From 1991 to 1995, OffStage Theatre was a bare-bones, smaller-than-small independent theatre company in Charlottetown. Its King (and Fool) was David Moses. I was his Number One, I guess, and learned a whole heck of a lot during this time. Most all of it from David. Others named in this history more or less came and went, but it was mostly David and me who ended up sweeping the floors the most. Whatever I have become in Charlottetown’s theatre scene, it was borne out of these years. I am eternally grateful to have had the experience.
For awhile, Off Stage had a nice head of steam going, but steam doesn’t pay the bills. A constantly leaking roof in our first home became more and more of an issue, as did malfunctioning theatre equipment, a total lack of storage and no dressing rooms to speak of; it all conspired to drag us down. Fortunately, we had to energy of youth and the passion of artists, and through both were able to ignore the obvious glaring financial discrepancies involved in paying rent with four-dollar ticket prices.
It was exciting, trying to live up to the company’s mandate of creating and producing original works of theatre. I am proud of everything we created. It was awesome, too, to bring in other theatre artists from across the Island and Canada, like Andy Jones of Codco, and see their processes.
Energy and enthusiasm is wonderful, but working at it for less than no money isn’t feasible, and that takes its toll eventually. It was a great run. And I’m still trying to make bank on some of the things we ended up creating.
Here, then, is a just-the-facts-ma’am history of OffStage Theatre. Personal remembrances and anecdotes are likely to follow. But for now, just the cold, unemotional dates and details.
The Pre-History of Off-Stage Theatre
The seeds likely were sown a few years before 1989, as many of the principles got to know each other through the UPEI Theatre Society in the mid-1980s.
But it was 1989 when it started. During that summer, feeling the need to develop their theatre skills, Rob MacDonald, Linda Wigmore, Donna Wigmore, Peter Ewart, Dianne Campbell, Nancy McLure, and Jane Wells approached David Moses to teach acting classes. David was a theatre-guy, a good friend, mentor, and had directed theatre and taught acting before. He was, at the time, on summer break from the National Theatre School of Canada, where he was studying direction and acting. David agreed.
When David returned to school in Montreal in the fall, many of the people in the acting class maintained their interest in theatre by writing, performing, and directing plays around Charlottetown.
In April, after leaving the National Theatre School and returning to Charlottetown, David contacted members of the original acting class, and other interested individuals, expressing an interest in forming a theatre company that would produce original plays and develop the skills of the company members. The focus would be on process as well as product. All involved agreed this is good, a name was agreed upon, and in April 1990, in a small apartment on Queen Street, OffStage Theatre was born.
Billy & Biff vs. Dracula, by Nick Grant
In true independent theatre style, through various fund-raisers and flea markets, OffStage raised a whopping $500 for their first production, Billy & Biff vs. Dracula.
The play, by PEI writer Nick Grant (living in Montreal at the time), was work-shopped over the telephone and through the mail. The original script, gender-blind casting (in the role of Dracula), and unusual sets made for an exciting first production.
It was presented to the public for three nights in August 1990 at the Duffy Amphitheatre, UPEI. OffStage Theatre was off and running.
In the fall of 1990, OffStage Theatre was commissioned by the Festival of the Arts committee to produce an original new play for children for the Fall Festival.
The Pied-Piper of Hamelin
OffStage created and performed their version of the fairytale classic The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
As would become common for most original OffStage productions, “Piper” was created by the actors and director during rehearsals. The actual writing of the script was done by David Moses and Rob MacDonald after each rehearsal.
Piper was well-received by audiences.
After “Piper”, OffStage was successfully incorporated as a non-profit company. The hope was this would help with funding, grants and sponsorships, etc.
Late in 1990, OffStage Theatre Company moved into a 2nd-floor studio and office space it shared with the Charlottetown Ballet Theatre, 134 Richmond Street.
Children’s Theatre Series
OffStage was awarded a grant from the PEI Council of the Arts, to produce a series of three plays for children. From November 1990 to January 1991, the Company produced revised versions of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Three Little Pigs, and created a new play, The Clown Show. The overwhelming response from day-cares and kindergartens (children and adults) showed a sincere need for such productions for young Islanders.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Redux)
Whereas the original Off Stage PIPER was darker, scarier, and moodier, this revised version of the play was totally re-written by David Moses and Rob MacDonald, and concentrated more on slap-stick and farcical comedy.
The Three Little Pigs
The Three Little Pigs remained truer to its original incarnation, which was written by Moses and MacDonald in 1989 for the West Prince Arts Council for summer performances at Mill River Park. It was revised and updated to make it longer, and new songs were added.
The Clown Show
The Clown Show was a series of sketches created mostly by the actors improvisational work in rehearsals. Again Moses and MacDonald worked together to complete a final script.
The Kelly Murder
In the Spring of 1991, OffStage Theatre produced The Kelly Murder, a docu-drama concerning the murder of a black youth in Charlottetown in the late 1800s. Written by Artistic Director David Moses, the play was cast with 28 actors, professional and amateur, from across the Island. It played to sold-out houses at The MacKenzie Theatre, and won a PEI Heritage Award.
Another Clown Show
OffStage Theatre was asked to present their Clown Show for a Confederation Centre fund-raising fair. Rather than present the same play they already produced, OffStage created an almost entirely all-new show. This new show also received overwhelming support by all who saw it.
First Summer Season
In the spring of 1991, while sharing a second-floor loft office on Richmond Street, OffStage began rehearsals for its first full summer season. The PEI Council of the Arts awarded a grant of $3600 for the project. And The Canada Council Explorations Program awarded $12,000. Most of this money would go towards construction and renovation of their new theatre space in the old Seaman’s Building on King Street (where City Cinema currently resides).
David Moses invited National Theatre School friends, actors Rick Roberts and Marjorie Campbell, along with actor/puppeteer Mike Peterson to be part of the summer’s cast.
Delays in renovations caused a delay in their planned opening date. However, on July 19, 1991, OffStage Theatre Company premiered its first summer season productions.
The Kelly Murder (Redux)
The Kelly Murder was reworked, and remounted with a cast of six actors playing 40 characters.
The Entertainers, an experimental piece written by Rick Roberts, starring David Moses and the puppetry of Mike Peterson, played at lunchtimes.
As planned, these shows were replaced in August by Annekenstein, created by Rob MacDonald, written by Rob MacDonald and the cast.
The Prompter, written by David Moses, starring Mae Ames and Marjorie Campbell, was presented during lunchtime.
The overall response to OffStage Theatre’s first summer season was very positive, and the comedy revue Annekenstein was declared the show of the summer.
Once word got out that a play was being produced that made fun of the Island-icon Anne of Green Gables, the shows sold-out and continued to do so for the remainder of its three week run.
Thrilled by the appeal of Annekenstein, the company was also proud that all the shows presented that summer were original works, all positively appreciated, and three of the four were created by Island playwrights.
In order to be able to put on their first productions in their new home, invaluable assistance and support was provided by the Confederation Centre Theatre Department, Theatre PEI, Colonel Grey High School, and in particular Errol Robertson, Rick Warren, Ron Irving and Paul Druet. These organizations and individuals donated equipment, expertise, set pieces and moral support.
In the fall, Off Stage offered its first semester of Acting Classes.
Off Stage was asked to create a humorous show about AIDS and AIDS Awareness for the PEI Dept. of Health and Social Services. Despite the heavy subject matter, Rob MacDonald and David Moses wrote a script based on rehearsal improvisations, and it was performed as part of an AIDS Symposium. The audience was appreciative and welcomed a lighter take on the issue.
Off Stage hosted a three day workshop in Clown work. The workshop was led by nationally acclaimed clown teacher, Leah Cherniak, from Theatre Colombus in Toronto.
Off Stage hosted workshops in Theatre Improvisation which led to weekly presentations of Theatre Sports. These would continue throughout the winter.
As winter began, plans to mount another season of children’s plays proved unsuccessful due to insufficient funding. Off Stage was able to present two new clown shows developed out of the workshop given in the fall. One show toured Island Schools in all three counties. The other, A Clown’s Christmas was presented at OffStage Theatre during the holidays. A short film, THE FALL, was also produced, made through the Island Media Arts Co-op based on a sketch developed during this period.
Theatre Sports Improv
Theatre Sports continued every Friday night.
As a co-production with the UPEI Theatre Society, Off Stage Theatre and UPEI student cast-members created an original production entitled Life On Earth.
Off Stage presented a Theatre Bandwagon production of Island Smoke, written by Greg Dunham.
Annekenstein II and Island Smoke (Redux)
On July 1, 1992 Off Stage Theatre commenced its second season of summer productions in its theatre in Old Charlottetown. Rehearsals for the two plays Annekenstein II and a remount of Island Smoke began June 1st with a company of seven actors and a stage manager/technician.
A $10,000 grant for the summer season came from the Canada Council Explorations Program. Off Stage Theatre also received $5,000 from the PEI Council of the Arts.
Both plays were well- received by those who attend. Annekenstein II, which has an almost entirely new script, is especially popular, selling out regularly during its six week run.
The Bog Hoppers
The Bog Hoppers, with their concerts of tradition maritime music, made a welcome addition to the Off Stage summer line-up.
Late Night at Off Stage
Off Stage also initiated a series of “Late Night” One Person Performances: Andy Jones in Easy Pieces,, John Taylor in My Three Dads, and Clair Coulter in Wallace Shawn’s The Fever. This was thought to be an important step for the company in establishing connections with performers from across the country in an effort to excel in and experience a variety of theatrical forms.
A discouraging note regarding advertising– OffStage Theatre felt obliged to pull their newspaper advertising from the Guardian/Patriot after the first month to protest the paper’s neglect in sending a reviewer to OffStage shows. Other theatre companies were given prompt reviews at the start of their seasons but OffStage was not. After repeated requests were refused, OffStage cancelled their ads. Ironically, Toronto’s Globe and Mail reviewed Annekenstein II, shortly after which the Guardian finally did send a reporter.
In the fall, Off Stage was contracted to produce a play about teenage women and substance abuse. Over a dozen young women participated and the show toured many island junior high schools.
Off Stage second semester of acting class began.
As the first production of its first full winter season, Off Stage produced Dracula Lives, a new play by Nick Grant who, appropriately enough, wrote the first play Off Stage ever produced.
A Man Looking Out The Window
Off Stage Presented Greg Dunham’s one man show, A Man Looking Out The Window.
Land of the Midnight Sunshine Sketches
Off Stage Presented Hank Stinson’s one man show, Land of the Midnight Sun Sketches.
Les Belles Soeurs
Off Stage produced Les Belles Soeurs, cast with twelve island actresses.
Off Stage produced B-Movie, by Tom Wood.
Children’s Theatre Season
Off Stage Produced a series of three plays for young audiences: The Paperbag Princess, The Reluctant Dragon and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Arms and the Man
Off Stage presented, a Pleasant Productions production of Bernard Shaw’s, Arms and The Man.
Off Stage produced Sally Clark’s Moo.
Fun While It Lasted
In March 1992, due to insufficient funding, a leaking building, a growing debt, Off Stage began preparations to move out of 64 King Street. Fun While It Lasted, an original revue, was the last show produced at that location.
OffStage Theatre and Annekenstein is featured in an article on Anne of Green Gables in Air Canada’s in-fight magazine En Route.
In April, Off Stage found a new home at 203 Fitzroy Street. Renovations and preparations began.
May saw Off Stage hosting Theatre PEI’s New Voices Play writing Workshop and performing an Evening of Improvisation for the Professional Secretary’s Institute.
Off Stage produced the third summer season of Annekenstein, running June to September
It was the only play they produced that summer. As like previous years’ productions, this one continued to grow in popularity as the summer run continued, and was often sold out for the last weeks of performance.
Horatio, by Sean McQuaid
In October and November, Off Stage, in co-production with Theatre PEI, presented Horatio, by Sean McQuaid. This sequel to Hamlet was a winner of the previous spring’s New Voices Playwriting Contest. With a large cast, this was Off Stage’s grandest production since the original The Kelly Murder, and was a critical and popular success.
The Good, The Bad, and the Sugar Coated Peanut Butter Shredded Wheat Balls
Off Stage’s Fitzroy Street location had its final production, The Good, The Bad, and The Sugar Coated, Peanut Butter Shredded Wheat Balls, written by Rob MacDonald. This children’s play was performed for a small number of daycare children, and the public was invited to a workshop production, to which a small number attended.
Off Stage left Fitzroy Street to no-fixed-address. The fate of the company was in doubt. Plans were to find a space for the summer, and to produce another season of Annekenstein.
Off Stage managed to secure the Carriage House at the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation, 2 Kent Street. Rehearsals and slight renovations began immediately.
The fourth season of Annekenstein was presented, July to September. Shows sold well all summer long and Off Stage declared the season a success. With the Museum Foundation pleased with their take on the box office, Off Stage and the Foundation made plans for another run the following summer.
In February, plans to produce a fifth season of Annekenstein fell apart when the Museum Foundation pulled out of the agreement after surrounding neighbors of the Carriage House voiced concerns and complaints about the Foundation using the Carriage House as a place of business in a residential area. Off Stage was again homeless with no future productions in sight.
In May, the CP Prince Edward Hotel, lower Queen Street, offered Off Stage a deal to perform Annekenstein in the Auriga Room of the hotel. Off Stage accepted.
Rehearsals and renovations get underway in June for Annekenstein V: The Best of Annekenstein.
Annekenstein V: The Best of Annekenstein
From July to September, four nights a week, Off Stage presented Annekenstein V to great response from the public. Shows average 75% capacity of the 100 seat room for the entire season, with many nights at standing room only. Financially, Off Stage had its greatest success.
As Annekenstein continued to make a name for itself that even began to reach outside of PEI, the production was featured on an episode of CBC Television’s On The Road Again with Wayne Rostad.
After a mutually successful season, tentative plans were made with the CP Hotel to perform another Annekenstein for the summer of 1996. It soon became apparent that these plans wouldn’t come through, as the hotel underwent structural renovations which left them without a venue to offer Off Stage.
In November, once again homeless, and with the fact that the company had become a one play, one season company, and was no longer following its mandate, and with no one with a strong enough desire to take over the management, Off Stage resigned its status as a non-profit, charitable organization, and for all intents and purposes was no longer a company.
Off Stage Theatre Company ceased to produce theatre under its name.
Despite the dissolution of OffStage Theatre, Dave & Rob managed to secure the bar Myron’s as a venue for a 6th summer run of Annekenstein, to run June to August. Despite being, basically, theatre in a bar, it performs quite well.
Annekenstein’s 7th summer season returned to Myron’s, from June to August, six nights a week. Once again, a combination of brand new material and classic Annekenstein favourites worked well and shows sold well.
And, there you have it! A history of OffStage Theatre Company. Do you have any memories of OffStage Theatre? Any plays or performances or music you saw there that stuck with you? I’d love to hear your memories.
My kids still sing “The Songs They Cut From Anne”. Great article Rob. It brings back so many memories! Thank you for this.