Prince Edward County is known as one of the most beautiful places in Ontario, a prime spot for well-to-do cottagers and family beach-goers alike. It’s also one of Ontario’s transit failures, a place so completely reliant on car access that, despite years of interest, I’d never stepped foot in the area until this summer. In a lot of ways, Prince Edward County is the nucleus of this whole crazy Ontario Theatre Tour concept. The growth-minded and well organized administrative team at the County Stage Company (formally the Festival Players) have been reaching out for years and, particularly since the 2017 appointment of Stratford’s Graham Abbey as Artistic Director, I’ve had every reason to want to review the work they’re producing in PEC, but I just couldn’t get there. Since we started covering theatre on this site in 2009, our summer season has been entirely restricted to Toronto, Stratford via VIA Rail and The Shaw Festival via GO Bus. This summer is my first with access to a car so I knew I wanted to drive to the County to see a company I’d never had access to before. Resistant as always to reasonable moderation, the expansion of my summer review season to include a handful of County Stage Company shows quickly ballooned into a concept, a series, a whole summer spent on rural Ontario’s dusty, under-lit highways.
I visited the County twice over the course of the summer. The County Stage Company season has a lot of different pieces, for the most part programmed back to back with very few performances each so you’re unlikely to be able to see more than one, maybe two, shows in a single trip. The season consists mainly of limited engagement concerts (I caught Hailey Gillis & Andrew Penner, a privilege as expected) and small scale touring productions (like Driftwood Theatre’s charmingly melancholy Living with Shakespeare, which I saw on its Toronto tour stop), as well as short comedy and dance festivals. This sort of quick hits structure makes it difficult to really pin down what the company does and how well they do it with a single performance. So I saw three- one concert, one special event performance, and the season’s one full scale production that ran for multiple weeks. The identity and experience and quality of the County Stage Company doesn’t line up perfectly with any of these shows but rather seems to be best explained by their triangulation.
The Gillis & Penner concert was part of a series called the Mess Hall Sessions, a collection of performances taking place at an old military training base, literally in the mess hall. It’s an intimate, charming venue still very much in development (port-a-potties were still part of the experience when I stopped by though I’m assured that’s temporary). Base 31 is nowhere near the Eddie Hotel where most other County Stage Company performances take place, which makes the company feel a little disjointed, but it’s a cool venue with a lot of potential and I like how the concerts flesh out the season, especially since the theatrical offerings feel a little lean. Hailey Gillis & Andrew Penner are a real credit to the season, setting a high standard for the type of artistry one can expect from CSC. Their presence in concert form legitimizes a taste level and ability to attract talent that’s absolutely crucial for a company with aspirations as high as County Stage Company’s but the concert is also a clever reminder of proven success. Gillis & Penner were part of the creator/performer team responsible for the company’s recent triumph with The Shape of Home, a new musical incubated and first performed in PEC before transferring to great success in Toronto. That model is one the company is on the record as intending to repeat and it’s a great formula if they can replicate the quality of the work.
Unfortunately their mainstage production of the 2023 season left a lot to be desired. If the summer’s programming structure is going to have only one show that runs long enough to build any word-of-mouth, that show has to be an absolute banger because it is very likely to be the only thing a lot of people see. Patrick Barlow’s farcical adaptation of The 39 Steps is a ridiculous play that flips from silly to tiresome incredibly quickly. The assembled cast is capable but they’re given neither the production values nor the ambitious and creative staging concepts necessary to give this lightweight play its necessary thrill of technical execution. It’s a programming flaw for a company that’s still growing. Really strongly executed farce can’t be even a little bit ramshackle and right now the County Stage Company is rough around the edges. With the widely respected and connected Abbey at the helm (and, more obviously relevant with the 39 Steps team, Dylan Trowbridge as Associate Artistic Director), the company has no trouble attracting great talent. But, by virtue of location and size and tricky pandemic timing, they’re still a little short on infrastructure. That’s not an insurmountable problem- great talent can make great art in almost any circumstance- they just can’t make great art out of The 39 Steps.
As if to make that point for me, in late August for three days only, Graham Abbey performed a great play in what is essentially a shed at the back of the Eddie barn. Kristen LeBoeuf and Thomas Rider Payne contributed some light & sound designs and there was some futzing about with a projector screen but, for the overwhelming most part, the entirety of Wakey Wakey is just Abbey in front of an audience, talking. Just talking, in that hyper-naturalistic way that Will Eno writes that’s so true it almost circles back to stylized; in that casual way that is Abbey’s signature, free from all posturing and pretension (a great feat for any actor let alone one literally raised on the country’s most prestigious stage). Eno’s script falls apart for me a bit towards the end as the play transitions away from soliloquy but the thrill of that first hour or so is what lives in your memory as you leave the theatre. Apparently Wakey Wakey is the first time the Artistic Director has actually performed at County Stage, an odd detail that perhaps unhelpfully highlights that Abbey’s still splitting his time (a nearly four hour drive away from the Eddie Hotel, he’s playing Benedick in Stratford’s Much Ado), but his performance in this season is crucial. Wakey Wakey, like Shape of Home before it, delivers on the promise of the County Stage Company in every way The 39 Steps does not. They don’t have a big fancy theatre with the perfect lighting grid and a hundred trapdoors but they do have good people and those people know good people and seem to have a knack for convincing them to come and spend some time putting on a play in the country.
Also in the County: Shatterbox Theatre
While in town for County Stage, we spontaneously decided to visit another company based out of PEC. Shatterbox Theatre is a community theatre company so, rather than contact them for tickets, I just followed their very well targeted Facebook ad right to the box office and paid my $28 to attend as a civilian. We don’t review community theatre because it’s always, by definition, a little bit bumpier than professional theatre and nitpicking a passion project goes against the spirit of the endeavour, but I wanted to give them a shout-out in the PEC edition of our Ontario Theatre Tour because their site-specific production of The Crucible made a big impact on my appreciation of the theatre scene in Prince Edward County. Anytime a region is dominated by one major company, it’s nice to see a smaller upstart thriving alongside them. Shatterbox really vibes like a labour of love with lots of thought put into every detail from the location (Ameliasburg Heritage Village makes for a great immersive experience) to the text to the sprawling cast of local amateur performers.
What stood out most to me was the audience. Something I noted all across the Ontario Theatre Tour but I heard literally voiced at Shatterbox was that the people in the audience were genuinely community members. “I thought it would be just us but all my neighbours are here!” was an amusing sentiment shared in the bathroom line to a jaded critic who is also skeptical that her neighbours will show much interest in Arthur Miller. To be honest, I don’t think I’m wrong about most of the choice-spoiled occupants of my Toronto high rise, but I was thrilled to see how wrong this woman was about her County neighbours. Shatterbox’s house was packed (even the more expensive “jury box” seats!) and seemingly not with tourists or theatre insiders but with regular folk who live in the area and were excited someone was putting on a show. In these smaller places where theatres are so fewer and further between, genuinely, if you build it, they will come. So I just wanted to share that I’m so thrilled that Shatterbox Founder/AD Georgia Papanicolaou is building something.