The Belfry Theatre, with its eye-catching, three-storey bell tower, has been the cultural heart of Fernwood for more than 100 years — and now it’s about to announce its 35th season.
The unique building has come a long way from its origins as the Spring Ridge Chapel (the theatre lobby and offices built in 1887) to become home to Victoria’s longest running professional adult theatre company.
The sanctuary, which houses the main theatre stage, was a separate structure built in 1892 for only $8,000 by the Emmanuel Baptist Church. When the congregation moved to their new sanctuary on Cedar Hill Cross Road in 1971, the space laid vacant until it was turned into the Springridge Cultural Centre in 1974. It was renamed the Belfry in 1976 and the first professional adult theatre production was mounted the following year — Puttin’ on the Ritz directed by its first artistic director, Don Shipley.
At the time, the theatre company was renting the sanctuary from the Cool Aid Society, which was running a homeless shelter in the building.
“The lobby was the women’s dormitory, the studio was the men’s, and our workshop was the dining room,” says Belfry artistic director Michael Shamata. “I love the fact that the theatre and the shelter operated together.”
After five capital campaigns, the company was able to purchase the building in 1990 and restore it to its current splendour, something that Shamata says gives the company an advantage over other theatre companies
like the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company
that announced last month it was ceasing operations just one year shy of its 50th anniversary.
“I think it’s a tragedy,” says Shamata about the Playhouse demise. “It means a lot of work lost for a lot of artists. I think the ripples will be felt for years.”
“We’re in really good shape here,” he adds. “This company has been managed very responsibly for a long time, and we own our building. In the Vancouver situation, they rented their space from the city and didn’t get any civic grants.”
Shamata came to the Belfry as artistic director in 2007 after being based in Toronto for 10 years. “I had never worked at the Belfry before, but I knew Glynis Leyshon well.”
Shamata hired Leyshon (Belfry artistic director 1986-1997) to direct when he was at both Theatre New Brunswick (1990-1995) and the Grand Theatre, London (1995-1999). When Leyshon was artistic director at the Vancouver Playhouse, she returned the favour and hired Shamata to direct.
But what attracted Shamata to the Belfry was “the reputation.”
“The other theatre companies I had run were both regional theatres, which meant they were trying to do something for everybody. I knew that if I were to run a theatre again, I wanted to run a theatre with a narrower mandate. I don’t know if I would have given it a label at the time, but the contemporary, predominantly Canadian mandate here certainly was appealing.”
Next season — to be announced in full on Thursday, April 5 — the Belfry will produce and/or present 11 plays in both the 279- seat Patrick Stewart Theatre and the 100-seat studio theatre.
“We try to include one Canadian classic, one newish Canadian play, either a premiere or second production, one non-Canadian play and one play that uses non-traditional storytelling. We don’t always end up with one of each of those, but that’s the template I start with,” says Shamata.
This season, And Slowly Beauty was the non-traditional, Jitters the classic, On The Edge is the new Canadian play, and God of Carnage (April 17-May 20, directed by Leyshon) is another Canadian play.
“Next year departs a little bit from the formula,” says Shamata.
The company’s 35th season (July 2012 – May 2013) will include four mainstage plays, one summer production, four innovative Canadian plays for the 2013 Spark Festival, and one designed for the studio theatre.
“We wanted to start using it again as part of regular programming,” says Shamata. The studio is currently used as a rehearsal hall, for readings and by Puente Theatre. “Aside from Spark Fest, we weren’t programming anything for the studio and it’s such a great space.”
The 11th play is “an exciting collaboration,” but that’s all Shamata is willing to say in advance of the season launch.
He does add, however, that he’ll be directing three plays this year, including the world premiere of a new musical and his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which has become a holiday tradition in Toronto.
In the past 30 years, the Belfry has produced more than 230 plays, including 158 Canadian, and more than 33 premieres. Many of those premiere productions have gone on to acclaim across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe and London’s West End. Belfry productions regularly tour to other cities and have won awards in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.
Shamata’s favourite part of working in Victoria is the “openness of the audience.”
“I don’t feel like the Belfry has ever taken the safe road and there are a lot of companies across the country where you look at the seasons and this season looks like that season, and that season looks like this season, and the Belfry has always had its own aesthetic and the journey it’s on with the audience looks different than the rest of the country. Over the years, for a mainstream company, there are more risks taken.
“The one that stands out to me before I got here was The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. Since I’ve been here, I’d say doing On The Edge this year was a risk because A, it’s a new play, and B, I think it pushes the audience a little bit. There were some challenging sections in that play and challenging the way we see women and how we assume the plight of women in society has changed, when really it hasn’t to the degree we like to think. Even And Slowly Beauty was a risk — the way the story is told, the fact that not a lot happens and we’re asked to go inside this man’s head. The challenge of that piece is that it’s an incredibly complicated piece that wants to look simple. It’s delicate, but it’s a lot of heavy lifting for everybody.”
The Belfry is taking their production and cast of And Slowly Beauty on the road to Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre next February. “It’ll be the exact same production, just with less space,” Shamata says with a laugh.
“I think it’s important to reiterate that And Slowly Beauty was designed here, it was built here, it was rehearsed here,” says Mark Dusseault, the Belfry’s publicist.
And it’s hard to decipher what the magic is in this space, says Shamata.
“We get all sorts of comments like ‘this was the best theatre I’ve worked in,’ or ‘this is the best audiences we’ve ever played to,’ everybody loves being here. The Belfry is a family, and to me that’s very much the case. It’s a family that is evolving and changing and the building itself has a lot to do with it. It gives us an identity. That’s who we are. With the history as a church and as a shelter, there’s good vibes in here.”
Dusseault agrees: “It was built as a building to bring people together and I think that feeling continues to this day.”
To find out more about the Belfry’s 35th season, visit belfry.bc.ca. M
Kim Harvey, who stared as Christine in the Belfry’s 2009-2010 production of Where the Blood Mixes is coming on board as artist in residence for the upcoming season. She’ll spend the majority of the season working on a writing project and she’ll also be assistant directing a couple of plays in the 2013-2014 season, including the Tomson Highway play, The Rez Sisters.
“She’s very bright ,” says Shamata. “She’s been working with the provincial government so we wanted to give her somewhere to nurture her artistic side. There’s an artistic home for her here.”