Showboat Festival Theatre – The Early Years
We are so proud of our 30 consecutive years of bringing excellent professional theatre to Port Colborne and we are all looking forward to a bright future!
Here is a look back through time to where it all began………
In the 1980s, Port Colborne was going through a difficult period of economic decline and high unemployment. Shops were closing and our historic West Street was mostly derelict with many boarded up buildings. As one means of alleviating the situation, a government economic program injected funds into the area by supporting professional theatre in Port Colborne.
A group of local citizens formed a Board of Directors with Don Gram as Chairman and Charles Salmon representing the government program. Also on the board was Dr. Doug MacDonald who holds the distinction of naming the fledging theatre “Showboat”. What a perfect name for a theatre by the canal!
Three comedies were produced in the first season with tickets selling for $7 and $15 for a subscription. Performances took place in he auditorium of Lakeview Park Secondary School (now Lakeshore Catholic High School).
In 1988, Blake Heathcote became the Artistic Director and remained with the company until 1997. He had already worked in theatre in Canada and the US for many years and had been assistant director to Harold Prince on three Broadway plays. The playbill that year listed 5 comedic productions including The Fantasticks, Arsenic and Old Lace and the premiere of an original play by Heathcote (others were to follow in subsequent years).
The 1990/91 seasons included such productions as The Gin Game, Harvey and Dial M for Murder.
In 1992 a Young People’s Summer Theatre program was advertised for ages 6 to 16. It included improvisation, theatre makeup, mime, puppetry and storytelling. The Administrative Office and Box Office moved to the historic Humberstone Community Centre on Highway 3. At this time, tickets could also be purchased through the Brock Centre for the Arts. By now, an impressive company of professional actors and technicians had been formed, some returning to Showboat for many seasons.
In 1993 the Showboat Volunteer Guild was added to the family providing assistance in virtually all areas of the theatre.
1994 marks the beginning of a three year transitional period for Showboat as the company moved to the beautiful Roselawn Centre.
While working in England with Alan Ayckbourn in the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round in North Yorkshire, Heathcote had conceived the idea of creating a similar theatrical space in Port Colborne and it would be unique in Canada. To achieve this goal, work proceeded on the redevelopment of the dormant curling rink space at Roselawn. Shows were then presented in the main dining room. According to the 1994 brochure, this created an “intimate theatre where no seas is further than 20 feet from the stage. The theatre is fully licensed and sumptuous food is available at the on-site restaurant”.
One patron from that time still fondly remembers that “the seating was cabaret style with chairs and small tables. With limited space for both actors and props, the plays were well chosen to suit this venue.”
Theatre-in-the-Round in our present space became reality in 1997 and its uniqueness became a point of great pride for Showboat for years to come. Promotional material at this time exudes optimisim, excitement and pride in Roselawn as the Home of Showboat Festival Theatre “a company that’s recognized as one of Canada’s best and brightest.”
Some of this history is on display in the backstage bar area. Replicas of Showboat playbills are mounted on the wall along with costumes from past productions.
Please make a point of visiting the display and celebrating our amazing 29 years!
Written By: Carole Black Brisley
With thanks to: Don and Lisa Gram, Beth Jeffery, Norbert Gieger, Sherry Spark, Stephanie Powell Baswick and Michelle at the Archives.