Nanaimo’s Kismet Theatre Academy was so named because it felt as if it were “meant to be.”
Bonnie Catterson founded the school in 2012, after returning to her hometown to be with family for support as she dealt with health challenges. That summer she was teaching theatre at the Arts Alive summer camp when parents of happy campers asked her where she would be teaching in the fall.
“I just found myself saying, ‘I’m going to open a school,’” Catterson said. “And a month and a half later, I had one.”
For eight years – “the best years of my life” – Catterson ran Kismet Theatre Academy at 55 Victoria Rd. She describes it as “a place for the oddballs to go and meet other oddballs,” where students could come up with their own characters and stories and bring them to the stage.
“Pretty soon we were doing three or four productions a year of original shows,” Catterson said. “So we did a lot of stuff that we wrote from scratch together and it just kind of grew from there. It was pretty amazing.”
For the past two years Catterson had been writing an original musical with vocal director Wren Beckley and a group of 12-to-16-year-old long-term students. They were eight weeks from showtime when COVID-19 struck. Now Kismet is one of the pandemic’s casualties.
On June 12 Catterson announced on Facebook that she was closing Kismet due to the COVID-19 pandemic and her own personal health crisis. Catterson lives with two chronic, incurable ailments. She’s had multiple surgeries and “near-death experiences” and spent 100 days in hospital over the last 18 months.
“It’s really hard because my ambition and my desire to create doesn’t play well with somebody who’s chronically ill,” Catterson sad. “So to try to operate within those limitations is really hard but that’s, I guess, my own life’s journey.”
She had already planned to close temporarily at the end of this year to take time off and focus on her health, but COVID-19 complicated the matter. After making her announcement, Catterson invited her students to visit for one last “beautiful and heartbreaking” goodbye.
“What I heard over and over again was it gave them a place to belong,” Catterson said. “It gave them a place where they felt safe, where they felt heard, where they felt like they could be themselves and that was always my No. 1 goal and I think those spaces are needed now more than ever.”
As her students described their next plans and how they wanted to continue working on projects together, Catterson felt a “passing of the baton.”
She said she’s most proud of her students, who they’ve grown into and the stories they’ve told. Her original batch of pupils from 2012 are now graduating high school and finishing their first years of university, and she’s proud to have been with them when they first discovered “they really could do this.”
“That’s the best feeling in the world for a teacher, I think. It certainly makes everything worth it for me,” Catterson said. “It’s a lot of long, hard hours doing live theatre. We work 16-, 17-, 18-hour days during showtime and it’s absolutely all worth it for that moment that you see them believe in themselves. It’s everything.”