It has been almost exactly one year since Marc Beaudette, Sandra Forsell and 24 other likeminded individuals founded and incorporated Algoma Repertory Theatre (ART), a new theatre company in Sault Ste. Marie.
Beaudette and Forsell saw an opportunity to give a platform to more voices in the local arts community, and produce interesting and modern productions.
“I just felt that after Michael Hennessey shut down his dinner theatre and Richard Howard had shut down Pull Chain Theatre before that, there really was a hole in the Sault entertainment field, and an opportunity to do dinner theatre again,” says Beaudette.
He and Forsell decided to get a company together and reached out to 24 other people, initially hoping that six or seven of them might be interested.
“It turned out that every one of them was interested,” laughs Beaudette. “On that list are people with all types of expertise…on stage, directing, lighting, costuming, technical, set building and design, and sound. We have a little bit of everything.”
Forsell says that having such a large group in a way aligns with the mandate of the company.
“We wanted to create a theatre company that is truly based on community,” she says. “It’s a community amateur theatre. We want to foster that real community feeling in every project we work on.”
In its first season, the company put on four productions of a growing scale.
“It was a really great opening year,” says Beaudette. “We were very strategic in planning our inaugural season.”
The company began with a two-handed play, Love Letters, followed by the three-person Death and the Maiden, the nine-person Halloween show, Evil Dead: The Musical, and finally the 20-person Christmas show, It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play.
“The Christmas show was our biggest and we held it at White Pines,” says Beaudette. “We built the season to grow with us and we were very happy with each show. They were critical and financial successes for us as a company.”
Beaudette notes that the goal is to simply make enough money to keep doing shows and not have to secure outside resources.
“We have achieved greater success than we ever would have dreamed. That’s because we have the community that we have behind us,” says Forsell.
Beaudette and Forsell have a shared love of the dinner theatre format.
“There is something to be said for the act of a communal breaking of the bread. You have a 150 people that don’t necessarily know each other, but that act of eating together draws a different atmosphere, a shared experience,” says Beaudette.
Forsell says the format breaks down social barriers by having it with a family style meal.
“There might be three or four people you know, but it’s a table of ten. So you are sitting with people you may not know. In the day and age of social media, texting and not really communicating face-to-face all the time, it’s nice to be able to break out of that comfort zone and have to socialize with other people,” says Forsell.
“The table has to work as a community to eat that food. My favourite part is the sharing of the soup. Who is going to ladle the soup? It becomes one person’s job. It is a small thing but it’s important. There is something kind of lovely about that kind of interaction.”
Beaudette feels that the dinner theatre format is different than other theatre. “You might go out with your wife or another couple to have a dinner and then go to the show. This is a one-stop shop. It is more intimate. The audience is closer. I think it is a better overall experience.”
Dinner Theatre has an even deeper personal meaning for Forsell and Beaudette.
They both started in community theatre in the Sault years ago. Beaudette went to New York when he was 19 to study stage, film and television acting. Forsell left the Sault to finish her high school education at the Etobicoke Schools for the Arts, before studying at and graduating from the National Theatre School of Canada.
“Sandra and I met during The Glass Menagerie production for Pull Chain Theatre in the back of the Purple Lantern in 1997,” says Beaudette.
They eventually moved to Toronto, had agents and got caught up in the never-ending auditioning cycle.
Then they decided to move back to the Sault.
“Moving back here eight years ago was a truly fortunate adventure. If we never moved back here, we would never be doing this,” says Forsell.
In March, Algoma Repertory Theatre will be putting on Harvey, a story of a perfect gentleman, Elwood P. Dowd, and his best friend Harvey, a six-foot tall “pooka” (invisible rabbit). Then in May, they will be putting on Tony and Tina’s Wedding.
“The entire show is a big Italian wedding. The action of the play takes place while the audience is eating. So rather than your traditional, ‘let’s eat and then watch a show,’ the whole thing happens while you are eating,” says Beaudette.
The audience becomes part of the play.
“You never quite know what’s going to happen,” says Forsell.
That sense of magic in theatre is something both Forsell and Beaudette have held since they were kids.
For Beaudette, he was part of the Oliver Production that was held many years ago at the Ramada Inn.
“A company from Toronto came in to do it and they were all professional actors. They cast the kids from the Sault,” he says. “The atmosphere was magical, watching these people create things. It just drew me to it. Really the essence of theatre is not in the production itself, it is in the months leading up to it, getting ready for it.”
For Forsell, it was watching her sister in a production of the musical, The Me Nobody Knows, based on the slums of New York in the 1970s.
“It had Mark Kuntsi, Leslie Walsh, my sister and all these amazing people that I looked up to,” says Forsell. “I couldn’t get enough of it. I watched every rehearsal. I went to every single show. It was in that moment, knowing that something could touch somebody so profoundly. I knew I had to be part of that somehow.”
With their 24 other founding partners, they are able to create the magic in a way that has personal meaning for them and creates something entertaining for the community.
“It is nice to be doing theatre for fun again rather than trying to put food on the table. If you are fortunate enough to do it for a living, that’s great. When you are doing it for fun, it allows you so much more freedom to explore,” says Beaudette.
For Forsell, that exploration not only includes the 24 other founding partners, but the many volunteers who help make productions happen.
“There are an incredible number of volunteers that have worked with us this past year. Without them, we would be nothing,” says Forsell. “It’s a community of people gathering together with resources to create and grow something together.”
And what they are growing is magical.