Muskoka was the place where Canadian summer theatre was first started, and 85 years later it’s still going strong. There are shows of all kinds, from professionals to talented amateurs, being presented in venues that include an amphitheatre in a park, intimate community centres, and century-old theatres.
It’s hard to believe, but prior to 1934, summer theatre wasn’t a thing in Canada. In fact, there wasn’t much theatre of any kind, even in Toronto – the new “talkies” had driven people from the theatres to the movies.
But a young actor named John Holden had been part of the summer touring companies in the U.S., and he had an idea. If he could take a bunch of his actor friends somewhere that audiences spent their summers, maybe they could put on shows and make a go of it. His sister was married to Fred Sutton, who not only owned the Swastika Inn in Bala, but was also the town clerk and would agree to rent the village hall to John for a very modest price.
So in 1934, the Actors’ Colony Theatre put on its first shows in Bala, and summer theatre was born. Actors did a new show every week, playing three nights in Bala and one at the Gravenhurst Opera House. When they weren’t on stage, they were learning lines or building sets for the next week’s show. The theatre made enough money to pay everyone’s room and board – including cigarettes – and each of the actors went home with $11 in profits at the end of the first season.
The Actors’ Colony Theatre died out in 1942, but that was long enough to establish a tradition of quality theatre in Canada. Many of the people who would later perform in professional theatres in Stratford, Toronto, and other centres got their start in Bala.
Fortunately, Muskoka still has its share of excellent theatre.
Gravenhurst Opera House
There is only one fully professional theatre with a permanent home in Muskoka these days, and that’s at the Gravenhurst Opera House. Their three-show season features true professional talent, and if you haven’t been to a show there in a few years, it’s well worth a visit this summer. As with all good summer theatre, the emphasis is on music and laughter. The season begins with Harvest, which runs from June 26 to Jul 19. A retired couple decides to trade in their country life for a condo in the city, but they discover that the “nice young man” leasing their home has been raising a different crop altogether. The Globe & Mail calls Harvest “funny and poignant at the same time” with “memorable characters” and “deliciously sardonic one-liners.”
The main event in mid-summer is Dean and Jerry: What Might Have Been, a musical celebration of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Created by Bracebridge resident Jesse Collins, who is the director of the Orillia Opera House, Dean and Jerry has been touring non-stop for several years, wowing audiences with comedy, music, and the story of a bittersweet friendship. It runs from July 24 to August 16.
The season wraps up in September with Kalamazoo, the story of two quirky but endearing baby-boomers, bravely venture into the world of modern dating.
Dot The T
Another professional company in the area is Dot The T Productions. This company presents touring shows, playing for just a night or two at resorts, golf courses, and community halls around Muskoka and Parry Sound. The performers and backstage creators are all serious professionals, with credits that include Dora awards, and appearances at just about every theatre in the country.
Their first show is Norm Foster’s hilarious Ladies’ Foursome, which runs from May 25 to June 8. After that, For The Love of a Good Man will be playing in July and August, with weekly shows in Windermere and Minett, and other dates throughout the region.
In a region as full of talent as Muskoka, even the semi-professional and amateur shows are a cut above the average. The Huntsville Festival always does a good job of presenting top professionals alongside talented amateurs, and this year is no exception. The 2019 season includes two musical theatre offerings. On July 5, they present Broadway After Dark, a musical review celebrating the best of the darker side of Broadway, with songs from Rocky Horror, Avenue Q, Book of Mormon, Rent and more. Presented at Canvas Brewery, it’s a chance to enjoy some pints and some showtunes.
On July 13 and 14, a talented cast of local musicians – professional and amateur – present Huntsville: A Choral History. Through a collection of original songs with narration, this show tells the history of Huntsville, from its founding through to present day. It’s written by Ian Crowley, a longtime vocal music professional who is also the founder and director of the 150-voice Muskoka Rock Choir.
Theatre under the stars
For a bit of outdoor entertainment, be sure to check out Muskoka Stage Works. This company features actors ranging from 13 to 30, who perform at the amphitheatre in Annie Williams Park in Bracebridge. They present Shakespeare every other year. Last year’s Macbeth was phenomenal, and this year they are presenting Robin Hood in August.
The fight scenes in Muskoka Stage Works shows are always thrilling (members of the local fencing club have a tradition of auditioning for these shows). There’s nothing like stretching out on a blanket under the stars and enjoying live theatre.
Also in August, be sure to check out Almost, Maine presented by Dragonfly Theatre. The players are all committed amateurs, many of whom are training for careers in professional theatre.
Shows are dinner theatre, presented at the Quality Inn in Bracebridge, with food provided by the Pasta Tree and Smokehouse.