The Heart of the Matter

As David Nairn launches his tenth season as artistic director of Theatre Orangeville, he reflects on the changes the years have wrought.

June 20, 2008 | | Back Issues

“I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve never done anything else but what I love,” Nairn says. Photo by Pete Paterson.

“I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve never done anything else but what I love,” Nairn says. Photo by Pete Paterson.

David Nairn signed up for high-school drama class to fulfill a dream: “It seemed like a great way to meet girls.” It was the sixties; he was attending Thornlea Secondary School, a brand new school in Thornhill that was steeped in the ethos of the times: there were no bells, and students were allowed to smoke in class and call their teachers by their first names. But the school also demanded the most from its students. “We had thirteen-week cycles on Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Pope… I didn’t have to read a book for my first two years of university,” Nairn says. “I just pulled out my high-school notes.”

The school was among the first to offer a drama course in its strongly arts-oriented curriculum. And Nairn did meet plenty of girls, but the romance that endured was his love for theatre.

He went on to study theatre arts at York University and pursue an acting career that has taken him to every major stage across Canada, and many around the world, from Hong Kong to the Falkland Islands.

Now 55, Nairn will launch his tenth season this fall as artistic director of Theatre Orangeville. In addition to his illustrious career at centre stage, like most actors, he has done pretty much everything – directing, set building, lighting, sound, and sweeping floors.

Still, Nairn had “never dreamt of being an artistic director.” When Jim Betts, the theatre’s founding artistic director, announced his departure in 1998, Nairn heard about the job opening, but he and his wife, Leisa Way, were busy performing in Detroit. In fact, they’d been working pretty steadily in the U.S. for a few years and were considering a permanent move there.

However, after the first round of interviews turned up no suitable candidates, Betts called his old friend and urged him to apply. Nairn agreed at least to go through the process, making the four-hour commute along the snowbound highway from Detroit to Orangeville for the interviews and scribbling down management scenarios with a flashlight in his mouth while Way drove.

After getting the nod for the job, Nairn admits that what he embarked on was “not a learning curve, more like a vertical cliff.”

Theatre Orangeville had launched its first season in the Town Hall Opera House in the summer of 1994. Built in 1875, the historic building on Broadway, with its second-floor opera hall had once been a lively fixture of the town’s main street. But by the 1980s the building had fallen into disrepair and stood virtually abandoned. When the town received a provincial grant to restore the building, Jim Betts had been galvanized.

With a successful, twenty-year career performing and writing for musical theatre, the Orangeville resident had a vision of bringing all-Canadian, family-oriented, professional theatre to the town. Without diminishing town council’s support for the project, Theatre Orangeville was born, for the most part, through the sheer force of Betts’ will.

The theatre was conceived as the cultural anchor of Broadway, but at the time there wasn’t a great deal to anchor. There were a couple of restaurants and a specialty shop or two; the BIA that was still struggling to find its way and the tourism association that was still in its infancy.

Not only was Orangeville not a tourist destination, but it had even lost touch with its surrounding community. As one developer said at the time, “A lot of people from the area, people with significant disposable income, haven’t had a reason to come to Orangeville for a long time.”

The Opera House was to be a major step in revitalizing Orangeville’s moribund downtown, but success would depend on a symbiotic relationship between the town, the downtown merchants and the theatre – and that was going to take time and a lot of coaxing, coddling and political manoeuvring.

After five seasons, Betts was burnt out. By the time Nairn took over, the theatre had cleared the start-up hurdles but needed a shot of adrenalin if it was going to make it over the long haul.

Noting that many local residents (read audience) left for the summer, Nairn says, “If we had remained as a summer theatre, we wouldn’t have survived.” So, one of his first moves in his new job was to shift the season to September through May.

He also retooled the playbill. It hasn’t lost the family orientation of the original concept, but that no longer means “all members of the family should see all the plays all the time,” says Nairn. “Our audiences were saying they were looking for more challenge, more content.”

Now, for example, the diverse offerings of the coming season’s five productions are Separate Beds, billed as “a naughty nautical comedy” and targeting a more adult audience, I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, a mystery thriller, and A Christmas Carol, an adaptation of the Dickens’ classic that features the T.O.Y.S. choir, dancing and carol-singing and aims to appeal to all ages during the holiday season.

However, the shift in programming doesn’t mean young people are shortchanged. Each year the theatre presents three plays that target kids in specific age groups and relate to school curriculum (JK to Grade 4, Grades 4 to 8, and high school).

Nairn admits that when this year’s production of Wrecked, a play about alcohol addiction, attracted classes as young as Grade 6, he was apprehensive. “But the teachers said their kids had to see it. They told me kids that age are already hitting their parents’ liquor cabinet and arriving at school drunk.”

Last season, the theatre put on a total of fifteen school matinees, attracting an audience of some 5,000 young people, about half of whom came from schools in Brampton. “Unfortunately, we had to turn schools away,” Nairn says. “We could have brought 10,000 kids from Brampton.”

In post-Harris Ontario, in which most of the arts programs have been stripped out of the “back-to-basics” curriculum, teachers seem grateful that the theatre has picked up some of the slack.

“I recall a young teacher,” says Nairn, “a recent graduate, who came up to me a couple of years ago and said, ‘This is a really cool thing. We should bring our students more often. I never had anything like this when I was a student.’ And I thought, wow, this is the first generation of teachers who came through school without any significant exposure to theatre and the arts.”

For those 450 children and youths who are lucky enough to participate each year in one of the theatre’s hands-on youth programs, it’s another story.

In addition to the 100-voice T.O.Y.S. choir (Theatre Orangeville Youth Singers), the theatre offers weekly after-school classes as well as intensive multi-week summer programs in both musical theatre and drama. All these “Young Company” programs (for ages ranging from seven to sixteen) culminate in a full-fledged, on-stage performance.

“Right now there are at least six or seven kids in our programs who, you can see, all they want to be is actors,” says Nairn. “I beg, plead, is there anything else? Do you really want to be living in your parents’ basement til you’re thirty-five? But you just need to look in their eyes, and you know they’re going to do it.”

And, truthfully, nothing delights Nairn more. “Nobody is in theatre for the money,” he says. And as tough as that can make the business, it’s also one of its joys. Everyone involved is driven by the sheer passion for their work.

“I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve never done anything else but what I love,” Nairn says. He is one of a handful of artistic directors in Canadian theatre who also continue to act and direct. Over the past nine seasons he has directed about eighteen of the theatre’s plays and acted in about seven. (And, just to keep buff, he is away performing this month in The Long Weekend in Petrolia, Ontario.)

Whatever his early apprehensions, Nairn now describes his role as artistic director as a “dream job – I mean sometimes I want to run screaming into the night, but the upside is to have been part of the amazing growth of this theatre over the last ten years.”

And how does he measure growth?

At its most basic, theatrical success is measured by “bums in seats.” But for Theatre Orangeville, bums are finite. The relatively small, 280-seat theatre puts a limit on the potential revenue from even the most successful production (as well as the number of cast – about six – and other staff that can be hired for each play).

So, with its $1-million budget, three full-time staff and a fluctuating number of part-time staff, funding is a perennial challenge, especially because, unlike virtually every other serious theatre in the country, Theatre Orangeville has never received any operating grants from the Canada Council (“We’ve just never had the right needs at the right time,” says Nairn – though the theatre does receive funding from the Ontario Arts Council, the Town of Orangeville, the Orangeville BIA and Dufferin County.)

But there’s another, more generalized limitation, unique to the 21st century, that Nairn sees as the more significant challenge. Arts and entertainment are becoming increasingly home-based, consumed in front of a video screen or plugged into an iPod, and isolated from the broader community.

For him, bringing people together, audience and actors, for a collective emotional experience, and the sense of community that arises from that, is the theatre’s most important role.

So, how does he measure growth? “It’s more around ethos than numbers.”

That means he measures growth in part by the fact that Theatre Orangeville is attracting many of the country’s best actors, playwrights and technicians. They come because they love the vitality of the community and they love the opportunity to do new, Canadian work.

“It’s not that I’m not interested in a play from, say, Somalia,” says Nairn in defence of the theatre’s commitment to all-Canadian programming. “But there is precious little opportunity in this country for playwrights and composers to have their work produced. As a Canadian artist, I feel an obligation to them. And because Headwaters is such an artistic community, across so many disciplines, I believe the community appreciates that.”

Nairn also measures growth by the fact that more and more of the writers, actors and crew are based in Headwaters. He notes that in last season’s production of The Drawer Boy, “with perhaps one exception, every single person involved with the play lived in this community.”

But, perhaps more than anything, Nairn measures growth by the fact that the community has so fully embraced the theatre.

“If we were doing Steel Magnolias or Hamlet, the audience would know what they were getting, but they’re buying into a playbill of mostly original work that they’ve never heard of before. And they trust that they’re going to get first-rate entertainment. When people from a small community will take that risk, you know you’re succeeding.”

Asked to define his role as artistic director, Nairn makes no mention of dollars and cents or bums in seats. Those things may be a measure of the job, but they do not form the heart of the matter. “It took me a while to figure it out,” he says, “but my job, really my only responsibility, is to protect and preserve this creative environment.”

Building Dreams Together
Theatre Orangeville Partners with the Community

As Theatre Orangeville’s artistic director, David Nairn stresses the important relationship between the arts and the vitality of the community. That symbiosis is perhaps best reflected in two of the theatre’s recent and unique projects.

The first is the Play Development Fund. Launched two years ago and financed entirely by community donations, it allows the theatre to commission playwrights to write, develop and workshop original scripts. The fund contributors are “not investors,” says Nairn. “They get nothing for it, other than knowing that they’ve made a creative endeavour possible.”

The first play commissioned with aid of the fund was Could You Wait, by area residents Louise Pitre and Joe Matheson. It was produced on the Opera House stage in 2oo6 and has gone on to stages across Canada.

The second project is the recent launch of a partnership between Theatre Orangeville and Community Living Dufferin, an organization that supports teens and adults with developmental disabilities.

When Nairn, a former board member of CLD, heard it was planning a new building on the Fergus Road in East Garafraxa to accommodate its day programs, he picked up the phone. The theatre was looking for space to expand its youth programs and it had just lost important rehearsal and storage space at the defunct Hockley Highlands Conference Centre.

That first contact quickly turned into a project called Building Dreams Together. To meet its needs, the theatre will occupy a fifth of the fully accessible, eco-friendly, 25,ooo square-foot building – and in return it will offer innovative programs to help people with disabilities develop skills associated with acting and producing dramatic productions.

The theatre also plans to make the new rehearsal space available to other community drama groups and choirs, and possibly develop an outdoor performance area in a natural amphitheatre on the nine-acre property.

A capital campaign to raise $1.6 million of the $4.1 million building costs (the rest is government funded) has just been announced, but the first program in the partnership will get under way this summer. With the help of a $25,ooo Ministry of Culture grant, a program called Creative Partners on Stage, the theatre will provide drama classes to help CLD’s developmentally disabled teens and adults learn to express themselves through the creative process.

The partnership between the theatre and CLD may seem unusual, but Nairn insists it makes perfect sense: By its nature, theatre is about inclusion and developing creative expression.

When Nairn, a former board member of CLD, heard it was planning a new building on the Fergus Road in East Garafraxa to accommodate its day programs, he picked up the phone. Photo by Pete Paterson.

When Nairn, a former board member of CLD, heard it was planning a new building on the Fergus Road in East Garafraxa to accommodate its day programs, he picked up the phone. Photo by Pete Paterson.

About the Author More by Signe Ball

Signe Ball is publisher/editor of In The Hills.

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