Best theatre spots in small-town Ontario
Story by Jamie Ross
Another summer is almost upon us, and with sunny weather comes the highly anticipated beginning of the theatre season. Small-town Ontario boasts a wide-ranging and dynamic summer theatre scene, where you can enjoy the finest of professional productions, from Broadway musicals, to hilarious comedies and riveting dramas. There are big venues, historic buildings, immaculate outside spaces and picturesque lakeside locations. Where else can you take a break for intermission and wander out on a pier with a glass of wine to watch the St. Lawrence River drift slowly past?
These theatre towns are also some of Ontario’s most delightful destinations, where you will love spending an afternoon or evening before a show in a fine pub or restaurant. Walk the charming streets and take in the sites and architecture, and when the play is over, settle into one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts, boutique hotels or luxury resorts.
Summer comes early in theatre country, however, so don’t wait until the last minute or you’ll miss the season’s early offerings, which sell out fast.
The 1000 Islands – Gananoque
The Theatre: You can even reserve a boat slip with your theatre ticket at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque. The Playhouse operates two fully renovated historic venues side-by-side on the banks of the St. Lawrence River: the 360-seat Springer Theatre (formerly the 1909 Gananoque Canoe Clubhouse) and the 140-seat Firehall Theatre. Enjoy a drink on the deck overlooking the water during intermission. Highlighting the summer bill this year are “The Pirates of Penzance” (opening on June 19) and “Tuesdays with Morrie” (opening on August 29). Visit www.1000islandsplayhouse.com for details.
Explore the Destination: There are actually 1,864 islands in this beautiful archipelago that divides Eastern Ontario and upstate New York. See them all in a 15-minute flight with 1000 Island Helicopter Tours, or take a slower boat journey amongst the islands with the Gananoque Boat Line. You will enjoy a stop at Boldt Castle, a mansion of towers and turrets, and the story of a man’s love and loss. In 1904, self-made millionaire George C. Boldt had this 120-room estate constructed especially for his wife, but she died before his gift was completed. Gananoque is a town of 5,200, whose population swells with “Islanders” — cottagers on the Thousand Islands — during the summer months. Drop into The Socialist Pig, an eclectic coffeehouse in the former Gananoque Spring and Axle Company building, whose bar is made of highly polished wood beams supported by stacks of books. Before heading to the playhouse, try a Naughty Otter Lager at the Gananoque Brewing Company.
The Theatre: The fact that it shares the same name as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon in England, inspired local journalist Tom Patterson to found a Shakespearean theatre festival in 1952. Despite its humble inception, several decades after the first inaugural performance of Richard III, the festival has grown into a revered national institution. The theatre company now puts on 12 plays a season and is the centre of a thriving tourism scene in this town of 32,000. More importantly, many of Canada’s brightest performers have graced the Stratford stage, and got their start here. The 2015 season began in April and runs until mid-October. This year’s plays include “Hamlet” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” as well as “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Sound of Music.” The show calendar is posted online at www.stratfordfestival.ca.
Explore the Destination: Stratford boasts the small-town life with the kind of world-class entertainment and cuisine that big cities dream of. The municipality’s support for the arts has fostered a strong, creative community that makes the region a great destination for lovers of theatre, music, art and food. An easy way to sample local specialties is by trying one of Stratford’s three different themed Tasting Trails — self-guided tours that are a fun way to explore the community. The Chocolate Trail, Maple Trail, and Bacon and Ale Trail allow delectable tastings at various downtown shops and restaurants.
Stratford is a lovely and tranquil town with lots of unique shops and restaurants. Add to that the scenic Avon River with its beloved swans, and you have a wonderful getaway. It is the perfect weekend escape, whether you come for the shopping, the food or the theatre, or because it is the hometown of another Canadian personality, Justin Bieber, who got his start busking on the steps of the Avon Theatre.
The Theatre: The second-largest repertory theatre in North America, the annual Shaw Festival stages 11 productions each season to an international audience of some 350,000 people. There are three theatres, each with its own personality. The Royal George Theatre features Edwardian gilt mouldings, richly coloured red walls and golden lions. It was built as a vaudeville house to entertain troops during World War I. The 2015 lineup includes “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a theatrical prequel to “Peter Pan,” and “Pygmalion,” George Bernard Shaw’s timeless story of the unlikely relationship between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins — done this time with a modern twist. Visit www.shawfest.com for information.
Explore the Destination: Idyllic, 18th-century Niagara-on-the-Lake has been called Canada’s prettiest little town. It is home to some of North America’s finest wineries, a sampling of great hotels, fine restaurants that specialize in local cuisine, and fanciful shopping. Blossoming flowers colour the neat and orderly downtown. Beautiful stone heritage buildings have been restored to their original splendour. Old-fashioned street lights illuminate the horse-drawn carriages that parade up and down Queen Street. For wine lovers, the picturesque paved Wine Trail meanders along the bank of the Niagara River, past beautiful stone homes, historic inns, orchards, vineyards, and wineries. The trek follows the Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill, during a 1943 visit, called “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.”
The Theatre: The St. Jacobs Country Playhouse is at the northern edge of Waterloo County, in the heart of St. Jacobs’ Market District. This summer’s highlights include “Chicago” and “Aladdin.” A second venue set in a renovated 1867 village schoolhouse, St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre, has only 100 seats and remarkable acoustics. The intimate atmosphere lends itself to cabaret-style performances, where you can enjoy a beverage at your table positioned just a few feet from the stage. This summer see a production of “Sexy Laundry.” www.stjacobs.com/theatre
Explore the Destination: A visit to the charming village of St. Jacobs is like stepping back in time. It seems like nothing much has changed since the town’s Old Order Mennonite settlers arrived here in the early 1800s in Conestoga wagons from Pennsylvania. The Mennonite farmers pride themselves in maintaining their unique traditions and culture. While most visitors are drawn to St. Jacobs for its famous market, antiques, quilts and furniture shops, many are also intrigued by its history. The “Mennonite Story” at the Visitor Centre provides fascinating insights into the history, beliefs and lifestyles of the Mennonite people. The many heritage buildings that line the main street are now upscale boutiques, quilt galleries, craft shops and art galleries. Work up a thirst from shopping? Drop into Block 3 Brewery to sample some delectable craft beer. A short drive south of the village brings you to Canada’s largest year-round farmers market — a wonderful festival of sights, sounds and tastes.
Peterborough and the Kawarthas
The Theatre: Innovative, entertaining and thought-provoking theatre is the hallmark of traditional summer theatre in the Kawartha Lakes region. Globus Theatre at the Lakeview Arts Barn, a converted cattle barn, offers an intimate dinner and theatre experience. “Three Men in a Boat,” one of my favourite books by Jerome K. Jerome about three intrepid bachelors and a dog who spend a disastrously funny weekend punting up London’s River Thames, will be playing. For more than 23 seasons, 4th Line Theatre, Canada’s premiere outdoor theatre company, has brought history to life on the barnyard stages of a picturesque fifth-generation family farm. This summer enjoy “The Bad Luck Bank Robbers.” Visit www.lakeviewartsbarn.com and www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca for more information.
Explore the Destination: Take a cruise on the Trent-Severn Waterway and sail through Lock 20 and Lock 21, the World’s Highest Hydraulic Lift Lock. Go for a paddle, as this area is known as the nation’s canoe-building epicentre, and Peterborough is home to the largest collection of canoes in the world at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Spend the afternoon exploring Petroglyphs Provincial Park for its vast assembly of aboriginal rock carvings. About 900 figures of turtles, snakes, birds and humans, known as the teaching rocks, tell a story of this region’s deep spiritual connection to its First Nations peoples, both past and present.
Summer theatre is alive and well in Ontario. For many people, summer isn’t complete without at least one enjoyable afternoon or evening laughing or crying while watching live theatre. Add in some fabulous venues, beautiful waterfront views and charming destinations, and that day at the theatre gets even better.