One hundred thousand thanks

Cathy Cooke (left) and Jessica Lutz were among the many Strait Area Theatre Society members to volunteer at the new Port Hawkesbury group's table during the 2019 Strait Area Seniors' Expo, which take place in September at the Port Hawkesbury Shopping Centre. Cooke and Lutz each contributed several onstage and offstage roles in One Hundred Thousand Welcomes, which held three shows in Port Hawkesbury over the Thanksgiving weekend as part of the Celtic Colours Community Events line-up.

This week: A story 27 years in the making.

It started as my story, and it all happened in the summer of 1992, when I was a university student working at a tiny tourist bureau next to Campbell’s Dairy Freeze (now Jigg’s Take-Out), just a few hundred metres away from the St. Peter’s Canal.

I expected it to be the very basic story of a straightforward summer job. But then the story picked up a few extra characters along the way: tourists that helped the teenage tourist-bureau worker see his home through the eyes of others, casting new light on the things he had taken for granted; friends that alternately inspired and challenged him; and adult professionals like teachers and doctors who suddenly became mentors, and just as quickly, also became friends.

I knew something had to happen with that story. I originally envisioned it as a book. Years later, I wondered, could it be a play?

Shortly after Cathy and I moved into our house in Port Hawkesbury five years ago, she found a large left-over in the rafters of the accompanying shed: a decades-old but genuine Nova Scotia tourist bureau sign. Coincidence? Divine providence?

Time passed. Life happened. The story remained untold. But other stories took its place, as I wound up being involved in theatre shows in four neighbouring counties over an 18-month span.

The last one, a production of Hairspray by Music Of The Night Antigonish Community Theatre, came to SAERC this past February. It was our biggest and most boisterous audience of the entire 10-show run. And it lit a fire under Port Hawkesbury-area residents who had been craving homegrown community theatre for years.

As a result, this is also the story of a not-for-profit theatre company that came together very quickly and put down roots that could bear fruit for years, even decades, to come.

This is the story of the Strait Area Theatre Society, which drew dozens of enthusiastic people from across the region – and, in a couple of cases, from across Cape Breton Island – to audition for the opportunity to bring my 27-year-old experiences to life, in the form of our debut show One Hundred Thousand Welcomes.

It’s the story of a multi-talented artistic director, Melissa Hiscock, who was pointed in my direction when she landed in the Strait area shortly after Hairspray hit SAERC and inquired to town officials about how she could get involved in our local theatre scene. And it’s the story of Jim Ralph, SAERC’s music and drama teacher and my co-musical director, and his determination to get more people – of every age – on the school’s beautiful stage.

It’s also the story of our lead actor, Jack Morse. Some of you may recognize his voice from the afternoon newscasts on 101.5 The Hawk. When he arrived here just prior to our auditions, Jack contacted me privately about community theatre opportunities. The hundreds of people who saw him confidently taking centre stage in One Hundred Thousand Welcomes over the Thanksgiving weekend, showing Robin Williams-worthy ad-lib skills and John Ritter-esque physical comedy, may be shocked to learn that this was Jack’s first real theatre experience.

He wasn’t alone. Roughly half of our cast of 24, and our house band of 11, had never been onstage in this format. So this is also the story of the seven-year-old girl who played a wide-eyed, hyperactive Rita MacNeil fan, the four young dancers who drew a boisterous response from all three of our audiences, the SAERC students who delivered powerful lines about Canada’s residential schools and Cape Breton’s early-‘90s economic downturn, and the veteran singer from Glace Bay who had never been a part of a sold-out show before we hit the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre’s Shannon Studio on October 13.

This is also the story of a town council that, four months earlier, passed a motion in that same Shannon Studio to waive rental fees for the Civic Centre and SAERC so this new theatre group could get on its feet. It’s the story of Celtic Colours, which took a chance on a fledgling volunteer group to deliver a show that would fit cleanly into the festival line-up (and didn’t even ask for script approval). It’s the story of donations and sponsorship funds from businesses and service clubs who believe that a growing community needs a strong arts foundation.

And it’s a story that continues to unfold. Future chapters include a “Sing-Along Sound Of Music” event on December 14 at the Civic Centre, future productions, workshops and one-night events already in the discussion phase, and a solid crew of people ready to keep this momentum going.

One hundred thousand thanks to all of you for taking my original story and making it so much more. Let’s keep writing it together.