After years of operating as a movie theatre, the Roxy Theatre, a cultural icon in Victoria, began running as a theatre company in 2013 under the creative direction of Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. With duo Rebekah Johnson and Tamara McCarthy at the helm, the ever-changing direction of the Roxy veers towards a feminine future.
Blue Bridge will spend Women’s History month preparing the play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), a feminist revisioning of some of Shakespeare’s works.
Here is the history of the Roxy and a look into what Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has in store.
The Blue Bridge At The Roxy has a rich history, turning through different owners’ hands and name changes. When the original theatre first opened on Feb. 1, 1949, it was known as The Fox. George Walky ran the theatre alongside the projectionist Ed Nixon until 1966. Walky was a pharmacist who owned a drug store across the street from where the theatre was located before he repurposed the building. On opening night, it premiered This Time For Keeps, an American romantic musical.
The theatre’s structure was that of a semi-cylindrical Quonset hut. This type of structure was commonly used in the Second World War, agricultural buildings, and industrial construction. The structure was bought over in 1947 to be a movie theatre and since then, has kept the external shape and its signature robin-blue exterior. Because of the unique shape of the theatre, it did not have traditional organ chambers. Instead, a 2/6 Kimball organ was installed in the theatre in 1962 which accompanies operas, theatre and more to this day. It seats 231 people with accessible options.
In 1966, Barney Simmons took over and played new release films before switching over to adult films as it was too hard for the independent theatre to consistently get new releases. When he wanted to get away from the theatre’s association with pornography in the 1970s, he renamed it the Quadra Theatre.
Howie Siegel (the owner of Pagliacci’s) along with his brother David Siegel bought the theatre from Simmons in 1986. Under Siegel’s ownership, they later changed the theatre’s name to Roxy. Community-minded, the duo ran it as the Roxy Cinegog for several years, referencing the Greek word synagogue meaning “to bring everyone together.” Later, once Michael Sharpe bought it in 2007, the name was converted back to the Roxy.
In 2013, the theatre was acquired by the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. The production company brought in a bold new change, taking it in the direction of a performing arts theatre that only showed movies once in a while. Blue Bridge has had 11 critically-lauded and well-attended seasons and has presented 47 multi-award-winning productions.
The company was founded in 2008 by Brian Richmond. Richmond decided to stay authentic and honour the past by keeping the iconic ‘Roxy’ sign on the building and the nostalgic blue colour.
Tamara McCarthy is the current artistic director of Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. After Richmond left in the summer, she started her role on Dec. 1, 2022. McCarthy studied theatre at Simon Fraser University in the mid-1990s and after graduating in 1996, she co-founded her own theatre company named Boca del Lupo Theatre Society. She also did a fair bit of freelancing as a performer and later in her career moved to more directing and producer roles. In 2020, she became the associate artistic director of the Pacific Coast Stage in Nanaimo.
Before filling the role of artistic director for Blue Bridge, McCarthy was already familiar with the production company, acting in the Around the World in 80 Days production last year. McCarthy “played one of the clowns which took on 26 roles but we only had three actors. It was very physical which is my background.” Although she has taken on different positions with directing and producing, she will always have her love for performing, which started it all.
Rebekah Johnson is the other half of Blue Bridge and has been the general manager since 2013. Prior to that, she worked as a lighting designer for the company when it was located downtown. She graduated from the University of Victoria in performing arts.
Johnson described how she first became interested in the arts. “When I was five, I saw a production in Toronto called A Dandelion. My mother used to tell the story of how I never shut up about wanting to be in the theatre since then.” She defined her passion for the industry as “a life-long love affair with performing arts.”
“Speaking of stories, the theatre has many … Whether it’s kids coming here to see their first movie or someone coming here on a first date or Howie Siegel who has a big personality here. I love hearing the stories about how rooted the Roxy is in our community and how so many people have such great memories of it. People walk in every day with a story. That’s something that’s really amazing about being in this building,” Johnson said. “I would call it a cultural icon for Victoria.”
Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre was named after the old Johnson Street bridge, colloquially known as the blue bridge, and was chosen to paint a metaphor for creating a bridge between students and professional performing artists. The theatre company is an advocate for helping students and young people find their footing in the industry.
“Our former artistic director Brian Richmond noticed a gap and I did too as a UVic graduate,” Johnson explained. “The first thing that we did when we graduated was leave Victoria because there was no work here. He felt that there was a gap that could be filled not only for young performers but for young stage designers, managers, and other roles, to transfer into the professional world. We see ourselves as a bridge that way.”
Most recently the theatre hosted Ride The Cyclone, which was a popular student-based production.
A Feminine Future
Bridge Blue is coming off a successful month after hosting many screenings for the Victoria Film Festival before diving into Women’s History Month. The company has been working hard to present Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) written by one of Canada’s most acclaimed writers, Ann-Marie MacDonald. The story follows Constance Ledbelly, an English professor at Queen’s University, who seeks to prove her thesis: Romeo and Juliet and Othello were originally comedies, not tragedies.
“You study it if you’re going to theatre school,” McCarthy said. “It’s feminist, it’s also a comedy, and it has a lot of hilarious moments.”
This will be McCarthy’s directing debut in 2023.
Goodnight Desdemona is exceptional, especially because of the voice it gives women in performing arts, McCarthy explained.
“The playwright wanted to create a lead character that had more lines than Hamlet in Shakespeare – which is a lot of lines – and successfully did so … Even though it is still 2023, we are still fighting for women’s rights around the world. I think it’s a reminder that women are powerhouses and we want to be celebrating them.”
With many goals for the year ahead, perhaps the greatest one is an exciting next step for McCarthy. “Part of what I want to do with Blue Bridge is to be uplifting the voices of marginalized artists which includes so many groups that are equity deserving, and women fall into that category as well. I’m excited we have three women directing the four shows we have this season. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) will be a great way to kick off celebrating women in that way.”
Blue Bridge staff have been talking about how they want to make the theatre experience more inclusive. McCarthy has noticed the audience is diversifying with a younger and more ethnically diverse demographic. “That’s something we are really trying to work towards. How do we make this theatre accessible to folks? That can be by having a more flexible scale with lower ticket prices for groups and moving from a subscription-based model to a more repeat single-ticket buyer. We’re adding things.”
Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) will play from April 25 to May 7. For more information, go to bluebridgetheatre.ca.
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