March 15, 2015

 

 

History of the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild

 

Grey Wellington Theatre Guild celebrates four decades of community theatre

 

by Patrick Raftis

 

The Grey Wellington Theatre Guild (GWTG) celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014. The guild, which operates out of the Harriston Town Hall Theatre, was founded in Mount Forest, Ontario in 1974, but the story of this community theatre group really began decades earlier in England.

Guild founder Patrick C. Smith began performing as a youngster in his native country, singing with his mother for the troops during the Second World War.  He later studied at the London School of Music and Drama and landed his first professional role at Oxford, at the age of 17, before moving to Canada as a young man.

When he moved to Harriston with his wife, Judy, in the early 1970s, he worked in Mount Forest as president and manager of first, Mactac Canada and later Viking-Cives.

The Grey Wellington Theatre Guild sprang from Smith’s desire for continued involvement in theatre.

“When I came to this area there was no visible theatre. I had the option of going to either Guelph or Owen Sound to be involved with any acting,” said Smith in a 1983 interview published in the Crossroads section of The Listowel Banner.

Determined to start a local theatre group, Smith went to the town council in Mount Forest not for money, but for moral support. He then called a meeting at the Mount Forest District High School auditorium, which drew a crowd of exactly five interested people.  Along with Smith, the founding members of the group were: Jill Lorsch, Lorena McGowan, Stuart Farlow, Alex Adam and Charlotte Gibson.

“There we were with five people and no money,” Smith recalls. “So the first thing we did was a one-man show called An Evening with Mark Twain.”

That first show drew 190 people over two nights and Smith was reimbursed $117 of his own money which he had laid out for mailing and other necessities and the group had enough money to finance its next venture, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite.

In the early days, the group staged performances in the Mount Forest high school auditorium and rehearsed in rented accommodations downtown. With few members, Smith said, “Everyone did a million jobs,” and it was not unusual for someone to work both backstage and on stage during a production.

Plaza Suite went over well and the guild continued to attract new members and a strong following during the five years it was based in Mount Forest. New members began to join from outside the Harriston/Mount Forest area and today the guild draws theatrical talent from the entire Grey-Wellington area and beyond. Major musical productions have attracted participants from as far away as Kincardine to the north and Kitchener to the south.  

“That was the idea behind naming it Grey Wellington. I didn’t want it to become identified with any one town,” said Smith.

Despite the growing membership, the guild was still operating out of a high school gym without proper amenities. Storage of equipment and props was also difficult and when the group got a chance to lease the theatre above the Harriston Town Hall, they jumped at it.

The guild opened its new home on Nov. 3, 1979. The first show began with well-known entertainer Dinah Christie providing musical entertainment, followed by skits from shows the guild had performed in Mount Forest.

While the first two major productions were not as well received as the guild’s efforts in Mount Forest, support started to grow the following year when they performed Mousetrap, Same Time Next Year and The Odd Couple. In 1981, the guild instituted an annual dinner theatre which drew good crowds for many years, until it was discontinued about a decade ago.

Early in its history the guild incorporated, creating a 10-member board of directors to operate the business aspects of the theatre while the general membership concentrated on artistic endeavours. Over the years, that has evolved into a “working board” with most members involved in the artistic, as well as business side of the operation.

In November of 1983 the guild staged its first full-scale musical production when it put Oliver! on the boards at the Harriston Town Hall Theatre. With a budget of $11,000, partially financed by a $5,000 bank loan, it was a bold undertaking for the group. The show featured a large cast and recorded musical arrangements by Mount Forest area musician Lindsay Morgan. In addition to directing the production, Smith played Fagin, a role he reprised twice more with the guild, once in 1984 when the group re-mounted the production as a local attraction during the International Plowing Match at Teviotdale and again in 2009 when the group staged the show with a fresh cast and a live band. Also starring in the 1983 production was Robert (Bobby) Creighton, as the Artful Dodger. Creighton, a Grade 10 student at the time, later carved out a career in theatre, and television in both Canada and the USA, including roles in several Broadway productions. The title role in the 1983 production was played by Kevin Harris, of Harriston and in 2009 the role was shared between Bronte Hunter of Kincardine and Esther Boersma of Ayton.

Richard Jaunzemis, one of the earliest members of the guild, played the villainous Bill Sykes in that first musical. In the late ‘90s, Jaunzemis became one of only three artistic directors in the guild’s history, a post he held for more than a decade. Others to hold the position were Smith, who assumed the role at the guild’s inception and held it until the mid-90s, when the job was done by Barbara Illingworth of Mount Forest until Jaunzemis took over. Currently, the guild’s theatrical direction is guided by an Artistic Direction Committee, consisting of Smith, Jaunzemis, current guild President Peggy Raftis and long-time member Flora Buke.

Oliver! was a smash hit in every incarnation and musicals became the guild’s bread and butter, and have been staged on a regular basis over the past three decades. Classic musicals staged by the Guild have included: My Fair Lady in 1990, Fiddler on the Roof in 1993, Grease in 2000, Leader of the Pack in 2004, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2002, a Christmas Carol in 2005, The Sound of Music in 2007 and Annie in 2010.

The guild has also staged several musicals with original elements, including We Got Music, a musical revue created by Patrick Raftis, Peggy Raftis, Denise Riddolls and Richard Jaunzemis.

In 2012, the group brought to life Job’s Blues – A Blues Opera. An original blues opera scripted by R. William Muir, and featuring music by Chris Michie and Andy Kulberg, the show is a modernized adaptation of the Biblical story of Job. The story, set in a bar room, featured a cast of characters which included a bartender, waitresses, bar patrons, God, the Devil, Job and his wife. The show was directed by Peggy Raftis, with musical direction by Brenda Manderson, a Harriston native who enlisted a talented group of professional musicians from the Kincardine area for the unique production.

The guild’s most recent musical was also an original effort. Ebenzer, based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, was created by Lindsay Morgan, who wrote the lyrics and music for the show. It was directed by Patrick Smith, who also played the title role.

During its 40th anniversary season, the guild staged the premiere of an original comedy, Where Were We My Darlings, written by long-time GWTG member Megan Raftis. The play, was staged in November of 2014, featured a cast of veteran guild actors, including Smith and Burke.

In August of 2010, the guild initiated a youth theatre program. The first production, Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock was directed by Peggy Raftis and her daughter Megan Raftis and featured a large cast of youngsters aged 6 to 16. Since then, the guild has staged four youth theatre productions. All four have been written by Megan, who intentionally crafts scripts requiring anywhere from 15 to more than 20 young people in order to give as many as possible the opportunity for a live theatre experience.

One of the most memorable performances over the past 40 years was achieved by Flora Burke, who joined the group during the early years in Mount Forest. Burke gave an unforgettable turn in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine in 2009. As of this writing, she is again slated to play one of theatre’s most challenging roles as the quadriplegic lead in the female version of the classic drama Whose Life is it Anyway?, which the guild is set to stage in June of 2015.

In 2013, Patrick C. Smith was recognized with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his lifetime of achievement and volunteerism in community and professional theatre. He was presented with the medal at a Town of Minto council meeting on Jan. 22, 2013.

“When I first came to this area I asked someone if there was a theatre group around here and they said ‘no.’ So I said, ‘There soon will be,’” he told the crowd gathered for the occasion. “I’m very proud of the group and very proud of the people who have taken part,” he added.

In her president’s welcome at the guild’s 40th anniversary celebration on Sept. 27, 2014, Peggy Raftis noted the guild has evolved to include strong core of long-time members who have developed expertise in various areas of theatre.  

“Patrick has shared his knowledge, leading by example, teaching so many people the skills of acting, producing, directing and encouraging them to push themselves to be the best they could be,” she stated. “Over the years, the guild has seen people come and go … and each have left their mark, influencing what the theatre is today.”

 

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