Recreational theatre

Volunteering time and talent onstage

It’s an established fact that Calgary has a robust theatre scene.

Not only does that adjective apply to professional companies like Theatre Calgary and Alberta Theatre Projects but also to community theatre — something that for many people exists beneath the radar.

Bill Torrie has been directing community theatre in Calgary for almost 30 years. He says he’s encouraging a move away from the moniker “community theatre” in favour of “recreational theatre.”

“It’s a bit more accurate. These are people who are doing it in their spare time volunteering and loving it” he says.

And therein lies the primary difference between theatre’s professional and community (or recreational) circles: In professional theatre actors and crew are paid while in recreational theatre everyone is volunteering their time and talent.

Apart from that Torrie says the only difference he sees is the scale and amount of money poured into a show. As for quality he is blown away by the local talent pool.

“I’ve had the comment from audience members ‘I like your production better than the professional one.’ That’s just a testament to the quality of the talent out there” he says.

Recreational theatre has its own overarching body Calgary-ACTS which facilitates communication and resource sharing between companies and keeps community members up to date on auditions and productions. Calgary-ACTS also sponsors the CAT Awards — Calgary’s Community Theatre Awards — which are handed out each August.

While the number of recreational theatre groups fluctuates it’s safe to say there are about 14 active groups in and around the city.

The grandfather of the scene is Workshop Theatre which is nearing its 45th anniversary. The company is known for its murder mysteries and farces though it has branched out in recent years to produce psychological thrillers and even science fiction.

Other longtime players include StoryBook Theatre which opened its doors in 1977 and specializes in children’s productions and Front Row Centre Players which is dedicated to staging musicals and will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

Morpheus Theatre is another veteran of the scene after Sean Anderson and two others founded the company in 1995. While Morpheus began life as a theatre organization for teenagers after one season it moved away from that mandate and opened the second season with Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance .

“That became the impetus for us to become the city’s Gilbert & Sullivan company” says Anderson. The tradition continues to this day as Morpheus stages one Gilbert & Sullivan production each season.

The remainder of Morpheus’s four-show season includes a contemporary comedy a serious drama and a family show at Christmas time. (This year for example Morpheus will produce It’s a Wonderful Life .)

One of the main challenges facing recreational theatre companies according to both Anderson and Torrie is securing affordable venues.

“We really have a dearth of affordable performance spaces” Torrie says noting that Front Row Centre Players and StoryBook Theatre recently created their own theatre space in the Beddington Heights Community Centre.

The Pumphouse Theatre remains the primary venue for community theatre companies but Torrie says there are ongoing problems with the cost and condition of the space.

The other principal challenge in recreational theatre is the “constant need for new energy” he adds.

“It falls on a handful of people to keep a company going. They get burned out because they are doing it in their spare time.”

Compared to some recreational companies Full Circle Theatre is a “new kid on the block.” Erin Weir and Claire Bolton started it three years ago shortly after graduating from the University of Calgary’s theatre program.

“We knew so many people who were just coming out of school who didn’t have an opportunity right away. We wanted to form a theatre company that our peer group could be a part of” says Weir.

Full Circle’s mandate involves producing Shakespearean adaptations and collective creation work. Their upcoming season will see a new work about Greek mythology’s Persephone along with a staging of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida .

Torrie says few people are aware of the vast number of volunteer hours that go into making a production. For example actors usually rehearse three evenings a week for two to three months in advance of a show.

So why do people do it?

“The love of putting on a play of sharing something with an audience” says Torrie.

That’s what motivates Anderson as well. “I haven’t lost the passion for doing this the passion to give hundreds of people each season a chance to participate in building these shows providing them with an opportunity to do something they love” he says reflecting on his past 18 years in the trenches.

Torrie says that for the audience recreational theatre also offers great entertainment at extremely reasonable prices.

“It’s a low-risk way to experience theatre” adds Anderson.

For more information on Calgary’s recreational theatre scene check out the Calgary-ACTS website at calgary-acts.com .