Walking by the Rotary Centre for the Arts, one hardly notices the distinct curve to its veranda.
But when the rails come off this covert stage for one of the first times mid-summer, the shows it hosts should prove fittingly off the hook.
The outdoor stage will become a theatre with one company performing two different shows using the same actors—a style known as repertory theatre—just like Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach or, depending on the level of your imagination, one of England’s more established theatrical havens.
“We’re talking about building a young company like the New Vic and the Old Vic in England. We just won’t have the Old Vic,” jokes Neal Facey, the founding artistic director of Viva Musica and a high school drama teacher.
Viva Musica, the organization about to lend its talents to utilizing this unique spot for a four-weekend run, is an Okanagan arts scene staple with over two decades of experience bringing professional-level theatrical and musical programming to town.
To be certain, it doesn’t have the stature of the Old Vic Theatre Company, where no less than Dame Judi Dench, Laurence Olivier and now Kevin Spacey have practiced their craft; but they’re pretty good at developing programs for talented young actors, fresh out of school, in a manner not so unlike the Old Vic New Voices does with its development program. From actor Serena Parmar, star of How to Be Indie and Radio Rebel, to Layla Claire, a soprano with The Metropolitan Opera, to Garett Spelliscy, a working actor and director in Edmonton, Viva Musica has provided a solid job for many young Canadian thespians over the years.
Unfortunately, the shape of its new RCA home is also a line they are used to walking, for over the years Viva Musica has had to contend with its fair share of curves.
The switch to theatre under the stars will be the third incarnation for the non-profit as first their opera format, and then the musicals used to save the company from the opera, eventually failed to fill seats.
But both Facey and organization’s board president, Peter Kascak, look more at what they’ve accomplished than the need for changes.
“We’re kind of victims of our own success in a way,” said Facey. “We always hire professional technical staff and young artists, and as soon as you start hiring people, the costs just go way up.”
With a global economic downturn ensuring corporate sponsorship dwindled along with government funding and ticket buyers willing to part with $48 for a single performance, Viva Musica found itself in a pinch at the end of 2010; and the scale of their productions didn’t help.
Facey founded Viva Musica with Roslyn Franz in 1991. First an opera company, they made the switch to musicals in 1999 with a $50,000 debt on the books and a vision for programs that drew epic crowds.
Admirably selecting Showboat, an operatic-style musical then headlining Vancouver, the dedicated group, staffed by young actors, funded on a shoestring and backed by a throng of volunteers, put the ship on the right tack with a move to large-scale musicals capable of filling the Kelowna Community Theatre. That first musical earned $90,000 at the box office, with the 800-seat venue sold out and the group one might say almost showboating their ability to adapt to on demand.
But times change again and where the lack of opera buffs and the limited number of operatic-style musicians once challenged the non-profit, today’s economic blues found the board of directors singing a woeful tune a year ago.
The group took a break to regroup in 2011 and, with their $20,000 line of credit maxed, knew it was time for another revival if the shows were to go on.
The concept they’ve come up with just might serve a number of needs in Kelowna.
The new theatre will have a cheaper price-point at $20-$25 a ticket and will draw people into the Cultural District on weekends where it is often said to be too quiet. Within four years, the Kelowna Summer Theatre Festival, as it will be called, should have four shows running—a different show each night—providing a summer festival in a town that’s constantly struggling to find a signature arts event that doesn’t become a wild beach party.
As with everything, the venture needs money. Grant applications are underway and a serious corporate sponsorship drive has just begun, Kascak said. The group is hoping their pitch to help theatre students throughout Western Canada get a start on a very difficult career will help win dollars on both fronts, but ultimately, it’s all about creating top-quality art.
“Often when a kid comes out of theatre school, his résumé looks great but they’re all from the same company. So this will give them something from another company,” said Facey.
Performances begin July 19th weekend and end Aug. 12 weekend. Those hoping to provide donations or sponsorship are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org
Auditions will be held in March in both Kelowna and Vancouver. The plays will include Golf the Musical and, more than likely, Moonlight and Magnolias.