The History of Community Theatre in Newmarket
By Rod Urquhart
The first known actual theatre group in Newmarket started in the early 1930s. Called the Newmarket Little Theatre, they brought in Vaudeville Acts and also did quite a bit of community theatre.
In the mid-1970s, the group changed their name to the Newmarket Theatre Centre. By 1978, the President of this theatre troupe was Ray Burdon. Plays were performed at the Old Town Hall on Botsford Street in downtown Newmarket.
The Old Town Hall had been a multi-purpose building with an auditorium and a stage on the upper floor. The stage was raked and slanted towards the audience from the upstage to downstage to provide better viewing for the audience, who were seated on a level floor. In later years, it was probably the only slanted and raked stage in Ontario.
During the day, the auditorium became a Court House for York Region. The judge’s bench was at the rear of the auditorium and after each evening performance, the chairs had to be turned around to face the judge’s bench. Tables for the lawyers were set out and the set and stage draped.
In 1977, Paul Aspland had joined the group as Artistic Director. Paul had a degree in fine arts from the University of Windsor and the Board appointed him the Artistic Director. The group had been rehearsing the play Separate Tables for several months. Paul asked if he could help and he began rehearsing and whipped the play into a production which, opened during a heavy snow storm.
Paul started his first season as Artistic Director with William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Paul took the lead role and Christine Shillemore was the female shrew and other actors included Andy Foote, Fraser Milne, a local architect, who designed and built the set with the help of members of the company.
Paul and many of the actors were new Canadians from the United Kingdom, who had performed in amateur dramatics in England and they attracted many other expats from the UK, such as Gillian Rourke, Alan Cox, Norma Busby and Christine Hamley.
The group became decidedly English in character. Paul wrote a play, Penny Farthing Street Siege, about an older English couple who were being evicted from their home and the antics that went on inside and outside the house. John Dowson, who went on to play many roles, built the set for this production.
The next production was Billy Budd, a seafaring venture aboard an English battleship during the time of the Napoleonic War. John Dowson was the midshipman, even though he was aged 40 – He became the oldest midshipman in the Royal Navy.
Paul Aspland suggested that a thrust be built, which would extend the stage into the audience, similar to the Globe Theatre Shakespeare build in London and the theatre in Stratford, Ontario.
Keeping in mind the auditorium was a court house, the thrust had to be cleared from the room. Fraser Milne designed the thrust with a step down, so it could be stored under the stage during the court session. The plays performed were classic productions, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, No Sex Please We’re British, Sargent Musgrave’s Dance, Blythe Spirit, The Miracle Worker, Tom Jones, Anne of a Thousand Days, and as the quality improved, more actors joined.
In 1979, Fraser Milne designed a theatre which could be built on Fairy Lake, off the Cane Parkway, on property donated by the South Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. A ‘Let’s Build a Theatre’ Foundation was formed and began to raise funds through donations.
Presentations were made to council. The vision was a Performing Arts Theatre on Fairy Lake with white swans with a Stratford, Ontario Festival setting. In 1980, the York Region court moved to their York Region Courthouse on Yonge Street and the Old Town Hall was closed for renovation.
Paul Aspland and Fraser Milne and the foundation committee continued to lobby the town for a performing arts centre on Fairy Lake. However, with the closure of the Old Town Hall, NTC had to find a new home while negotiations for a new theatre continued. The drama teacher at Pickering College and a member of NTC persuaded the Pickering College Board to allow NTC to perform there until renovations in the Old Town Hall were completed.
NTC moved into Pickering College auditorium for the 1979/80 season. The season opened with the musical Cabaret, followed by a fabulous performance of A Christmas Carol and ending the season with the musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The 1980/81 season was also at Pickering College.
A group of citizens in the area of the Cane Parkway took up a petition that there would be too much traffic to have a theatre on Cane Parkway. Negotiations for the new theatre with council hit rough patches.
Town council held a public meeting to gauge support for the theatre and tourism. Paul Aspland and Fraser Milne gave the presentation with the support of one of the councillors and the director of parks and recreation. However, after a raucous meeting, the council turned down the proposal since the Old Town Hall was now ready for occupancy.
The ‘Let’s Build a Theatre’ Foundation was wound down …. The funds raised were returned to the donors and the remainder given to charity. The dream of a performing arts centre on Fairy Lake complete with white swans, was dashed.
NTC had a meeting at the old Granada restaurant and in a misguided effort to force council to alter their decision, the NTC members voted to not perform in the Old Town Hall and they would go back to Pickering College. However, Pickering College decided to develop a drama group from their own students.
In the meantime, the Town of Newmarket had sunk a lot of money into the renovations of the Old Town Hall on the condition that it would be a local arts centre with pottery, arts school and a venue for local theatre.
A large portion of the cost of the renovation was paid to the town from a Wintario grant on the condition that a community theatre group would perform in the renovated building. The Town had counted on NTC to return to perform in the building.
This led to the creation of the famed Old Town Hall Players. The OTHP formed in 1981 while the Old Town Hall was being renovated with this Wintario grant. The OTHP was formed by then Mayor Ray Twinney, Lynda Fraser and Sam Twinney. Vivian Luesby came on the scene several years later. By all accounts, there was some misunderstanding with the NTC over the new theatre at Fairy Lake and Mayor Twinney became the patron of the OTHP. Due to constant changes in the opening date of the Old Town Hall, the first play by OTHP did not open until April 1982.
The first play By OTHP was Arsenic and Old Lace, starring John McFadyen, who was News Director at CFRB at the time, and Ray Austin, who was the morning DJ on CKAN Radio in Newmarket.
The cast included Roy Green, who was news director at CKAN at the time. Plays always ran for two weeks, with opening night always free for seniors. Over the years, OTHP put on special performances for various charitable organizations.
In 1983, the NTC returned to the Old Town Hall under the direction of Ray Burdon as Artistic Director. Their premiere was Boeing Boeing, a comedy. Ray brought the idea of a British Pantomime to NTC and the tradition of performing a British pantomime each season was born and for the next few years, the Old Town Hall stage was full of laughter as the late British actor Alan Cox performed as the Dame.
In 1984, NTC and OTHP were both performing at the Old Town Hall and both theatre groups alternated dates throughout the year. Each performing three plays per season.
During this time, OTHP had some memorable performances, such as The Night of January 16th, written by Ann Rand, and starring the late John McFadyen, Noreen Aldridge, Faye Longhurst, the late Chuck Cino and Gillian Rourke, among others in January of 1983. This play was notable as it picked the jury from the audience and the ending changed depending on the verdict.
Noreen Aldridge directed My Husband’s Wild Desires Almost Drove Me Mad in April of 2008 still in the Old Town Hall, starring Brian Hargan and an amazing actress in the lead from Theatre Aurora, Laurie Campbell.
Before the Old Town Hall closed for renovations, the NTC did Doctor In The House, with John Dowson as the surgeon, his younger brother Charles in the lead in his first role and also the late Peter Stanton, also in his first role. It was directed by the talented Gillian Rourke.
The last play prior to closing at the Old Town Hall was directed by Noreen Aldridge and was Wrong For Each Other in April 2009, which was attended by its famed playwright, Norm Foster, who was actually raised in Newmarket.
Realizing that one group of 100 would have better negotiation opportunities than two groups of 50, NTC and OTHP began the amalgamation process in 1993. It was completed in 1995 with the Newmarket Stage Company being formed.
By all accounts, the Town did not insist on NTC and OTHP merging, but suggested strongly that perhaps they should. A meeting was set up upstairs at the Grey Goat and a vote was taken to merge.
A committee was set up to choose a new name and to write a constitution and the Newmarket Stage Company was created. However, some members of both groups were bitter about the amalgamation so they left and joined other area theatre groups. From all accounts, there was some hostility between the two groups prior to the merge.
Following this, Noreen Aldridge stepped down as president of OTHP, and spent two years in Vietnam. She noted that “the two groups were very different.” Most of NTC plays were British with a lot of British plays and farces. The OTHP did a lot of Canadian plays and also “did one play each season that stretched us.”
The newly-formed group applied for a new (and was able to retain) its charitable number, which helped to raise funds to help with the costs. Rick Koury, who spent 10 years as President of NSC noted, “After amalgamation some play selections caused some controversy and the membership dropped.”
During this time Paul Aspland had taken a position as assistant director to Peter Hall in the National Theatre in London, England, where he stayed for many years.
In 2009, the Old Town Hall was expected to close permanently, but instead shut down for extensive renovations once again and the Newmarket Stage Company was forced to move to the Newmarket Theatre.
The Newmarket Stage Company moved to the Newmarket Theatre and did not have much success. There is some disagreement between the NSC and the Town, but NSC maintains it lost the bar revenue and could not get in to create sets and rehearse until the day prior to the first performance and paid far more for the Newmarket Theatre.
These claims are disputed by the Town, who maintain fees for Newmarket Theatre were almost the same as the Old Town Hall and that the NSC did not sell enough alcohol to cover the Special Occasion Permit for Alcohol.
Despite these claims, all of these problems took a toll on the NSC’s revenues, audience and membership, not to mention morale of its members. They just weren’t drawing the audiences, their revenues were down and the group almost folded.
For the past few years, even while the Old Town Hall was still under renovations, the NSC began a relationship with the Newmarket Legion and has performed a number of memorable plays there over the past few of years.
The Newmarket Stage Company has built up a faithful audience at the Newmarket Legion with memorable plays, such as the initial Cookin’ With Gus, The Last Romance, Opal’s Million Dollar Duck, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Ladies Foursome, The Cemetery Club and the most recent hilarious The Odd Couple – (Female Version).
The NSC also has on its Board, Sue Meacock, a tireless worker who always acts as Producer of the plays and also the very experienced artistic director Teri Hallett, who usually directs these comedies.
They have attracted back some superb actors, such as Marlo Alcock, Susan Lane and Denise Kennedy as regulars, and actor/director Jeff Burke, in their selection of hilarious comedies, that fill the Newmarket Legion to capacity.
The Newmarket Stage Company’s next production, at Newmarket Legion, is The Housekeeper, by James Prideaux, Sept. 5, 6, 7, and 12, 13, 14 with matinees on the 7th and 12th. This is another comedy in the vein of NSC’s chosen plays – a hired housekeeper tries to convince a writer not to fire her, with hilarious results. Tickets go on sale July 15th. It is directed by Kay Valentine.
The Newmarket Stage Company just recently held its Annual General Meeting and has selected an outstanding Board to lead it through the next year, under the direction of President Diane Ament.
(The author wishes to thank John Dowson, Rick Koury (who gave information not in a town spokesperson capacity, but as a former president of NSC) and Noreen Aldridge, for all their help and recollections in compiling this extensive history).
(Thanks to Diane Ament and Grace Viera-Peacock for their editing assistance)
EDITOR’S NOTE — This history is from the recollections of many people, but mainly the three acknowledged . It is, in no way, written in ‘stone’. If you, the reader, have any knowledge or recollection of the past theatre years in Newmarket, it can certainly be added.
Please contact the Newmarket Stage Company at e-mail: email@example.com
We thank you for your interest in community theatre in Newmarket