Community Living Dufferin and Theatre Orangeville

Local Heroes: David Nairn and Sheryl Chandler are building dreams together

November 21, 2011 | | Local Heroes

David Nairn and Sheryl Chandler: Two of our 2011 Local Heroes


There’s a certain “huh?” factor when people first hear about the partnership between Theatre Orangeville and Community Living Dufferin.

That’s because the two organizations don’t seem to share much common ground. Over its 17-year history, Theatre Orangeville has become a leading light in professional performing arts, with both local and national stars taking the stage at the Town Hall Opera House. Meanwhile Community Living Dufferin is a non-profit organization that has been supporting children and adults with developmental disabilities since 1954.

However, David Nairn, Theatre Orangeville’s artistic director, argues there is a commonality at the core of each organization: “A lot of people who are drawn to the theatre are outsiders in some way. They’re usually not big hockey fans, for example. I guess you might call them ‘artsy.’ So they know what it’s like to be different. It’s the same with people at CLD.”

When the two groups combined to open the “Dreams Building,” a 24,000-square-foot, shared-use facility in East Garafraxa, it was the first such organizational pairing of its kind. The project was made possible through $600,000 in local funding, raised by the Building Dreams Together initiative, a $2.7 million grant from the federal government, and a mortgage for the balance.

Community Living Dufferin’s portion of the building is home to QPAC (an internal employment program for CLD clients), the Options program which provides recreational opportunities, and office space for staff.

Executive Director Sheryl Chandler says one of the biggest benefits of the Dreams Building is financial. Rent on CLD’s former premises was $18,000 a month. Here the mortgage is $7,000. The former premises cost $2,100 a month to heat. With geothermal in the new building, the bill is now $120. Sheryl says, “I’ve become the world’s biggest fan of geothermal heating.” Considering recent cutbacks in provincial funding for Community Living organizations, she adds, “We’d be in trouble now if we were still in the old place.”

As for Theatre Orangeville, while its performances take place at the Opera House, all the behind-the-scenes activities had been shuffled around through several locations over the years. Rehearsals and set building took place in Toronto. In its portion of the new building, the company now has not only rehearsal space but construction and storage space for sets, props and costumes.

“It’s beyond measure what it has done for our organization,” David says. “We’re not gypsies anymore. There’s stability here. Other theatre companies would give their eye teeth for that stability.”

But the partnership goes well beyond just sharing space. The two organizations have also launched an initiative called Creative Partners on Stage, a drama program for CLD clients. “When we first started the drama program,” Sheryl says, “there were some concerns from the theatre people about ‘How do we treat these guys?’ But as time went by everyone realized they didn’t need much support related to their disability.” The first group, called the Spotlights, was so successful that a second group, called the Footlights, was added. In total 30 CLD clients participate, and there’s a waiting list.

David says, “The program has enabled some actors to develop their skills and confidence to the point where they could walk into a regular Orangeville Music Theatre audition and get the part.”

The innovative approach has garnered attention around the province and at the national level. Several other Community Living agencies have contacted Sheryl to ask her about how they did it. She tells them, “Think outside the box. Sometimes you’ve just got to say ‘yes.’ If you don’t, you can’t take advantage of the opportunities that are available to you.” And it doesn’t have to be theatre: “It could be a dance company or a music company or people who do film, or something else. For the people we support, it’s about expanding themselves. It’s an opportunity to try on different things and see how they fit.”

The partnership has had an important impact on the culture of the theatre company too. “Personally I think the most exciting thing is the way it has developed our sense of social responsibility and relevance,” David says. “I bet we’ve covered more of those issues than any other theatre company. And not just developmental disabilities. We’ve done topics like homelessness and elder abuse and at-risk youth. Everyone’s just more aware.”

David was invited by MP David Tilson to make a presentation to the House of Commons All-Party Arts Caucus in Ottawa last February, where he showcased Theatre Orangeville’s success in youth programming along with the CLD collaboration.

Although the building itself is finished, other projects are planned at the site. Sheryl envisions community gardens, a soccer pitch and walking trails. Most significant is a plan to turn a natural bowl in the landscape at the rear of the property into what’s been dubbed Gore’s Corners Amphitheatre. The outdoor venue would host a wide range of cultural performances, contributing to the region’s tourism and economy. A committee has been formed to examine ways it could function at arm’s length from the non-profit operations, while still creating a revenue stream for CLD to use for additional services.

David Childs, former chair of the CLD board and a driving force in creating the partnership, said in his speech at the grand opening of the Dreams Building that “the absolute impossible got done.”

That happened thanks to a team of committed individuals from across the community who all shared the vision and, as in any good stage performance, played their part. Now, after a year in operation, everyone is pleased with how it’s going. Sheryl says she is “surprised how few problems there have been. I thought there’d be more. And it’s so nice here on the nights there’s a rehearsal.”

Says David, “It’s not a partnership of organizations. It’s a partnership of people.”

More Info

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About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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