Theatre Orangeville Dreams Big

Professional actors, amateurs, young people and people with developmental disabilities come together on an outdoor stage for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

June 20, 2019 | | Arts

Flickering firelight, frolicking fairies, a floating stage and a 50-voice choir. Sound like a dream?

Well, for David Nairn, it was a dream. For nearly a decade the artistic director of Theatre Orangeville has nurtured “a most rare vision,” to borrow a phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the play that will realize his vision when it is performed in August on the Waterfront Stage at Island Lake.

In producing “such stuff as dreams are made on” (as Shakespeare penned in The Tempest), David and his crew have dared to let their imaginations soar. The Dream at Island Lake will be the most ambitious production the theatre has ever undertaken. Its 25 or so cast members comprise professional equity actors, community amateurs, young people and adults with developmental disabilities.

And David’s personal goal is equally ambitious: “I want people to walk away changed, to come to a better understanding of what real, true inclusion in a community looks like. That the acceptance that exists in this community is unique. I want them to sit there and feel ‘I’m a part of this.’”

Culminating the theatre’s 25th season, this “community adventure,” as David lovingly refers to it, has been a long journey. Indeed, for Theatre Orangeville the idea of inclusivity is no new trend. The first seeds for The Dream at Island Lake were planted in 2007, when the theatre first conceived of partnering with Community Living Dufferin to construct the Dream Factory in East Garafraxa, a 25,000-square-foot facility they now share. The alliance provided CLD with the space it required to run its programs, and gave the theatre a chance to shed its gypsy nature in favour of permanent storage and rehearsal space, as well as room for set building.

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

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

But Theatre Orangeville and Community Living Dufferin are more than just roommates. In 2008 they launched Creative Partners on Stage, a performance theatre company for adults with developmental disabilities. The collaboration was achieved with assistance from Famous People Players (a Toronto-based black light theatre company of adults with disabilities). The cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will include four or five actors from CPOS.

However, even as CPOS was thriving, two fathers of children with developmental disabilities asked David what Theatre Orangeville was doing for their young children, to which David ruefully had to reply, “Nothing.” But not for long. As a champion of diversity, the theatre soon joined forces with Kerry’s Place Autism Services and Dufferin Child & Family Services to come up with Theatre Orangeville Exceptional Players. During two eight-week skills-based programs a year, youth (ages 12 to 17) with developmental disabilities learn acting techniques through improv, music and games.

Now, David says, Theatre Orangeville is the only theatre company in the country with the unique mandate to produce original or Canadian work, youth performance programs, and programs that celebrate the ability of special needs participants.

Another part of the vision for The Dream required finding the perfect outdoor space – which, until very recently, didn’t exist. In 2012, Theatre Orangeville approached Credit Valley Conservation Authority with the idea of creating a waterfront stage at its Island Lake Conservation Area. CVC secured a Canada 150 grant and major funding from the Rotary Club of Orangeville Highlands, it constructed the waterfront amphitheatre in 2017. The 60- by 40-foot floating stage cost $120,000 and, along with theatrical presentations, is intended for all kinds of community events to draw visitors to Orangeville. The grassy area that looks out to the stage can accommodate about 1,500 spectators.

With the stage set, as it were, David reveals why the chosen play had to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s Shakespeare’s most accessible work,” he asserts. “Four young kids wander into the forest looking for love and come out the other end.” Along the way there is secret trysts, thwarted romance, mistaken identities and magic potions. In keeping with the midsummer themes of fantasy and transformation, there may have also been a little magic at work in this choice of plays. For the past nine years, David has had a picture above his desk of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream might look like in an outdoor venue. And here we are.

The play, which takes place entirely in a woodland setting, lends itself perfectly to the lakeside venue, which will be transformed into a fantastical fairyland by the theatre’s talented team of technicians, designers, builders and carpenters.

As Midsummer’s mischievous Puck may quip, “Lord what fools these mortals be,” but David, who has been the theatre’s artistic director since 1999, is no fool. He and his staff have taken many measures to ensure the success of its first major outdoor production. Over the past two summers, the theatre’s Young Company has presented two plays at Island Lake – Peter Pan in 2017 and Robin Hood last year.

Production manager Beckie Morris says the team’s greatest teacher may have been the mighty winds of Island Lake. “I don’t think I ever really appreciated the power of Mother Nature until a pirate sail we were working on lifted us off our feet. And we are not small people!” Beckie says the biggest challenge of this production is trying to fill such a large stage while ensuring it is secure against any weather contingency.

The team has also ironed out the less glamorous details of outdoor production – such as traffic flow, outdoor washrooms, making change for tickets, and what to do when the generator they were using to make popcorn was so loud no one could hear the show. (Popcorn fans simply had to do without, but don’t worry, this year there’s a quieter generator.) Robin Hood cast members were equipped with microphones so the outdoor audience could hear them better, but they quickly learned that a special windproof microphone was required. David says those first Young Company productions laid the groundwork to make a fully financed production like The Dream viable.

Though David has performed Shakespearean roles, he has not directed a play by The Bard. Nor will he this time. Instead, he has assumed the role of executive producer, managing not only such key elements as fundraising and logistics, but ensuring the production’s mandate 
of inclusion is fully realized.

“It’s a show that celebrates this community and ability,” David says. And that means everyone’s ability. The production aims to throw aside any so-called limitations and encourage participation, regardless of age, experience or developmental ability.

David is also excited that the production provides an opportunity for young, emerging artists to work in their hometown. The play is being directed by Colin Simmons, 26, who started out as Ralphie in Theatre Orangeville’s production of A Christmas Story in 2004. Colin also participated in the Young Company for many years. “These programs were my safe space where I was able to be myself and make mistakes without judgement,” he says. “Without David and my Theatre Orangeville family, I would not be where I am today, and I most certainly would not be who I am.”

Mentorship has always been integral to the theatre’s mandate, but David strongly believes mentorship works both ways – that youth also have invaluable wisdom to share. “Colin is a genius!” he exclaims. When he sat in as Colin ran auditions for The Dream, David says, “I learned more about theatre in those three hours than I probably have in the last 15 years. Colin’s a young guy. I’m an old guy. It was so invigorating, and that’s what this project is all about!”

The associate director of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Daniel Reale, 20, who also came up through the Theatre Orangeville ranks and directed last season’s Young Company performance of Robin Hood. By the time Daniel was 16, David says he had already taken on positions of creative decision-making for the theatre.

Colin describes the responsibility, support and trust the theatre offers to youth not only as very rare but “the greatest gift a young person can receive.”

This summer’s performance will also be enhanced by the addition of the Sweet Adelines Orangeville Chorus, a 50-voice female chorus using four-part, a capella harmony. The Adelines will be performing original music composed by a local musician (to be announced later this summer).

With the production still several weeks away, the process is bursting with artistic energy and ideas. Certain details of the show are still in progress, but we do know that the text of Shakespeare will remain intact, and actors will attend workshops to help them wrap their minds and mouths around the complex Shakespearean language.

“Shakespeare is often perceived as intimidating and impenetrable, and butchered in most high school English classes. But when actors ‘get’ the text and have the aha! moment, it is thrilling to watch,” says Colin.

As Theatre Orangeville brings down the curtain on its 25th season, David believes this production lays the foundation for an exciting future: “What kind of opportunities will be afforded as a result of us bringing together so many seemingly divergent components of the community?”

Time will tell. But one thing is for sure, Colin promises that, come August, hundreds of people will gather by the shores of Island Lake to watch a magical story told by people from the community for the community.

This will be one dream you will not want to sleep through.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place from August 22 to 25 at Island Lake Conservation Area, immediately east of Orangeville. There will be five performances, including matinées on Saturday and Sunday. As a bonus, the ticket price includes day admission to the conservation grounds. Special “carload” tickets (maximum six people) are available for $80. For all show times and tickets, see theatreorangeville.ca.

About the Author More by Johanna Bernhardt

Writer and dancer Johanna Bernhardt lives in Orangeville with her husband and two small children.

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