The Academy at 125: A personal reflection

By Ian McKechnie

Drama students from I.E. Weldon Secondary School bring 150 years of Canadian history to life on the Academy stage, May 20th 2017.

The Academy of Music. The Academy Theatre. The Academy Theatre for Performing Arts. The Grand Old Dame. The stately red-brick performance venue anchoring the southeast corner of Kent Street East and Lindsay Street has gone by a few names, both formal and informal, in the 125 years it has been gracing our community.

For most of us, though, it is simply “The Academy.”

My earliest recollection of The Academy dates back a little over two decades, to Wednesday the 5th of March, 1997.  I was a lad of six, and with my parents and younger siblings had gone to see Ernie Coombs, alias Mr. Dressup, and his famous “Tickle Trunk” on the Academy stage. Coombs had retired about a year before from the CBC, and was travelling around Ontario doing stage shows with Jim Parker, under the auspices of Don Jones Productions.

Somewhere, in the annals of the McKechnie basement, there is a photograph of yours truly reverently looking up at this gentleman as he autographed our tickets after the performance. For many people aged about 25 to 55, Mr. Dressup was a major hallmark of Canadian culture ‒ a creative, jovial, and calmly reassuring voice in world yet to be disrupted by satellite television and its attendant 24-hour news cycle.

While watching Coombs carry out his song-and-story routine on stage, I remember sitting in my black-and-red chair that evening at the Academy and letting my eyes wander up to the ornate grillwork over the exits at stage right and stage left ‒ what lay behind it? What mysteries did the Academy hold? Even as a young child, the building’s architecture fascinated me.

Ever a concert venue as well as a place for plays and musicals to be enjoyed, the Academy played host on the 12th of December 1997 to Jack Callaghan Public School’s primary grade Christmas concert, under the direction of such teachers as Leslie Ogilvie and Roxanne Carter.

Also buried in the annals of the McKechnie basement is a picture of this concert showing a happy-looking Grade 1 student in the centre row of a student choir ‒ but don’t be fooled by the facial expression of yours truly. I may have been feigning enthusiasm, for I distinctly recall a bout of stage fright ahead of that concert. Never a performer, I have always preferred to be in the audience!

And in the audience our family was on a relatively regular basis as the new century dawned. Like so many of her contemporaries, my sister, Marnie, took dance lessons for a few years from Stephanie Mackey, and we would make a pilgrimage to the Academy in the spring to take in the annual dance recital. It was around this time that I was introduced to the magic of live theatre, with my parents taking us to see, among other shows, The King and I (1998) and Anne of Green Gables (2000 ‒ a production which left me in tears when poor old Matthew Cuthbert expired while singing that poignant Norman Campbell/Don Harron number, “Anne of Green Gables”).

These and other productions left their mark on me, and to this day I am awed when the house lights are dimmed and ‒ like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy of Narnia fame ‒ the audience is ushered into a magical world leaving the cares and concerns of the world behind; at least, for an hour or two.

Fast forward to 2006.  I was in Grade 9 at LCVI, and our art class was seconded into doing set painting for the school’s upcoming production of Little Shop of Horrors. With a cast that included Phil Westland, Jasmine Plumley, Katherine Eddy, and Claire Imrie (whose extended family is to be commended for their indefatigable devotion to the performing arts in this community over the years), Little Shop of Horrors was staged at the Academy before audiences of peers and relatives. It was a reminder once again of how wonderfully inclusive the Academy stage is ‒ hosting not only professional entertainers like Dave Broadfoot, Tommy Hunter, and Rick Mercer, but also young performers, whose craft is generously shared with the public through not only high school drama courses, but also through such groups as Triple Threat Theatre.

This inclusive, community-wide character which permeates the Academy’s walls hit home for me in 2016, when I worked with the Victoria County Historical Society to plan Where Duty Leads: Waving Off The 109th, a three-part event marking the centennial of local soldiers departing our community for service in the First World War.

Emulating a similar “farewell concert” organized for the Battalion in 1916, Where Duty Leads was brought to a close on the 14th of May 2016 with an historically-based variety show starring drama students from I.E. Weldon Secondary School; local actors Alan Cottreau, John Peleshok, and Beth Wilson; the Kawartha Male Chorus; and soloist Sophia Mackey.

Utilizing primary sources supplied by the museum, creative writing students from I.E. Weldon were invited to draft a script which told the stories of men and women from this municipality who served in a variety of capacities during the war. I faithfully attended rehearsals, where I clarified historical details and made staging suggestions, all the while enjoying the process of watching local history come to life on stage.

So rewarding was this experience that, when the historical society was thinking about how it was going to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, I approached I.E. Weldon’s outstanding drama teacher, Jessie Kennedy (with whom the museum has worked on several projects now, including Where Duty Leads), with the idea of producing a similar type of historically-based show featuring local dramatic and musical talent.

Unfortunately for us, the creative writing class which gave such life and character to Where Duty Leads wasn’t being offered in 2016-2017, so I volunteered to take on some of the responsibility for writing the script for a show that came to be christened Our Place In Canada: 150 Years of Food, Song, and Story.

I had never done anything like this before.

With the direction and encouragement of Ms. Kennedy and others, there followed many months of writing, editing, and re-writing a series of scenes that represented a mix of my own invention and various primary sources adapted for use on stage. Many pleasant hours were spent in rehearsal, seeing a talented brigade of young people ‒ most of whom had never known the twentieth century ‒ bring to life 150 years of Canadian diversity, politics, suffrage, transportation, and the arts as seen through the eyes of Lindsay and area.

I learned a new language: cue-to-cue, stage left and stage right, SFX. As well, I learned firsthand the joys and frustrations of theatre: watching in amazement as students memorized their lines; being unable to find a key cast member until the last minute; seeing Jeff, Brian, and others work their magic with the sound and lighting systems; having to make compromises in the script.  This creative process is delightfully messy, but is definitely rewarding.

For most of us, the Academy is a place where we go to laugh, to cry, to sing, to dance, to perform.  The past two years of working with talented people to see the stories of our community’s history and heritage brought to life on stage has made it something else to me: a place of liminality, a “thin place,” where the heavy red curtain becomes a veil through which the past and the present are mystically joined by the power of the performing arts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.