Manitoulin is a rural mecca for theatre arts

For a community with barely 13,000 year-round souls in residence, Manitoulin Island has long performed well above its weight class in opportunities to observe the thespian arts in action.

Perhaps there is some spirit lingering in the air (even while perennial trickster Nanaboozoh sleeps snug beneath winter’s white blanket) that attracts those whose lives are enriched by providing us with captivating stories on stage.

From the venerable Gore Bay Theatre founded by the incomparable Bill Hart of Thornloe Players, through Debajehmujig Storytellers, Canada’s foremost Native theatre troupe founded by Shirley Cheechoo of Weengushk Studios and numerous dinner theatre offerings at Abby’s Crosshill Road Restaurant (including the late Marilyn Seabrook’s Manitoulin-inspired opus Once Upon an Island) to the more recent Gilbert and Sullivan productions put on by the valiant volunteers of the Burns’ Wharf Theatre group championed by that irresistible musical force that is Manitowaning’s Marilyn Wohlberg, Manitoulin has been blessed by a heady smorgasbord of theatric delights down through the years.

It is with fervent hope that we look forward to the overcoming of the challenges being faced by Burn’s Wharf, who need a new home while the fundraising for renovations for their namesake venue is underway.

The Manitoulin magic even extends to our nearby neighbours in the Town of Espanola, where that community’s little theatre troupe has frequently graced the podium at the QUONTA festival almost as often as the Gore Bay Theatre. Doubtless the sharing of the talents of Gore Bay Theatre’s director par excellence Walter Maskel and the grand dame of Northern Theatre Sharon Sproule have played a part in nurturing the thespian spirits of across the region. Now we have the added expertise of the newly planted Islander Andrea Emmerton to augment Mr. Maskel in the director’s chair.

So many talented theatre people have chosen to call Manitoulin home, including not only actors and actresses but also a host of backstage support experts, both imported and homegrown. With such mentors and role models to emulate, is it any wonder that the students of Manitoulin’s schools continue to delight and amaze audiences with polished productions such as this year’s Manitoulin Secondary School production of Oklahoma.

Added into the mix has been an incredible offering of visiting theatre troupes, often drawn to Manitoulin thanks to the efforts of Debaj and local organizations and arts enthusiasts such as the 4elements and Sophie Edwards. Manitoulin has over the past few years benefited from performances by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, East Indian Theatre televised into Debaj with ground-breaking technology, Theatre Nouvelle Ontario and an incredible series of performances last year of the multiethnic MT Space’s ‘Body 13.’

Although comedy tends to be the staple of summer theatre performances, due largely to their commercial popularity with casual audiences, Manitoulin’s theatre offerings have included cutting edge drama of the highest caliber. That audiences coming to these dramatic performances tend to be sparser in the seats than those attending comedies, Island afficionados of live theatre would benefit greatly from taking in the more dramatic plays like this Gore Bay’s soon-to-be -presented Agnes of God. Provocative theatre at its best can sow fertile discussion and thought, from which can be harvested immeasurable enrichment for our lives.

There is nothing quite like live theatre, done well, and the folks who populate and manage Manitoulin’s stages do it very well.