In October 2010, Courtenay Little Theatre celebrated 50 years of continuous participation in community theatre. Actually, drama started in the 1920’s in the Comox Valley with the formation of the Courtenay Dramatic Club by Sid Williams. After WWII the group was resurrected as the Comox Valley Drama Club and was formally named Courtenay Little Theatre in October 1960. During the past 80 years CLT and its original clubs have sponsored over 150 productions and events.

CLT has been recognized numerous times for excellence by being awarded prizes in Theatre B.C.’s North Island Zone Festival and Mainstage, including

  • Talking With,
  • On Golden Pond,
  • Educating Rita,
  • MacBeth,
  • If We Are Women,
  • Sylvia,
  • The Laramie Project,
  • Romeo and Juliet,
  • Maggie’s Getting Married,
  • Biloxi Blues,
  • Waiting for the Parade,
  • The Winslow Boy,
  • and many more.

We have been active members of Theatre B.C. by hosting the North Island Zone Festivals and Mainstage.

Our yearly schedule of events includes:

  • 2 or 3 major productions;
  • a workshop on some form of stage craft;
  • participation in Theatre B.C. events;
  • support to other performing arts clubs and community societies;
  • and at least 2 major parties!

We meet every 3rd Tuesday of the month at 7:30. These meetings are not just your usual boring, but necessary, work sessions. Every month we hold a mini workshop on some aspect of stagecraft with a guest presenter. Fun and informative? You Bet!

by Pippa Ingram

A dream of a decade and more has passed since Krista Kaptein penned the first instalment of the History of CLT. Not only has the club prospered financially as well as physically during those ten years, but it has also garnered kudos of all kinds for the professional quality of productions it consistently mounts and the community spirit it demonstrates so wholeheartedly, in so many ways.

To understand the high regard in which our theatre group is held, one needs only to explore the CLT website to see a plethora of awards given to individuals and the club as a whole. Suffice to say there does not seem to be a B.C. community theatre award that CLT has not received at one time or another. Since 2000, CLT has won 74 Awards and 41 honourable mentions for outstanding effort and achievement– not a mean effort for an “amateur” group!

Our club demonstrates an eclectic taste in productions, ranging from the downright hilarious, slapstick comedy of the pantomimes to the wonder of Shakespeare’s words and every facet of theatre in between. CLT has shown courage, compassion and confidence dealing with both current and ongoing issues that can even make society uncomfortable at times. It is to our group’s credit that such productions as The Laramie Project, Biloxi Blues, Vincent in Brixton, Maggie’s Getting Married, Bordertown Café, to name just a few, have brought loud rounds of applause and many standing ovations from discerning audiences. Bringing to the public eye via the theatre vehicle, such topics as prejudice, homosexuality, outdated social mores and the like by CLT, has engendered ample opportunity for critical discussion and often enlightenment by those same audiences.

In keeping with CLT’s philosophy to support members who do not “tread the boards” of the SWT stage as well as those who do, our group has developed two ways of giving acclamation. Event nights are held each month to showcase such things as play readings including original plays by members, individual performances of original material, preview performances by junior members for festivals and the like. The CLT Spotlight Award is a highly popular acknowledgement by the group as well and is given to members who work tirelessly to help and support whatever is going on, in whatever way they can and is a moment when we can turn the spotlight on someone who is not in it yet deserves to be. Separate to these there are also workshops; e.g. 7×7, where 7 novice directors presented 10 minute plays for club members. These events are invariably a channel for getting members’ hidden skills out there for all to appreciate. They prove highly successful by bringing in professionals who share their expertise with members, great skill development throughout the process and a quality product as a result.

Theatre festivals are also eagerly attended by many club members who are not only interested in performances by other theatre clubs but also in the process of adjudication that takes place. Casts and crews of festival productions often speak of the learning that occurred for them. In fact if there is one overriding factor that “drives” CLT, it may well be the commitment to developing greater skills in all areas of theatre that the club demonstrates. To this end then, it is no surprise that The Space is constantly being upgraded to allow for more authentic theatrical lights, sound and performance experiences even outside the traditional theatre venue. It has been transformed over the past few years, thanks to volunteer help by members from the barebones warehouse space it was when we moved into it, in August of 2002, to a comfortable working space housing all manner of props, costumes and sound/lighting apparatus as well as the ever present and very well used tools and machinery for the creation of great sets for CLT shows..

2002 was also the year CLT started doing pantomimes with Jack and The Beanstalk as our inaugural show for this genre. The philosophy behind the pantomime concept was to create a family type production for that holiday period between Christmas and resumption of school after the holidays. Since Jack climbed the beanstalk that was very cunningly inflated to reach heavenwards, there has been either a Pantomine or a Christmas type production each year. The success of those shows has been unequalled insofar as the attendance and anticipation of audiences is constant. It is not unusual to hear audience members coming out of one show that they have just enjoyed tremendously asking before they have even left the theatre, “Well, what is it going to be next year?” There have been ten Christmas season productions to date, several of which have been originals written by club members, and skill development in the technical side of staging these shows has grown exponentially. CLT keeps an eye to the escalating costs for virtually everything in our economy, so there is usually great effort to keep ticket prices for the Christmas shows as reasonable as possible. These shows are indeed the CLT seasonal “gift to the Comox Valley community” as thanks for the continued support valley audiences show our theatre group.

October, 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of CLT’s founding. Many events for the “golden” anniversary were celebrated throughout the year and brought back nostalgic memories and wonderful visions for upcoming years. As with all celebrations of longevity, it is at these times that we think of the past and perhaps a hint of melancholy can be felt for members who, for a variety of reasons, are not with us. No, they are not here to celebrate with us. But their voices are still heard and their spirits are still present in the work of the eclectic group of theatre buffs here now – proud members of Courtenay Little Theatre – truly one of the finest examples of community group theatre!

by Krista Kaptein

In a dusty box marked “Assorted Corsets”, in a basement storage room in downtown Courtenay, I found some of the notes and memorabilia that outline the origins of Courtenay Little Theatre. Back in the days when coffee was 5c a cup, gas 48c a gallon, and return ferry car fare to the BC Drama Festival in Burnaby was $10, the local drama club was only a few years old. These were some of costs of living in 1960, the year the club changed its name to ‘Courtenay Little Theatre’, building a respected community theatre group amidst financial struggles, building closures, even illness and injury. The history of theatre in the Comox Valley goes back many decades. In 1921 the first formal presentation of the ‘Courtenay Amateur Dramatic Club’ was “The Monkey’s Paw”. This one-act thriller received excellent reviews in the Comox Argus. The play starred teacher and principal G.W.(Bill) Stubbs, with his young pupil, Sid Williams, hanging around backstage. In the 20’s and 30’s, Bill Stubbs and Sid Williams continued with producing theatre, but the club disbanded when WW2 broke out. During the war, an Optimists group performed variety nights in army huts in Lewis Park. After the war, the army huts became rehearsal space. Lumber from the army huts was used to build the Courtenay Recreation Association building in 1958. The ‘Comox Valley Drama Club’, as it was then known, provided much labour and funds to build the stage and supply equipment. The 1958 Upper Island Drama Festival opened the CRA. In Oct. 1960, the name of the club was formally changed to Courtenay Little Theatre – for the sake of brevity, and to acknowledge Courtenay as the centre, but also reflecting more ‘professional’ aspirations. A typical season for the club at that time consisted of two 3-act plays; several ‘Studio Night’ performances for associate members; and participating in and often hosting Drama Festivals. There were also competitive ‘Scattered Skits’ with up to 16 local amateur groups entering – the valley was brimming with entertainment! Co-Val Choristers had formed, and were performing well-known musicals, such as “Brigadoon” in Feb. of 1962 . CLT took up the challenge – “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller would be the 1962 spring play. This was a huge undertaking – a cast of twenty was required, and practically every member took part. As for its success, the club report stated: “The production, apart from money, was highly successful and nothing but praise has been heard from people who saw it. It was the club’s first attempt at serious drama for public presentation and was a milestone in the club’s history…” With the stresses of production demands from several directions, club members occasionally would resign, then be persuaded to re-join – all part of the ebb and flow of local theatre. As for financial struggles, Sid Williams on occasion would advance the club an interest-free loan, out of his own pocket! The early years were exciting for CLT. In June 1963 Sid won the Eric Hamber trophy, for outstanding contribution over a period of years in the field of theatre. He was a city alderman at this time, as well as performing summer street theatre in Barkerville, a BC Heritage site in the Caribou. In the spring of 1964, “The Devil His Due”, directed by Sid Williams, won almost all the major awards at the North Island Drama Festival, which Courtenay hosted. CLT’s other entry, “A Dollar”, won Best Visual Production. This play marked the first involvement of Graham Woodward (still currently involved, with ‘Amadeus’ in Oct. 2000). As he recalls, the adjudicator commented “…the writing changes made to the play …improved it tremendously” – some of the language had been toned down by the director! In hindsight however, early members such as Joy Reid, Irene Watson, and Margaret Hibbard remember no real disasters – though there was the odd occasion of unhappy babies interrupting rehearsals, or one instance where the production was postponed because everyone developed mumps, or Sid’s perpetual purple thumbs from misplaced hammering. The theatre always received great support from the community in providing props, whether furniture or odder items. Minutes of one CLT meeting show a thank-you note was to be sent for the loan of gold-fish! Difficulties were occurring, however, with finding rehearsal space. In the spring of 1968, “Night of the Iguana” had to rehearse in the Royston Community Hall, a space not suited for theatre. Then, the scripts arrived late, and the lead actor left after several weeks! As a result it was not at all successful. At its first performance at the Dominion Drama Festival in Vancouver, it received such criticism from the adjudicator that it was never performed in Courtenay. Problems with booking space at the CRA increased until the club was ousted in favour of the squash club. Problems with publicity increased as well, as the owner of the local newspaper insisted that significant advertising space be purchased before any coming events would be published. In January 1968, a dramatic event was to affect the future of local performing groups – the Riverside Hotel, at the corner of 5th and Cliffe, burned down. The site remained vacant for a while, but one morning in 1970, Mayor George Hobson proposed an inspired idea to a meeting of Courtenay citizens- that both the site and the old movie theatre next door be purchased for a Civic Square. He hoped that the official opening could be the fall of 1971. Before the meeting ended, 70 volunteers had offered to raise the $200,000 needed to start the project. “Excitement and enthusiasm rose to fever pitch,” Isabel Stubbs wrote in her history of Courtenay. The concept grew and became Courtenay’s ‘Total Community Participation’ effort. The new decade looked promising for community theatre.

“Courtenay is poised to become one of the major cultural centres of the province.” “The Theatre, with a new skin and a new life, but retaining echos of its historical role, will provide a theatre and convention facility second to none.” These words were not written about the Sid Williams Theatre’s recent renovations, but in the year 1970, when the old Bickle movie theatre was first being renovated to become the Civic Theatre. Thirty years ago the venue was expected to equal Victoria’s McPherson Playhouse. The summer of 1970 saw almost 3000 people attend “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “The Red Shoes” (with 13 year old Kim Cattrall) – professional theatre productions by Dan Cattrall. “A summer theatre such as we have seen could be a tremendous tourist attraction,” said mayor George Hobson. Difficulties were still to be overcome, however, for Courtenay Little Theatre. In December of 1970, a week of heavy snowstorms meant that the production of “Bell, Book and Candle” fell victim to blocked roads and blizzard conditions. Only seventeen people attended the opening night performance, and over three evenings the total attendance was only one hundred! CLT continued to aim for quality productions, however, in whatever venue possible, such as performing “The Glass Menagerie” at the CRA. In 1971 the Civic Theatre officially re-opened. CLT’s first production there was “Charlie’s Aunt”, in January of 1972. It had been delayed from December due to scheduling, and even so, reviewers reported the building was “cold as a barn”! Although the outside of the Civic Theatre had been renovated, the inside still lacked in many areas. The organization and administration of the theatre was yet to be refined as well. Many events were still scheduled in schools when they could be held at the theatre. ” Unless an active program of events was scheduled for the theatre, the building could easily become a white elephant,” said the press. Improvements to the stage, lighting and storage lofts were led by Sid Williams. A week before CLT’s November 1972 production “Arms and the Man”, Sid , who had a role in the play, had a heart attack and was bedridden in the hospital. But ‘the show must go on’, and stand-in Art Collins took the part. Sid’s contribution was apparent in another way, however, as he had personally arranged to have the heating system of the theatre improved! (A new face to Courtenay audiences in this play was Tony Arnold, now starring in “Amadeus”, October 2000.) The Civic Theatre was put to good use as Courtenay Little Theatre hosted the North Island Drama Festival in 1974 and in 1978. CLT also hosted the BC Drama Festival Finals in 1975, an event considered ” a landmark in our community theatre history”. The “Sidney” award, for backstage teamwork and co-operation, was created at this time, in honour of Sid Williams. Many members who are still active in CLT began their first involvement in the 70’s. “It’s really amazing the number of people who have been touched by community theatre in their lifetimes”, CLT president Jay Norton said then, a statement still true today. The most successful season for CLT in years came in 1978/79. In “The Children’s Hour” the script tackled the controversial subject of homosexuality. The stage directions also called for several characters to smoke, which director Gail Limber creatively replaced with eating, thumbing through magazines, or marking exams! For “Absurd Person Singular” Sid Williams created the set design of three completely different, fully equipped kitchens. The production of Neil Simon’s comedy “The Good Doctor” raised money for the BC Heart Foundation. As a result of that season’s financial successes, an outside director was brought in for the first time. Kathleen Weiss directed “The Shadow Box” in October 1979. This play about dying was “not the kind of play generally associated with community theatre” but “representative of the very best in contemporary North American writing”. The reviewer also wrote: “CLT’s handling of the play, far from depressing the audience, actually succeeds in uplifting it.” Courtenay Little Theatre was receiving praise locally – “Over the past several years the group has assembled a pool of highly competent performers…what is more, the club has always been receptive to new people. In addition… the club is also blessed with considerable technical expertise…” In the next few years, CLT would win more regional and provincial recognition.

“Break a leg!” is a common phrase heard around the theatre, as a way of wishing good luck to a performer. For Courtenay Little Theatre’s first play of 1980, however, this almost backfired, as one of the stars of the spring production ‘Move Over Mrs. Markham’ severely injured his foot during rehearsal. Jay Norton practiced on crutches and was merely limping by performance time. The suggestive farce raised a few eyebrows from the most conservative, but was so well received that a reviewer said “any more laughs and there would have been fatalities among the large audience!” The Comox Valley played host to theatre and other events in the early ’80’s. Courtenay Little Theatre hosted Mainstage (the BC Drama Festival Finals) in the summer of 1980, entering ‘Overtones’ directed by Graham Woodward, which had won ‘Best Production’ in the North Island Zone. In the summer of 1981, as the Comox Valley hosted the BC Summer Games, Sid Williams was in the forefront as community ambassador. In 1982, Courtenay hosted the North Island Zone Drama Festival, and their entry ‘Bad Play for an Old Lady’ won Best Director, Best Production, and Best Actor (Tony Arnold, currently cast as Salieri in ‘Amadeus’). By winning Best Production, the play was able to go to Mainstage, where Marcus Handman won Best Director at the provincial level. In the fall of 1982, CLT produced their first musical, ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’. A potential crisis occurred when Ruthie Tilston, cast as Snoopy, severely gashed her foot. Choreographer Gail Limber (now co-producer of ‘Amadeus’) stepped into the part with two days notice, to rave reviews! Mixed emotions, however, were felt by the audience in ‘Waiting For the Parade’, set during WW2 – one felt it was all doom and gloom, while another veteran thanked CLT for an evening of nostalgia. In the next few years, CLT tackled several very well known plays – Deathtrap, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, The Diviners. In the meantime, awards and honours continued – Mike Butler, sound wizard, was honoured for 25 years of service to theatre; Sid Williams received the Order of Canada; Jay Norton won the Hamber Award from Theatre BC. CLT expanded their scope as well, becoming a registered non-profit society; collaborating with summer youth theatre group Stock Company Theatre for several years; and setting up a bursary for local high school students. Another banner year occurred in 1987, as ‘Educating Rita’ won Best Actress for Ruthie Tilston, Best Director for Anne Cubitt, Best Production, and a Special Merit Award to Tony Arnold, at the North Island Zone Drama Festival. By the end of the decade, the Sid Williams Theatre, as it was now known, was filled with laughter and nostalgia as CLT performed ‘Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,’ , ‘Bus Stop’, and ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ – at which a reviewer declared , ” I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a Courtenay Little Theatre production as much as I enjoyed this…Go with the assumption that you’re going to see a first rate production and seven good performances.”

Sometimes the events of real life are more poignant than any play or fiction. Such was the case with Courtenay Little Theatre’s production of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ in 1991. The play had been the first performance by the ‘Courtenay Amateur Dramatic Club’ in 1921, and had marked the first involvement in local theatre of a young Sid Williams. Now, seventy years later, Sid was in the cast as the Sergeant-Major. It was to be his last role, after a lifetime of involvement in community theatre. Courtenay Little Theatre honoured Sid’s memory with the creation of the Sid Williams Bursary for students, to be administered by Theatre BC at Mainstage, the provincial Drama Festival. Five members of Courtenay Little Theatre have been honoured with lifetime memberships – Sid Williams; lighting technician Mike Butler; and Gail Limber, Audrey Gwendolyn, and Graham Woodward, who have been at various times actors, directors, producers, and more. In the last decade, Courtenay Little Theatre has tackled well-known and challenging plays, such as ‘Steel Magnolias’, ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’, and ‘On Golden Pond’. A huge cast of male actors was required for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in 1992. On the other hand, ‘Talking With…’ called for a cast of eleven women. This play won Best Director for Gail Limber at the North Island Zone Festival in 1994. In the last few years in particular, there have been several occasions of both great consternation and great excitement. In November 1997, Christina Aislabie (now costume designer for ‘Amadeus’) directed ‘I Hate Hamlet’. Only two weeks before opening, Robinson Wilson (subsequently cast as Mozart in ‘Amadeus’) stepped in to replace the former lead actor. Not only did Wilson receive praise as one of “the stand-out characters of the show”, but he was already proficient at the staged sword-fighting required for one of the key scenes! Stephen Andrew, director of ‘Amadeus’, was first introduced to many of the members of CLT as he assisted with scene development in the production of this play. In May 1998, many of the same cast and crew reappeared for ‘Macbeth’. Directed by Rob Parker, this version swept the major awards at the North Island Zone Drama Festival, winning Best Production, Best Director, Best Actor for Tim Culbert, and Best Technical Achievement. As the best zone play, ‘Macbeth’ went on to compete at Mainstage, the provincial finals, winning more awards. It is a long-standing tradition in theatre that the actual name of “the Scottish play” is never to be mentioned backstage, for fear of causing bad luck. Bad luck did occur, however, when the Sid Williams Theatre closed for renovations, and CLT cancelled their fall 1998 production. Yet by May 1999 everything went right once more. ‘If We Are Women’, directed by Ronda Sproule, won Best Production, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Miriam McNamara, at the North Island Zone Festival. For the second year in a row, CLT took their play to Mainstage, where they won Best Ensemble. For the reopening of the ‘Sid’, and to celebrate forty years of plays as Courtenay Little Theatre, CLT wanted a production worthy of a gala event. With ‘Amadeus’, directed by Stephen Andrew, the community was treated to the very best in community theatre. In May 2001, Courtenay Little Theatre will host the North Island Zone Drama Festival, and will welcome the entire region to a new decade of theatre in the Comox Valley.

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