Norm & Sheila Sutton

Norm & Sheila Sutton

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Sutton – On enriching lives through community arts
By Carol Christian, YMM Contributor

Once upon a time, a beaming Sheila Sutton stood amongst some dance and theatre friends and declared with unabashed exuberance, “These are my people!”

Sheila was at an Arts Council Wood Buffalo’s awards dinner. For her husband Norm, that same exuberance is felt when stepping on to the Keyano Theatre stage over the years in various roles.

While his start in the world of acting was as a pirate for a theatre lobby poster, his thick white beard and long hair also make him a convincing stand-in for Santa Claus.

He has donned the merry old elf outfit at numerous Christmas functions and more often than not, is joined by Sheila dressed as Mrs. Claus.

Their dedication over some two decades in working to grow, advocate for and support the arts and culture community of the region is why they are featured here.

Though starting in B. C., Norm and Sheila, along with their two children Tim and Ayah, moved to Fort McMurray in 1996. They moved south from Fort Chipewyan where they had called home for several years running the Northern Store. There was even time spent living in the Arctic.

“We had decided that we needed a larger base,” Norm recalled.

“The economy in town was still down but on the uprise after announcements by the federal government and the oil companies of pending expansions. The population of Fort McMurray was a little over 30,000 and had been static for several years.”

Very quickly after arriving in the oil sands city, they became involved in the arts community through InterPLAY. This multi-venue festival celebrating the arts was hosted in the summer and offered a colourful program reminiscent of large fringe festivals.

There were plays, stage performances and a variety of activities around town in regular venues and temporary ones created to host the theatrical offerings.

This volunteer-run festival entertained the community for over 20 years.

“It took us several years to learn about the arts community in town, most of it was centered at the time around Keyano Theatre,” Sheila said.

They still had a full visual and performing arts program active at the time, featuring theatre, music and studio art. The dance community was limited to only two studios.

“Our daughter started dancing with Taylor Dance (Joanne Taylor) in 2000. At the time, anyone requiring dance supplies like shoes or tights had to order from Edmonton or make a trip down 63,” said Norm.

With Sheila working two jobs, she remembers not having the time to make that drive to Edmonton for supplies. She soon realized it was unlikely she was the only dance mom facing those challenges.

“So, I did a little survey and created a business plan.”

In 2007, Sheila decided to take a big gamble and in November 2008, Spotlight Performance Wear opened in the lower level of the Campbell’s Music building on Franklin Avenue.

Sheila explains that Spotlight was born out of necessity.

“I loved it,” she enthused. “When I arrived in the morning, I would turn the lights on and take a deep breath and say, ‘This is my world.’”

What she misses the most is watching the little dancers blossom and grow into older dancers.

“It just gave Fort McMurray its own base for dance.”

Spotlight soon grew from offering ballet slippers and tutus to character shoes and costumes for Keyano Theatre.

“I felt like I was doing something the community really needed,” said Sheila.

Having dancing supplies locally available led to an increase in the number of dancers in town and the addition of at least four more studios. For many years, Sheila was a viable source of information, inspiration and support for dance teachers and students.

“Even though we sold Spotlight in 2016 and it has since closed, we still have contact with a number of the dance parents and dancers, many of whom have gone on to dance careers,” noted Norm.

“I have always been and will always be a fierce proponent for the arts,” stated Sheila. “If you lose art, you lose heart.”

It was fellow thespian Russell Thomas who championed Norm’s journey to the stage. Not only were they neighbours for years, but they also worked and volunteered together on the InterPLAY Festival and acted together on the Keyano Theatre stage.

Norm’s journey isn’t the usual tale of a life-long ambition for community theatre. He didn’t step foot on a stage until the tender age of 50.

In 2018, Norm had pointed out that he and Sheila had the same seats at Keyano for 13 consecutive seasons and were always overwhelmed by the talent.

Norm admitted he never expected to find himself on the stage until Russell, who was also the publicist for Keyano Theatre at the time, reached out to him.

Thomas wanted somebody who looked like a pirate for a lobby poster. Norm fit the bill.

“A lot of people told me you ought to be in the play, and I said, ‘I’ve never acted or done anything like that in my life.’”

That first audition was one Norm laughingly describes as “probably one of the worst auditions in theatrical history. My character was only in act one, scene one, and never seen again, but I got hooked.”

Despite only being in one scene, Norm was very involved in the backstage work on the show and became hooked on the whole process.

“I kept auditioning and damned if they didn’t keep giving me parts. In my first four years, I did five shows.”

Appearing in about a dozen performances over the years including, A Christmas Carol and The Drowsy Chaperone, Norm calls Keyano’s presentation of Les Misérables the most fulfilling experience of his theatre career.

“It (still) brings tears to my eyes when I hear some of the music from it. It was very compelling to be part of that whole process.”

In addition to his Keyano shows, Norm has also been involved in a half dozen One-Acts, film acting and voice over work all of which he credits to his experience and connections within the theatre community.

“The best thing about being involved with the arts is watching how the young people coming up behind you grow and mature and learn to share the love of their art,” says Norm. “If we build a strong base, there isn’t anywhere we can’t go.”

In a past YMM article, Russell described Norm as a larger than life character and performer.

In the summer of 2014, Sheila had asked Russell, also a successful painter, to create a mural of Norm on their shed.

The work was completed while Norm was away on holiday.

“When he got back, we had a little unveiling ceremony, with Norm having no idea what was going on. He was speechless – and with Norm that’s saying something – and tears started rolling down his cheek,” recalled Russell. “I had fun immortalizing him on their shed.”

Thankfully, the mural survived with minimal damage in April when ice-jammed waters flooded much of downtown.

However, many treasures, including Sheila’s ‘tickle trunk’ and photos, were lost to the destructive floodwaters.

Their lengthy involvement in the Fort McMurray arts and their love for the arts showed in their home.

“We lost a lot of artwork. All of our stereo equipment and vinyl records are gone, as is memorabilia from shows we have been in,” said Sheila.

“We are both very stubborn, and this will not break us,” said Norm.

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