACT might no longer exist. With their continued loyalty, may ACT prosper for another twenty years.

—I’ve looked over Gerry’s account of the events leading to the formation of ACT (http://www.actpei.ca/ind...) and, these 20 years later, I can’t say I would dare to disagree with his version of events. I do remember, though, that Gerry and I did disagree back then on one common point of interest: The Buzz reviews. 

In those early days, Gerry was very much in favour of Buzz reviews. To him, these were an acknowledgement of ACT’s existence and, whether the review was good or bad, provided valuable feedback on the work done. (I think his years of dance training and experience might have had an influence on his viewpoint; dancers are often without bearings unless they are being criticized. I jest, of course.)

I was less enthusiastic, to say the least. I saw the reviews’ impact on ACT participants and how disheartened some of them could become. I recall that one Our Town actor was upset because there was no mention of their work at all in the review. A low point was reached for me when ‘George Spelvin’ reviewed one of the shows I directed; many of the participants, myself included, thought the review was unnecessarily cruel towards one of the cast. For folks who were doing this mostly for fun, the reviews could often be a bitter pill to swallow.

But, at the end of the day, I think Gerry was more right than I. The Buzz reviews were (and still are, I’d wager) an important acknowledgement. My belief, all these years hence and from many miles away, is that The Buzz has served an undeniable and invaluable role in promoting the arts community in PEI. As participants, we should allow immediate audience response to outweigh a review that comes out some weeks after closing night.

And, really, it’s not like we could have stopped The Buzz from reviewing us…

Greg Stapleton (ACT founder) 

1994 was my graduating year from Charlottetown Rural. A few graduating friends of mine and I decided that we were going to audition for the high school musical Guys & Dolls. We all landed parts in the show and it just so happened that David Sherren was the Director of the show. Wallena Higgins was the Stage Manager and Gerry Gray was the Choreographer for the show. Thus introducing me to theatre. 

After the show in May, Dave said something to me about continuing to be on stage which then led me to the 1994 Confederation Centers production of A Christmas Carol. Where Dave was also directing, and the show that allowed me to cross paths with almost ALL of the original founding members of ACT and more. Ed Rashed, Barb Rhodenhizer, Melissa Vloet, Joey Weale, Ben Kinder & Rob Thomson. 

After this show there was talk of starting a community theatre group. So I was invited to Gerry's home the night it all began and we read through "OUR TOWN" and ACT (A Community Theatre) was born. I remember the passion in that small room with that group of people. Being 18 at the time, felt pretty special to be a part of something with such elite stage performers. 

I was not originally cast as George Gibbs in the first ACT production of "OUR TOWN." I don't even think I had a speaking part at the time, but the actor who was cast as George Gibbs had to back out of the show. This is where I got my chance. Dave asked me if I could do it, and I honestly told him I didn't know... but I was going to try. So I did, and thank God I did. It was my first lead role and one I will remember for the rest of my life. That original show was something special. It was the true beginning of my love for theatre. 

Dave Sherren believed in me from that point on and the passion for the stage that he instilled in me had me acting in almost all ACT shows that followed for quite some time.

Rob Thomson (ACT founder)

Picture this dramatic birth ... It’s Stratford (on Avon? no – Stratford PEI), late winter 1995: a group clusters around a coffee table, talking about how good it was to do “A Christmas Carol” at the Confederation Centre.  David Sherren, a Centre administrator who directed that play, proposes to keep this kind of community theatre going beyond a single pre-Christmas event, starting with a staging of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN.  The group gets excited ... makes the first plans ... chooses the clever company name of ACT - a community theatre ... and then each one (with some hesitancy) puts $25 down on the table.  That buys the first set: two step ladders.  Two months later, in May 1995, a delightful show happens at The Carrefour.

The financial review was mixed.  ‘Well there are two stories,’ the treasurer reported, ‘if I count it one way, we made some money ... if I count it another way, I think we lost some money.’

But Sean McQuaid in his Buzz review had no such doubts: this was “a major first”, he believed, and “... with any luck, ‘Our Town’ is only the first of many ACT productions in our town.”  And so it was.

From the initial gang - - folks like Gerry Gray, Wallena Higgins, Barb Rhodenhizer, Ben Kinder, Karen Swanson, Allie McCrady, Rob Thomson, Ed Rashed - - ACT grew quickly, and has usually numbered about 80 members. There is a core of a dozen and a half people who form an executive and a team of show-to-show production people. 

From the start, ACT has been about more than just putting on plays.  It was to be a social thing - - and so there were play readings and going out together for dinner-and-a-show.  It was for building skills - - hence the workshops and mentoring in producing, directing, lighting, set-building.  It was to promote community theatre among others - - and so ACT has given awards, involved others in the productions, worked for events such as the Island theatre festival, shared resources and expenses with small theatre groups and high schools. 

Variety has made this a lively two decades: more than fifty productions - - Canadian and international, from farce to Shakespeare, classic drama and Broadway, Gilbert & Sullivan and avant-garde ... even some ‘mixed-media’ blending drama with poetry and music and visual projection.

There has been innovation - - for example, website advertising as early as 1995 ... which has grown to a site which gets used to organize rehearsals, record history, show photos and bulletin theatre-related activities around the Maritimes.

Many groups blossom briefly, but this is one with continuity.  ACT has had a couple of less-than-wonderful plays; it has occasionally lost money and lost some good participants.  But it has been sustained by good ‘bench strength’, solid bank-account reserves and organizational structure.  A sign of permanency: ACT is lucky to have its own building - - with space for meetings, rehearsals, construction of sets, storage of costumes and props.

What’s the most important ingredient?  Involvement.  ACT draws together a great range of ages and a wonderful range of skills.  It is truly ‘community’: for instance, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR directly included more than 80 people on, under and behind the stage.  You can tell ACT will keep going, and keep growing with fresh blood.

A 1995 BUZZ review put its finger on the key strength:  “From the sale of treats ... to the fun newsletter ... it was obvious that this was not the work of a few hoity-toity individuals but of many people working together to accomplish something.”  They have indeed: two decades of dramatic achievement.

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