By Carol Christian
Two years. That’s how long Alan Roberts had originally planned on calling Fort McMurray home, but 34 years later, he’s still here, and still bringing stories to life on the stage at Keyano Theatre.
It was an unexpected love for this community, and a life-long passion for community theatre and all that if offered that prompted his residential longevity.
Travelling to Fort McMurray from Edmonton in 1988, Roberts first arrived to be stage manager for the production of Baby at Keyano. Though Stratford Festival was his next planned stop, he chose to stay put.
“I was amazed at the community; all the people were so welcoming, and the theatre itself kind of knocked my socks off because a theatre of this size in a community that was only about 30,000 people at the time was unheard of, and it was well equipped,” he recalls.
“So after two years, I decided to stay for five years…then it was 10…then you buy property. I still love the community; still love the theatre.”
He points out that he has attended meetings with other rural community theatre operators and feels a little guilty when listening to their stories of the frequent struggles around finding performance space and props being built in volunteers’ garages. When the conversation comes around to Roberts and he’s asked if he has to rent a theatre, “I say, ‘No. I operate a 600-seat theatre that has an orchestra pit and a fly system, and I have a scene shop, a costume shop, and a prop shop,’” he chuckles, remembering their surprised reactions.
“We are an odd duck up here, and it’s one of the things that I find hard to describe to other people without sounding snobbish. We’re a very fortunate community to have this facility to be able to support our volunteers in this way. There are some other great community theatres, but not at the same scale with a subscription base behind it, and we have people that come here and actually don’t realize it’s community theatre.”
Though he acted all the way through school and in Grade 12, he remembers already being fascinated by the technical aspects of production. Soon realizing acting wasn’t his true passion, he talks about a training flyer catching his eye one fateful night while attending a play at Grant MacEwan.
“I tore off one of those things, and that’s how I started. I didn’t know you could get a career in technical theatre.”
Roberts worked his way up, doing every job imaginable in theatre, before progressing into his current position as director of the theatre and arts centre at Keyano.
He has an enduring fascination with the technical aspects of a production: how the story can be told; the scenery, the lighting and sound effects; everything that enhances the story.
Of it all, however, lighting remains his favourite, and he can still be found coordinating lighting design when he has time between all his other jobs.
“I love the way lighting can enhance how I can tell a story, how I can make an ooh moment. I just love how you can synchronize it to either an action or to music.”
That’s the point of theatre: storytelling and helping people connect.
“It’s how you tell stories. It’s how people have the opportunity to express a story, whether it’s something original that they created themselves or whether they’re an actor portraying somebody else’s story.”
Stories of all genres have been presented on the Keyano stage, from simple shows to major productions, and Roberts can remember every one, especially those that proved the nay-sayers wrong.
Such was the case with Les Misérables in 2014.
“There are a lot of shows that I’m very proud of. Les Mis was one of the shows where people thought, ‘Oh, no, we can’t do that. We don’t have the voices in this community. How can we pull off such a major show?’
“It was just stunning,” he recalls. “It was just a very well done show, and it looked great on stage.”
Another production milestone was Hometown in 2013.
“It was an amazing production because of what it did, how it connected to people, and the experience that people got from that show. We had 120 people on stage all together, and we had people that had never been on stage before. It created such an impact on them. It was a very emotional show.”
The controversial Angels in America did generate some complaints, but that’s what theatre does, maintains Roberts. “It’s there to create those conversations; to create that talking interaction.
“Jesus Christ Superstar was probably one of the first shows where we never got an applause at the end. You can’t applaud; it has a very dramatic, devastating end to it. So it was one of those things where everyone in the audience was crying. We just rolled credits, and all the cast were in silhouette. That’s what I like with audiences. I like when we can deliver them something that they’re not expecting.”
That unexpectedness can also bring a night and day change to a new performer as they blossom on stage, he observes. Bringing a character to life can free some people to venture outside of themselves as their onstage persona allows them to be someone else. It can let the timid be forceful; the shy, raucous; the quiet, boisterous.
Roberts’ next ambitious production is Mary Poppins in February.
“Mary will fly,” he promises. “Oh, yeah. We’re pulling out all the stops for that.”
While seasoned theatre patrons readily attend performances and are very supportive of its community players, he admits that getting people new to theatre through the doors is the biggest challenge facing the theatre. There is a stigma that live theatre is stodgy, and that theatre-goers have to dress up, or that the performance will be unenjoyable because it’s all volunteers.
It’s none of those things, he stresses.
“Theatre is accessible. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s dark, it’s edgy, it’s hidden.
“People are a little more tolerant when they realize that it’s all volunteer, and a lot of times they had more fun because they said they know the people that are on stage.”
While volunteers are integral to the success of the performances, he acknowledges that without the support of supporters including the Theatre Angels and industry, community theatre can’t exist.
Though Roberts says he was honoured at being named a Community Builder for his work with the theatre, “I just looked at it as being part of my job to always try and advocate, assist, share expertise, help out wherever I can.
“I’m among hundreds of other people doing the exact same thing. That’s what this region is. There are so many people out there supporting everyone else. It’s just second nature that they’re willing to help out where they can or if they can’t, they go, ‘You know what? I can’t do it now, but maybe next time.’ They don’t just write it off. That’s pretty cool.”
As for how long Roberts will stay in theatre, he simply shrugs.
“Till I’m done?” he grins. “Who knows when that will be? I still have work to do here.”