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Places Please! Oakville's community theatre continues its recovery

Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts | Downtown Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts | M Painchaud
Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts | Downtown Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts | M Painchaud

There are a lot of changes coming to Oakville's community theatres this fall.

For nearly 30 years, Oakville had a reasonably stable and consistent production of local live entertainment, with most of it based at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts.

But all of that changed dramatically in March 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Oakville News wrote an extensive report about the damages and changes to the state of the town's live theatre almost exactly three years ago, back in July 2020, mainly looking at what the future could look like once the pandemic was over. (You can read that story by clicking here.)

Now, three years later, many of those foreseen changes have come to pass, but all three of Oakville's largest amateur theatre producers have weathered the pandemic and have returned to regular (or at least semi-regular) production.

Looking ahead to the 2023/24 entertainment season, we decided to again sit for an interview with the BurlOak Theatre Group (BOTG), West End Studio Theatre (WEST) and the Oakville Players (TOP) to learn more about their future plans on entertaining Oakville.

The Big Changes

First, let's talk about the new structure of how seasons are being created. The biggest change that came from COVID-19 was the end of the Oakville Drama Series.

At some point between 1986-2020, all three groups (BOTG, WEST and TOP) were members of the subscription series at the Oakville Centre. In its last several years, WEST and TOP produced five plays each year between September and March, with that series ending in Spring 2020. BOTG produced their own series of three shows.

Moving forward, BOTG and WEST each have their own series of shows at the Oakville Centre, with BOTG on the main stage and WEST now based in the downstairs studio theatre. TOP continues to produce single shows at varying times and venues.

The Oakville Centre has now re-opened entirely, having been closed on and off for almost two whole years between March 2020 and February 2022.

Meanwhile, other, smaller theatre groups have largely stayed the course: while black box group Knockout Theatre Company voted to cease production and close in 2021, the Oakville Improv has resumed their residency at the Moonshine Cafe, performing live comedy on the last Sunday of every month to routinely sold-out crowds.

So what can expect next from the "big three" groups?

T. Collins / Oakville News
T. Collins / Oakville News

West End Studio Theatre (WEST)

This is going to be a big year for WEST.

The West End Studio Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and after a rocky 2022/23 season, there are big things set for the studio: they are premiering their own subscription series of intimate plays in the Oakville centre studio.

Last year saw two big challenges for the studio: first was the low attendance of their well-received play Home for Christmas in November 2022, and then came the threat of raised rent forcing them from their longtime home on North Service road.

But positive reception for all three of their productions was strong last season, especially their two in the studio: both The Laramie Project and Talking With... nearly sold out their runs, and reviews for them both and Home for Christmas were rapturous. Best of all, a new agreement was reached with their landlord so they could remain at their permanent studio home.

Now WEST is returning focus to the "studio" in their name, as their new mandate going forward will be focusing entirely on smaller scale, more intimate productions.

"It's time for us to refocus our work on the intimate dramas and stories that we became known for in the beginning," says WEST artistic director Yo Mustafa. "These smaller shows are filling a creative need in Oakville that nobody else is doing."

This year, three shows will round out the WEST season:

  • A return engagement of Talking With... in September
  • Twelve Angry Men in November 2023
  • Thornton Wilder's Our Town in March 2024

All three of these productions will be directed by Mustafa. Most of this past spring's cast from Talking With... will return for the encore engagement next month, while Our Town is set to feature one of the largest casts from the studio in over a decade.

Based on the highly acclaimed film, Twelve Angry Men also returns to the Oakville Centre for the first time in nearly 20 years. (The play was actually originally set to be produced by TOP back in November 2020, but was cancelled due to the pandemic.)

On choosing plays for this year, Mustafa says he, "wants to do things I’ll be satisfied with as a director and artist. These are popular, gripping stories that will engage Oakville in a meaningful way."

Three show WEST subscriptions are on sale now with the Oakville Centre until Sept. 24. You can buy subscriptions and single tickets online here.

Burloak Theatre Group
Burloak Theatre Group

Burloak Theatre Group (BOTG)

Of the three groups in town, BOTG has arguably come out of COVID-19 in the healthiest position. They are now the only company in Oakville still producing live theatre on the Oakville's main stage: the 487 seat AEG Liebherr Auditorium.

After cancelling their almost completed production of the musical Mamma Mia! in April 2020, they returned last spring with their hit productions of RENT and the centre-set return of their holiday pantomime show in December last year.

They staged a full subscription season this past year with Last of the Red Hot Lovers, An Ideal Husband, and their acclaimed staging of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret.

"We had a large diversity in the cast and audience at all of our shows last season," says BOTG vice president and long-time producer Beth Poad. "We appealed to a whole new group last year. The demographics of our artists and audiences are changing for the better."

This coming season, they are once again producing a three-show subscription season and a bonus show of their holiday pantomime in December, recently announced to be themed this year to the story of Rapunzel and the Disney film Tangled.

The BOTG main stage subscription features three shows:

  • Murder on the Orient Express this October 2023
  • 20th Century Blues in January 2024
  • The Spongebob Musical in April 2024

Orient Express is from a new adaptation from popular playwright Ken Ludwig, based on the book by Agatha Christie. The show is directed by Ryan Fisher in his Oakville debut, and stars Matt Lazaris-Brunner as the famous Hercule Poirot. (Lazaris-Brunner appeared in the group's An Ideal Husband earlier this year.)

20th Century Blues is a new play set in modern New York by Susan Miller, directed by Michelle Rigetti (who performed in multiple shows with BOTG last year.) The Spongebob Musical, based on the long-running TV series, closes the season as the group's first family book musical since their 2019 production of Shrek.

BOTG President Tim Cadeny says, "What’s exciting about this year is we're bringing back family entertainment. We have both our 11th annual pantomime Rapunzel and the SpongeBob Musical. We're excited to have all ages back in the seats."

Cadeny is also notably excited for the team on 20th Century Blues, as the lead production team, creative team, and even the four principal cast members, will all be 100% female - a rare feat in entertainment.

BOTG subscriptions are now on sale with the Oakville Centre box office. Single tickets for most shows will go on sale Sept. 18, and pantomime tickets will go on sale in early October. Subscribers get pre-sale pantomime tickets in late September. You can buy subscriptions now, online here.

Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts Main Theatre | Town of Oakville
Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts Main Theatre | Town of Oakville

The Oakville Players

The Oakville Players haven't been up to much recently, but that's about to change.

TOP won the lottery with the presentation of the musical Footloose back in March 2020 - their production closed just four days before the Oakville Centre began its two year closure.

Since then, they've run two workshops and a fundraiser, plus a series of locally written one act plays that were put on at the Moonshine Cafe last summer. And...that's it.

Unlike the other two groups, TOP hasn't staged a full-length production of any kind since the pandemic burst three and a half years ago. While they hope to resume full productions again within the next 12-18 months, there are currently no set plans.

Oakville Players President Alex Ragozzino did say, however, that the group has officially ended their contracts with the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts, and all future shows will be at other venues in Oakville and Halton.

"This past year we’ve been trying to figure out what our regular season is going to look like," says Ragozzino. "It's come down to having a venue."

"We were approached by the Oakville Centre in November 2022 if we were going to do anything, but the centre is now too expensive for us. We didn't project enough sales to come back to the Oakville Centre, so now we have to figure out how to do something smaller. As of now, we're done with the Oakville Centre. We just aren't seeing a way to break even."

What is next instead will be a new hybrid digital/live project: TOP will produce a radio play podcast series in September and October this year based on Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The radio plays will be produced as a 10-part series, adapted and directed by Robin Sadavoy. The first nine episodes will be available to stream digitally for free beginning Sept. 18, while the finale episode will be performed live by the six-person cast at a ticketed event during the last weekend of October.

"We wanted to do a radio play because it’s manageable in cost and time, and we landed on Dracula because of the popular Halloween season. The format evolved because of the size of the story - so we decided to make it a mini-series." 

Ragozzino says Dracula will include almost 10 hours of content, so doing them all live was beyond their reach. But the group is hopeful digital listeners will want to come and see the live finale in two months, with a to be determined day and venue.

As for their next live show, the group still holds rights to the stage play Clue, based on the board game and the Tim Curry-led film. Originally set for March 2021 at the Oakville Centre, TOP is planning to at last stage the show in either late 2024 or early 2025.

All community theatre companies in Oakville are not-for-profit. You can learn more about each individual group by visiting their respective websites at the links below:

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Tyler Collins

About the Author: Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins is the editor for Oakville News. Originally from Campbellton, New Brunswick, he's lived in Oakville more than 20 years. Tyler is a proud Sheridan College graduate of both Journalism and Performing Arts.
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