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Keyano Theatre: The Pride of Fort McMurray

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What exactly is Community Theatre? From the smallest example, like the one north-west of Seldom, Newfoundland, (yes there really is such a place) to the largest cities, the arts and culture of a society are often defined by one focal point.

Sydney Australia was a backwater at the far end of the world in the 1960s until its performing arts centre designed by Jørn Utzon became a game-changing reality and forever altered the image of the harbour and the city. Today it is recognized as one of the most ‘Arts’ friendly communities in the world, with the Opera House as its gestational home.

In a smaller, quieter way, Keyano Theatre does the same for Fort McMurray.

How best to describe the Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre? Does it attract the world’s greats? Well, yes. And no.

Dionne Warwick played here. She was world famous in the 60s, translating Burt Bacharach songs into number one hits, seemingly at will. Of course when she came here she was in the torch-song twilight of her career and more well-known for being Whitney Houston’s aunt. But still, she was here. As were Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings of the Guess Who, an ironic name now.

Leon Russell, The Barenaked Ladies, Ian Tyson, Juice Newton, Laura Branigan, Los Lobos, Leann Rimes, Tom Cochrane and many more faintly famous stars have trod the boards in our local home of the Arts. Liona Boyd once told Johnny Carson that the theatre at Keyano had the best acoustics in the world. Corey Hart recorded a version of the U2 number, ‘One’, here and did it better than Bono. The Chieftains played here, Robert Munsch read here, and just last year Norm Foster, probably Canada’s greatest playwright, brought his latest work to our stage and then acted in it as well.

Given the constraints of the size of the theatre, the budget it labours under and the remoteness of the town, it is an impressive enough list, and nowhere near exhaustive. But it barely tells part of the tale. Yes, it’s lovely to see the harmonica playing of Carlos Del Junco, the delights of Harry Manx and Kevin Breit on guitar, or even Ashley MacIsaac, the wild man of Cape Breton, in full fiddling throttle; but they aren’t enough to sustain a stage, a theatre, an idea. A community’s performing arts heart is nurtured by growth.

Big names, then, don’t make a community arts culture. So what does?

Cabaret has only recently finished its run. It’s always a tall order, taking on such a refined and defined show and bringing it to the regions. And yet… last year, Les Miserables played well, delighting the sold out crowds and revealing a cast full of vibrant local talent that appeared as if from nowhere. The year before Hometown, locally written and produced, had over a hundred cast members on stage in a rollicking show that really was the talk of the town for weeks.

And this year’s Cabaret?

Well, amid a sea of outrageously good talent washing over the floodlights and into the front row, a high school student took Joel Grey’s Academy Award winning part as the MC and played it better than the master. He knocked it, to steal a phrase, way out of the park and into another stratosphere. And he was surrounded by a cast that played like the ‘92 Blue Jays, taking their game, as they say, to an entirely different level. A home run indeed.

And once again, like Les Miserables, or Hometown, A Christmas Carol or Calendar Girls, much of the cast was locally produced and educated.

Where then does the talent come from? How is it nurtured up here in the frozen north? Alan Roberts, Director of the Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre believes that it is an interlinked effort.

The theatre cannot survive in a vacuum, it needs to be nourished and cherished. Just as the dance programs, choirs, music, acting and school productions all feed off each other, so Keyano is then the bridge between all the different arts parts as well as the spiritual home. It’s hard to teach drama if there is nowhere to go with the learning. The productions at the college are the next rung up the ladder.

It starts early, now. Both the Catholic and Public schools in the Region have taken active and even aggressive stances on arts and culture. The stage at Holy Trinity is the envy of schools throughout Alberta. Thickwood Heights Public School has MADD time (Music, Art, Dance, Drama) entrenched in its Arts-focused Education, while Ecole McTavish has a main entrance area that converts to an arts performance space; think Alan Parker’s Fame with better fixtures.

On a more singular level the development of artists of every genre has been encouraged by the nascent Arts Council, which is sponsored by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and eager to encourage and develop all who wish to consider themselves artists.

Is any of this caused by having a strong theatrical presence at the College? It certainly hasn’t hurt. Art cannot easily be stifled, but it can very easily be encouraged. Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre, with its all-inclusive programs and its deep roots in the community, is a large part of the reason why every year the arts in the municipality continues to astound even as it extends itself. Having somewhere to go, and knowing that what you are learning at school or at your extramural activities will still have an outlet as long as you continue to live here, is an encouragement that many larger places do not have. We are fortunate here in Fort McMurray, and we don’t always seem to know it.

Is there room for improvement? There always is. Adding to the existing theatre and arts facilities is a key component of the ambitious college expansion plans. As Keyano College seeks to fulfill the requirements of an expanding community surrounded by a dynamic industry, the new, larger, Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre is vital. Education is about the wholeness of the being, and the arts play a vital role in that development.

In the meantime, the theatre and its staff will keep doing what it does best. The four big productions of the year will be interspersed with smaller plays, children’s theatre, film festivals, musical shows, dance performances and a plethora of other programming. The only constraints seem to be capacity. Maybe, five years down the road, if the much larger theatre comes to fruition the conversation might be a little different. Instead of “Didn’t they used to be famous,” it’ll be, “Wow, how did we attract someone so famous to our stage?”

To which the answer could very well be, “This is where they learned to act; here at the Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre.”

Tim Heggie & Noah

What is the hardest part about being in theatre loving family? Definitely the time, commitment and sacrifice. My wife is extremely supportive of my involvement, but it’s hard on the family when a show requires so much time. Especially when the oldest of the four boys, Noah, is in the show with me and doesn’t have as much time to help around the house. It’s great when the entire family comes to watch the performance and I see how proud they are. And we get to showcase the outcome of all our hard work.

How do you see theatre fitting in with the community? There are so many crucial components that make up a community, and I believe that the arts are an integral part; it truly brings people together in a creative way. The experience is always unique when there is creativity flowing.

If you are a regular patron of Keyano Theatre, then you’ll recognize the name Heggie from various performances. In total he’s been involved in 26 theatre productions; four, soon to be five, of which were staged at Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre. But the interesting Heggie legacy does not end with Tim; it continued when his oldest son Noah was cast alongside him in Les Miserables.

“It was a wonderful experience getting to share in the arts together and relate in a new and different way we hadn’t before,” says Tim. “With all the long rehearsal hours, practicing at home and demanding show dates we ended up with a lot of time to bond. Every time a certain song would come on we would share a smile and a thought that only the two of us knew about. We will truly cherish these memories for the rest of our lives.”

Despite the big time commitment, Tim says it is all worth it. “The rewarding feeling you get when the show closes, the strong friendships that have been made over the process and the memories of that special point in time make the sacrifice invaluable.”

Photo courtesy of Foto Source.

Reese Stanley & Kim

What is the best part of being involved in a theatre production? You get to express yourself in a different way, you get to meet really great people and of course it’s really fun!

Keep in mind this little dynamo is only 12 years old. In fact, she celebrated her 12th birthday during rehearsals for the Keyano Theatre Company’s (KTC - of which she is a member), rendition of A Christmas Carol.

An extremely talented young performer, Reese has proven her dedication to the craft in ways that can only be admired. For her very first role with KTC as Gavroche, a street boy, in Les Miserables she cut 11 inches off her hair and donated the locks to the Angel Hair Foundation. Prior to that role she’d been active in school productions. But it was her involvement in Les Miserables that really sparked her interest in performance and being on the stage.

Reese’s second big break came in the form of a bird—lago the parrot from Disney’s Aladdin Jr. as part of Keyano’s Drama Force intensive summer camp, which is open to all local youth. At the end of Drama Force in August of 2014 the young participants presented Aladdin Jr. for the public. The success of the show didn’t just come in the form of applause, but in the depth of friendships made, skills learned and of course fun had by the participants.

“I’d recommend the Drama Force program to any kid in Fort McMurray who has an interest in acting or being involved in the arts,” says Reese. “If you are too shy to get on stage at first, then you can be involved behind the scenes. I guarantee that you will get over your shyness by the end of the program, and you’ll have a bunch of new friends who are interested in the same things as you.”

Not only does Reese volunteer her time with KTC and Drama Force, but her mother Kim has also spent quite a bit of time at the theatre. For A Christmas Carol, Kim volunteered backstage helping with the children in the play. Not only did this allow for her to gain a thorough backstage understanding of theatre productions, but it also gave Kim and Reese an opportunity to strengthen their bond as mother and daughter.

Reese is looking forward to another great Drama Force summer and hopes more kids will join the program.

Lauren Thomas

How did you get to where you are today? In 2005, I secured a 10 month contract with Keyano Theatre as a stage manager. I had every intention of only staying in Fort McMurray for the term of my contract and then moving on to Edmonton, but I ended up falling in love with the community and the Keyano Theatre Company.

Soon after arriving, her position shifted from contract Stage Manager to Events Services Coordinator at the Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre, and then again to Fundraising and Events Officer for Keyano College Foundation. In each role she was able to foster her passion for the arts, and soon found herself becoming fiercely committed to the community.

“Most recently, I was involved in an initiative to connect the youth of the outlying communities of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo with theatre and performance via our program called KTC in the Community,” says Lauren. “This was a bit of a dream come true for me really, because I was able to combine two of my great loves and expose local kids to theatre and arts who may not otherwise have had the opportunity.”

With the support of Suncor and Big Spirit Wood Buffalo, KTC in the Community has provided professional actors the opportunity to visit schools in the RMWB and work with students on a self-made performance. The community outreach program was themed What’s Your Story, giving students free reign of what that topic means to them. Thrilled with the positive feedback and success, Thomas is looking forward to growing KTC in the Community into a longer workshop with an increased enrollment.

“It’s all about infecting the community with the spirit of drama.”

Roxanne Dicke

When you are not at the theatre where do you spend your time? I am a fanatic hockey mom. When I am not working on a theatre production or teaching theatre courses, I am at the rink cheering on my 11 year old son and using my acting knowledge to fit in with the other hockey parents.

Roxanne Dicke is the Director of Keyano Theatre Company’s Drama Force program. Growing up on a farm, most extracurricular activities weren’t feasible in Roxanne Dicke’s childhood. They simply didn’t fit in with the rigorous schedule and chores associated with farm life. But her drive to perform never dwindled and eventually led her to the stage at the Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre, where she found a secondary home.

Years of experience, a Bachelors of Fine Arts specializing in Performance from the University of Lethbridge, a Master’s Degree in Theatre from Guelph University and a Bachelors of Education majoring in Theatre from the University of Calgary have all permitted Roxanne to bring her passion to the community and to nurture the talent inside of her that she knows is waiting to be discovered.

Working at Keyano College as a Drama instructor from 1999 – 2006, Roxanne was able to instill her passion for theatre into the students while allowing them to experience the arts in a unique way. It was during this period that her connection to the community began to grow.

Working with youth in an intensive program like Drama Force is something that Roxanne is passionate about. As the Director, she is helping to create memories for each of the participants and crafts unique experiences for the next generation of the RMWB community.

“I truly feel that giving young people the opportunity to discover themselves freely through theatre and arts is thrilling,” says Roxanne. “These kids are all on a journey, some harder than others, but I am so happy that I get to be part of the team that helps them express themselves and exposes them to the world of performing arts.”

Roxanne is excited for Drama Force 2015 to grow into a bigger and stronger program that reaches out to the youth of the municipality, while keeping its grass roots and unique approach to the arts.