Burns Wharf Theatre’s future in hands of Assiginack council

MANITOWANING—Arts-rich Manitoulin is missing an element to its theatre component this summer with the temporary closure of the Burns Wharf Theatre on the iconic Manitowaning harbour, home to the Burns Wharf Theatre Players and a popular summer concert series.

The theatre, which sits at the top of the historic Burns Wharf, seats 105 people during the Players’ busy summer season when the Burns Wharf Theatre Players presents classic Gilbert and Sullivan productions each summer, the last, in 2013, was ‘Ruddigore.’

Until Fire Code and Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requirements are met, Burns Wharf Theatre is closed.

When Assiginack’s engineers drafted a report for council regarding its purchase of the former Wally Harasym Insurance building for the new library, council also asked for an engineers’ report on the Burns Wharf with two options: bring everything up to code or build a new theatre of similar size. While the matter has been discussed in camera, the report is scheduled to be discussed in an open session of council in August, Assiginack clerk-treasurer Alton Hobbs explained.

“There’s no argument that having the theatre is a benefit to the community,” Mr. Hobbs said.

When asked about the municipality applying for funds from grant organizations to see these code requirements met, the clerk-treasurer spoke of the ongoing need for money for road improvements in the community and the “one per year” unspoken rule of groups such as Trillium and FedNor. While council is aware of the loss the theatre brings to the community, they also fear ‘putting their eggs in one basket,’ so to speak.

While the Roller Mills, another historic waterfront building, has also been a topic of discussion at the council table of late, Mr. Hobbs said Burns Wharf definitely takes priority.

Marilyn Wohlberg, artistic director and founder of the Players, is anxiously awaiting council’s decision on what to do with the theatre. “This has been a long, slow process, at least it seems that way when you are waiting with bated breath for the outcome,” she told The Expositor.

The option was given to operate at half capacity, but Ms. Wohlberg explained that this would not cover the expenses incurred in putting on a production and was therefore not worth the time or investment.

“Over the past six or seven years, the theatre has been a thriving hive of activity and the music has echoed throughout the old building and poured out into the beautiful Manitowaning waterfront and across Manitowaning Bay,” Ms. Wohlberg said. “Even the majestic, aged Norisle would groan with delight as each and every performance took to the stage! Burns Wharf Theatre players, a community theatre that I founded in 2008 with the Gilbert and Sullivan production of ‘HMS Pinafore,’ the summer concert series that included such well-known and gifted artists as Kevin Closs, Ian Tamblyn, Rick Fines, The Good Lovelies, Sheesham and Lotus to name a few and of course Manitoulin’s own Down Yonder.”

She spoke of the investments, not only in terms of the players themselves and the host of volunteers who keep the curtains open, but the monetary funds that have seen new stage lighting, a sound system, air conditioning and seating installed at the theatre.

Ms. Wohlberg also noted the summer rec program that in the past included a one-week theatre program run by she and her son D’Arcy Closs that saw the students rehearse musical performances such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and more. The curtains then opened at the theatre the Friday night for the whole community to come and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

“Unfortunately, this segment of the rec program had to be cancelled this year because of the needed upgrades to the theatre building,” she said.

“I have had so many calls, emails and meetings with people in the local stores asking what production(s) are going on at Burns Wharf Theatre this summer,” Ms. Wohlberg continued. “It’s difficult to come out with the words ‘there is nothing going on at the theatre this summer.’ Peter Baumgarten, the co-chair of the Burns Wharf Theatre Committee, posted on our website (www.burnswharf.net) ‘It’s a tragedy, not a comedy.’ How appropriate to describe how we feel about this interruption in what has proved to be an amazingly successful enterprise, bringing to this area many lovers of live theatre as well as providing great entertainment for local residents as well and folks who come every summer and look forward with great anticipation to what is on the ‘menu’ for Burns Wharf.”

Ms. Wohlberg said that both she and the Players are willing to help the municipality with funding applications or any fundraising.

“It’s being in this state of limbo that’s very hard,” she said. “I feel, and I know, that the theatre and the work I do there is a big part of me. I feel I’m missing something, and the same goes for a lot of the others involved in the Players.”

“It’s really grown to be something bigger than I ever thought, and not just for Manitowaning, but for all the Island,” Ms. Wohlberg added. “We hope to be up and running for the 2015 season and once again delighting audiences with first class entertainment. This year is just an interruption, not an end, and we can hardly wait to get back at it.”

The Expositor will cover the Assiginack council meeting when this topic—one that could possibly become an election issue this fall—comes to the table.