Rosebud, Alberta, is a tiny farming community tucked into a picturesque river valley about 100 kilometres northeast of Calgary. It doesn’t have a mall. It doesn’t have a Starbucks. It doesn’t even have a gas station. But it does have the Rosebud Theatre, and from March to December, its four-show season draws almost 40,000 enthusiastic patrons to this hamlet of 100 inhabitants on the edge of Alberta’s Badlands.
Surprising? Not really. Rosebud’s success is just one example of Alberta’s enthusiasm for theatre. In fact, we’re bonkers for it, and the proof is in the numbers. Albertans spent $971 per capita on cultural goods and services in 2005 (indeed, on a per capita basis, Albertans spend more on culture than any other province in Canada, according to a recent report from Hill Strategies Research, Inc., an arts research organization); Edmonton’s International Fringe Festival organizers expect to attract 500,000 patrons for its 25th season (the success of the Edmonton Fringe, second largest in the world after the “Mother of all Fringes” in Edinburgh, spawned a host of North American fringe festivals, including those in Calgary, Grande Prairie, Red Deer and Athabasca); and, as of January 2007, 258 theatre companies – of all types – now call Alberta home, 96 of them in Alberta’s smaller towns and cities.
One of these small town theatres is Fort Macleod’s historic Empress – at 95, the oldest continually operating theatre in Alberta. The Empress operates year-round, offering concerts, live theatre, movies and even an annual French Film Festival for the locals and the regulars who drive out from Lethbridge.
Come July and August, though, the Empress’s attendance numbers swell, as tourists who venture into Fort Macleod to explore its history (the community’s downtown core was designated a Provincial Historic Area in 1984) encounter the Empress and its professional summer program of comedy and musical productions.
“It’s a new discovery for them,” says program director Stephen Delano. “It’s something they didn’t expect to find.” Another draw is the Empress’s ghost. Although he hasn’t been spotted since the 1990s, in the old days, “Ed” was known to appear on and off the stage during performances and occasionally in the washrooms. These days, he gets his kicks from pulling the fire alarm and turning the lights off and on.
The Empress is not the only small-town theatre with a historic lineage. The Carriage House Theatre in Cardston, which has produced a full slate of summer plays since 1992, also originated in 1912, as a show house called the New Palace Theatre.
Unlike the Empress, it is a community theatre – with the exception of the leads, its casts, crews and other production staff are all volunteers. And though the theatre has changed hands several times, undergone multiple renovations and closed its doors now and then, it, like the Empress, endures – and thrives. Last year, 7,500 patrons attended its summer performances, and fewer than five per cent of them were from Cardston. “They come from all over the place,” says Alonna Leavitt, the Carriage House’s managing director. “One member has come yearly from Florida for 10 years.”
Both Leavitt and Delano agree that the appeal of small-town theatres like the Carriage House and the Empress lies in their intimacy, along with the sense of history and community they represent. “The experience is more than the show itself,” says Delano. “There’s so much energy in it. And there have been so many different kinds of performances here, from vaudeville to movies – you can really feel that when you come in.” They leave an echo, he says, of past performers, performances and audiences. “Even when you’re alone in the theatre, you really don’t feel alone.”
Because the Empress’s summer productions are often historically oriented, visitors also gain an understanding of the area’s past. “Theatre gives towns an opportunity to tell their stories in an interesting way,” says Marie Gynane-Willis, executive director of Theatre Alberta, a provincial arts organization committed to encouraging the growth of theatre in the province. In fact, the Empress’s summer program regularly features productions based on stories from Alberta’s history.
Alberta first flirted with theatre in the 1880s, when holiday concerts in Edmonton started including dramatic readings and fledgling amateur dramatic clubs first appeared in Edmonton and Calgary. With the arrival of the railroad, Alberta’s population grew, and so did the demand for live theatre. By the early 1900s, touring companies from England and America were crisscrossing the prairies, performing melodramas and British plays in venues of all sorts, from hastily built halls and off-season skating rinks to opera houses and grand 1,000-seat theatres. Vaudeville troupes were common touring companies, but theatre-goers were also treated to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Ethel Barrymore, even Fred Astaire.
With the advent of film, radio and the Depression, however, the touring circuit collapsed, and “little theatres” – a.k.a. community theatres – took centre stage. Hundreds of amateur companies sprang up, eager to give expression to their own voices. In many Prairie towns, little theatre was the only game in town from the 1930s to the 1960s. And for some small Alberta towns, this is still true; the theatre is the glue that holds the community together. “It’s what keeps us a community,” says Leavitt.
Indeed, for Rosebud, theatre is key to its survival. The hamlet, its population hovering at 12, was about to become a ghost town when LaVerne Erickson, a Calgary schoolteacher, brought a group of summer students into town in the early ’70s as part of an outreach program. Erickson went on to found the Rosebud School of the Arts, and the town’s fortunes began to reverse. Since 1983, when its first play was presented, more than 500,000 people have passed through the Rosebud Theatre doors. As for the town, most of the increased population is now gainfully employed by the theatre and the Rosebud School of the Arts.
But Rosebud is just the tip of the theatre iceberg – what began as a fling is now a passionate affair. Theatre is everywhere in Alberta. Grande Prairie Live Theatre has presented musicals, dramas, concerts and festivals for 44 years. Peace River’s Peace Players are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and 2007 marks Fort McMurray’s 17th interplay Festival. Horizon Players in Spruce Grove has been around for 15 years, Sundre’s Peak Theatre Players, 25 years. Kelsey Drama Club, in tiny Kelsey, Alberta (population: 11), recently wrapped up its 14th annual dinner theatre presentation. Innisfail, Drumheller, High River, Raymond, Stettler – these are just a few of the many Alberta towns whose communities are entertained and enlivened by theatre.
“Theatre pulls people together,” says Gynane-Willis. “It’s another reason for people in smaller communities to stay there. It’s alive and vibrant and doing very well.”