David & Wayne’s Excellent Adventures

For museum curator Wayne Townsend and Theatre Orangeville artistic director David Nairn, it’s been an exhilarating ride.

June 17, 2013 | | Back Issues

In the spring of 1994, the inaugural issue of In The Hills featured a story called “Dufferin’s Cultural Impresarios.” It introduced readers to the leaders of two newly minted ventures: Dufferin County Museum and Archives and Theatre Orangeville, and declared the two institutions to be “boldly conceived on a visionary scale.”

The story predicted the museum and theatre would provide a “twin-engine kick-start to the cultural and economic revitalization of Orangeville and Dufferin County.”

Two decades later, it’s safe to say that prediction has been more than borne out.

For museum curator Wayne Townsend and Theatre Orangeville artistic director David Nairn, it’s been an exhilarating ride. In this issue, we sit down with them to take a look back at some of the peaks and valleys of the last 20 years, assess where things stand, and ponder what the future may hold – for the two institutions, and for the two men who have become synonymous with them.

“I will die onstage at the two o’clock Wednesday matinée in a Norm Foster play”
Artistic Director David Nairn on 20 years of Theatre Orangeville

Artistic Director David Nairn, Theatre Orangeville. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Artistic Director David Nairn, Theatre Orangeville. Photo by Pete Paterson.

So many cultural initiatives began in Headwaters in the mid-1990s. What was it about the times back then?

dn: It’s hard to put your finger on any one thing. Through my freelance work and touring shows, I get a chance to go to a lot of other communities, and I don’t know the like of this community anywhere in the country. There are enclaves, like Salt Spring Island in BC and Halifax, where vibrant scenes are happening, but I don’t know of anywhere that has the arts and cultural scene that we have here. Not just Theatre Orangeville, but potters, weavers, sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians. A lot of them moved up here from the city, and it created a really phenomenal cultural environment.

For Theatre Orangeville, there was also huge buy-in from town council. They understood what the arts could bring to this community. When they went ahead with restoring the Orangeville town hall, and the Opera House opened, it brought the heart of Orangeville back to that corner.

There was a time when everything was moving out of downtown to the box stores, and it was getting so there was no centre of Orangeville. But council had the vision of what restoring the town hall could do for the downtown, and gradually the shop owners came on board, and now it’s a really pretty street.

What event do you remember most from your 14 years as artistic director?

dn: I was thinking the other day about all the great shows we’ve done. There are many moments from them that are burned into my memory.

One of the most satisfying things for me has been the work we’ve been doing with people who have developmental difficulties. The Creative Partners on Stage partnership we created with Community Living Dufferin is something way beyond just putting on five plays a year and entertaining people. It makes the theatre engage on a more human and immediate level, and has allowed it to develop a sense of social responsibility.

What event has been the most important?

dn: I don’t know of another theatre company in Canada that does original work, all Canadian work, works with children, works with special needs people, and is also providing visitor information services. So the breadth of involvement we have is huge. But in particular, we pride ourselves on offering all these great opportunities for kids – choirs and theatre classes, and so on.

The programs for special needs kids have been especially important. We asked, “What about children where it’s less accessible, what are we doing for them?”

In general, what does Theatre Orangeville contribute to the community? Has the relationship with the community changed over the 20 years?

dn: We’ve become a really vital part of the community. To begin with, years ago we really had no right to call ourselves “Theatre Orangeville.” We rehearsed at York University. Our sets were built in Toronto. Every nail, every screw, every can of paint was bought in Toronto. Now everything happens here.

Beyond that, I’d like to think that we’ve become a cherished part of the community, just as Dufferin County Museum and Archives has. It seems hard to imagine this community without the museum.

Then there’s Theatre Orangeville’s relationship with the theatre community. We’ve got a nine-year-old girl in our young company this summer who is going to come to Orangeville from nine to four every day, and she lives in Barrie. Her mother is going to drive her down here five days a week for a month to be a part of this experience. A few years ago we had two kids from Walkerton do the same thing.

Why do they come? The answer’s always the same: “Because there’s nothing like it in our community.”

What have you learned about yourself?

dn: When I first came here I’d been a director, I’d been an actor for years, but I lived in awe of anybody who could do the job of artistic director. So it wasn’t a learning curve, it was more like a learning wall. I think I was a very different person 15 years ago, and I was driven by different things. I had an ego the size of this building – you have to in order to survive in this business – so I think this experience has made me a better person.

I’ve learned that my actual job here is really a very simple one. My job is to do whatever I have to do to preserve a creative environment for artists to come in here and make mistakes, to be able to experiment, and to succeed.

I’d also never had a home, never really been part of a community, so that’s huge too. That’s changed me very much, the fact that I love living here. Just today, I was driving down Broadway, stopped at the lights, and I thought, “Oh, there’s Lori going to work, and there’s Geoff going to the coffee shop, and there’s Neil, he comes to the theatre all the time,” and it hit me that I know everybody here.

Beyond your title, what is your most important role in the organization?

dn: To keep everybody laughing. This theatre is fuelled by passion and commitment. Everybody in the organization cares a lot. There isn’t one person in this organization who is paid what they’re worth, yet they all go above and beyond in their personal commitment. There have been oceans of tears wept over this company, countless nights people have lost sleep, just because they care so much about it. You can pay people a million dollars a year and not get that. Beyond the staff, we have 190 volunteers, and we couldn’t do it without them. You can’t buy that kind of commitment, you have to earn it.

What has been your most important accomplishment?

dn: I think the next thing will always be the most important one. We’ve achieved some major accomplishments, but there’s still a lot to do. We need to provide even more opportunities, attract even more kids, though sometimes the programs are overbooked as it is.

What are you most proud of?

dn: One of the things I’m most happy about is that the organization can turn on a dime, because we’re flexible and light and responsive to the needs of the community.

What has been your biggest regret?

dn: I regret that we’ve lost people along the way. In particular, when we made the switch from being a summer theatre to a winter theatre in 2002, we had 18 months of nonstop programming. In order to turn the wheel, we were selling two subscription series at the same time. We burned people out, some of whom left the theatre and will never come back. I regret that. Maybe there was a better way to do it and that didn’t have to happen.

What are your long-term hopes and dreams for Theatre Orangeville?

dn: I hope that it maintains its commitment to serve the community, providing terrific entertainment, but also providing creative outlets for people, whether they’re challenged, different, young or old. I want that to remain one of the core beliefs.

I hope that we’re on a course of doing work that’s new, that’s different, and that’s not the tried-and-true. If we become afraid of being different, if we just want to be safe, then we might as well just close, because that doesn’t inspire or engage creativity. That was [original artistic director] Jim Betts’ vision and I hope I’ve been true to it – to create work that engages the community.

Right now we’re developing an idea for a floating stage at Island Lake, and I hope that by bringing on forward-thinking, creative projects like that the company will remain vibrant and relevant.

Short term, what’s the next big thing?

dn: This summer we’re undertaking a quarter-million-dollar project to renovate the opera house. It’s getting a new floor, which will fix the problem with people tripping on the risers. Right now that happens at every show.

And we’re getting new seats. At the moment we can only accommodate six wheelchairs, so we’re going to add removable seating to allow for up to 16. The last six or seven rows of seats are going to be stacked, rising 18 inches with every row. The sound booth is going to move into the middle. For visually impaired people, we’ll have seats with monitors and an in-house camera system. Those will be at the back so the glow won’t be a problem.

Also at the back we’re going to have “tweet seats,” where we will encourage people to tweet live during shows. QR codes on the backs of seats will allow patrons to access show programs and photos on their smart phones.

How much longer do you expect to stay in the role? Plans for retirement?

dn: I’m going to stick around until they figure out the emperor has no clothes. I have no desire to leave. I turned 60 this May, but there is no retirement in my business. There are no benefits; there is no pension for anyone who works in the world of freelance art. So I will die onstage at the two o’clock Wednesday matinée in a Norm Foster play. In fact, I’d consider it a great honour to go that way while acting with Norm himself, as he’s a dear friend.

Now there will come a time to hand the keys over as artistic director. Will I still want to be doing this at 65, at 70? Will I still have the energy? I don’t know. But I don’t plan to ever stop acting.

Is there a succession plan for a new leader?

dn: We’ve grown to an operating budget of over a million dollars a year, and the company has grown to a point where someone is going to need to be mentored into the role. Maybe that will be my long-term contribution.

Over the last year, with the guidance of the board, we’ve developed a strategy for succession planning. In an ideal world I’d like to be able to say “in three years I’ll be done,” and then begin taking steps to bring someone new on. Alternatively, we’ve also developed a plan for the possibility that I get hit by a bus tomorrow. That has been driven by the arts funders, like Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council, who want that, but the board sees that we need to have it too.

What have you learned about building a successful cultural organization that you would pass on to others?

dn: It’s all about the people. It’s about finding and convincing crazy creative people to pass on anything that resembles sanity and get involved.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

“We always keep it just a little bit juicy and a little bit fun”

Curator Wayne Townsend on 20 years of Dufferin County Museum and Archives

Curator Wayne Townsend

Curator Wayne Townsend, Dufferin County Museum and Archives. Photo by Pete Paterson.

So many cultural initiatives began in Headwaters in the mid-1990s. What was it about the times back then?

wt: I think the impetus came from people who moved here. They had fallen in love with the area and they really wanted to get involved. A lot of them were a little bit older, and their kids were older, so they probably couldn’t meet people in a parent association. They were also very used to arts and culture. It was something that already existed here, but it needed formulation and direction, and the newcomers provided that.

The old-timers buy into the museum because they like to reminisce, whereas the new people take an interest because it’s new information they feel privileged to share. It’s almost like learning the dirty secrets of Dufferin County. I’ve kind of sold that in the last few years. We always keep it just a little bit juicy and a little bit fun.

Is there a particular event over the 20 years that you remember the most?

wt: One of my favourite memories is a [DCMA archivist] Steve Brown moment. Steve had been searching for, and finally found, some woman’s death records. The lady looking for them exclaimed, “Well, this can’t be right, because it says my aunt died in childbirth, and that’s impossible because she was only married for six months.” Steve didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Well, since I’ve worked at the museum I’ve found that the first-born child can take any length of time. All the rest take nine months.”

What event over the 20 years has been the most important?

wt: There have been some great moments when people connect, and it’s really magical. We’ll have a concert or a talk or something, and you’ll see the person giving the speech or the performer connecting with the audience. Or you’ll see somebody’s face light up when they look in a display case. It’s almost like electricity.

Probably the best event for the museum has been the discovery of Cornflower glass, because it has brought us a lot of national attention. I began to understand that for the museum to survive, it had to have something that was of interest outside the community. Cornflower is collected all across Canada and it’s that whole national story.

In general, what does the museum contribute to the community?

wt: It contributes to pride. It’s a quick way of getting a sense of community. And the museum has been allowed to be inclusive. So, for example, we collect Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s stuff, but we also collect my grandfather’s stuff. We collect the stuff of all the people of Dufferin. It doesn’t matter if you’re new here, if you’re old here, once you’re here you’re here, you’re one of us. We do the student art show because we want to include young people.

We also like to do things that highlight the community as it exists today. That sometimes gets us in trouble. I remember the first time we had a gay wedding. There were some people who weren’t too pleased about that. But that’s what the community is.

How has the relationship with the community changed over the 20 years?

wt: I would say it’s the way we have changed to meet the community’s needs. We have had to. For instance, the last couple of years we’ve spent a huge amount of time, money and energy developing Duffstuff, which is an interactive online tool for viewing the collection. From 5,000 veterans to 100 villages to 150 famous people, newspaper articles, indexes, we’ve recognized we need to capture it so people can sit down at home and click and point.

It’s kind of community genealogy. Everybody has a connection. Kids are always surprised when we make them realize that underneath the layers of their houses there’s somebody’s farm, and a story. When they’re from the west end of Orangeville, we always tell them about the Springbrook ghost, and all of a sudden their subdivisions are really big.

Even if the information can be found online, people will still come to the museum, because they’ll get so interested in the artifacts they’ll want to see the real thing. But if we continue to sit on the side of the road at Highway 89 and Airport Road and not reach out electronically, we’re pooched.

What have you learned about yourself?

wt: I think I’ve learned that everybody is a collector if you dig deep enough. Every person has a bag of marbles or a box of coins or 36 cars in their garage. We are somehow connected to “things.” And I think the greatest thing I’ve realized about myself is how things – my house is full of them – were here long before I was and will be here long after me.

We are only custodians of stuff. The museum is the “official” custodian, but things in general are held in trust for the next generation. That was a big one for me because I’m a hoarder. Then it hit me that I’m going to be dead and my partner John is going to be selling this stuff off, and somebody else is going to love it.

Because of the museum I’ve met some pretty amazing people I never would have met otherwise. I’ve heard some great stories. Some of those people have affected the way I think and live, and what I achieve.

Beyond your title, what is your most important role in the organization?

wt: I think that would be mentor. Definitely, the thing I’m most proud of is the number of young people who have moved through that institution in the last 20 years and have gone on to create very successful careers in the heritage/cultural world. Probably because I don’t have kids of my own, that experience has been really cool.

Is it a testament to the organization that so many people come from outside the area to volunteer at DCMA, when they could be doing that in their own community?

wt: Yes. We have a guy who drives over every week from Queensville, a lady who drives down from Meaford, someone who comes up from Caledon. It’s because we give volunteers responsibility, train them properly and trust them.

What has been your most important accomplishment?

wt: We’re technically called a “community museum” in the Ontario government lingo, and I think our biggest accomplishment is to have been able to link the community part and the museum part together. So often they’re not.

By way of example, recently we’ve been working with the family of Jean Waters, who used to run the convenience store next to Orangeville town hall. She’s turning 85 and her family is making this big plan. They’re going to kidnap her and bring her to the museum and donate her. We’ve developed a whole process we’re going to put her through and it’s been so much fun. So I think being part of somebody’s birthday or part of everyday life instead of being separate from things has been our most important accomplishment.

What has been your biggest mistake?

wt: I’ve never been a great civil servant. I think that’s my big downfall. As for the organization, probably the biggest mistake was that we as a community didn’t start the museum quite soon enough. We caught a few things, but even ten years earlier there were people around Orangeville who could have told stories and had things we should have been collecting. Some of it has ended up with us after all.

The greatest example of that would be the dentist Doc Campbell. In 1907 he was on the Canadian Olympic Lacrosse team. His family had run the tannery. He had been the sheriff. There was no museum when his stuff was distributed. But then some of his stuff came to us through a relative. The dentist stuff came to us through Dr. Frater. Former Orangeville mayor Vic Large had snapped up all the lacrosse stuff and kept it in his basement before donating it. So that particular collection did more or less come back together.

Long term, what are your hopes and dreams for the museum?

wt: I’m really pleased with the younger people who are interested in the museum. When I first started, it was a relatively elderly group and now they’re younger. I hope it stays that way. Also, there will be pressure to grow, but I think we need to be careful about that. There’s always a caution in my mind about getting too big because there’s a charm to being a small little community museum.

Short term, what’s the next big thing?

wt: Duffstuff is launching this summer, accessible through the museum’s website. The approach we’ve developed has also been picked up by a private company. They’ll be releasing it all across Canada and through the States. If it takes off, it may change the way museums reach out to their audiences. Plus, as an aside, if it sells DCMA will get a percentage. I don’t want to sound too mercenary, but there’s always a financial aspect.

You’re 60. How much longer do you expect to stay in the role? What are your plans for retirement?

wt: Maybe another year, year and a half. I’m ready. And after I retire I’m going to volunteer at the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. I’ll be the best volunteer they ever had.

Is there a succession plan for a new leader when you leave?

wt: Yes. For the last two years we’ve been making a lot of changes to the way we manage the place, and that’s part of it. Instead of me making decisions now, though I’m still officially the head, the archivist Steve Brown, the manager Darrell Keenie and the curator are a management team, so all decisions are made among the different disciplines.

Duffstuff is also part of the succession plan because everyone says, “If you and Steve Brown retire, how are we going to replace your minds?” Well, everything that we have in our minds came from somewhere, so we’ve taken all the “somewheres” and put them where anybody who can run a computer can find them. Granted, you still lose the human element.

What have you learned about building a successful cultural organization that you would pass on to others?

wt: To find the joy in hard work as a group. Some of the greatest moments are when everyone’s exhausted, but you feel camaraderie because you’ve all pulled something off. I would also say to encourage diversity. We have high school kids doing their 40 hours of community work, we accept people from the penal system, we have seniors. I really love the diversity of the place. Finally, it’s critical to really involve your volunteers.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

To mark the longtime friendship shared among this magazine, Theatre Orangeville and Dufferin County Museum and Archives, the three organizations will celebrate their 20th anniversaries together with a special exhibition at the museum during Headwaters Arts Festival on the first weekend of October. Watch for details in the fall issue.

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.


1 Comment

  1. Fun Q&A interviews. At least Jeff asked some unconventional questions, especially of Wayne Townsend. I was just doing some home work about the museum so it was timely to find a freshly minted interview with the gentleman leading the museum’s future vision.

    Charlie Ross from Orangeville, ON on Jul 2, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Reply

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