From a makeshift stage in the high school cafeteria to meeting rooms in the old town hall, Bracebridge took a long and winding road to reach its current performing arts venue.
Now it’s time to look back on 10 years of the Rene Caisse Theatre, reflect on its role in the community and, of course, to celebrate.
September 29 and 30, the theatre will play host to a unique festival of art, dance, drama and song dubbed The Best of Bracebridge – A Celebration of the Arts.
“Bracebridge is filled with artistic talent and we want to celebrate that along with the tenth anniversary of this wonderful theatre,” says Cheryl Tough of the Bracebridge Arts Council.
For 30 years the Arts Council’s mandate has been the promotion of the arts in Bracebridge, and for the past 10 they’ve also incorporated the management and operation of the Theatre, alongside their partners at the Town of Bracebridge and the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. The Town also operates the Bracebridge Sportsplex, and the School Board runs Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School (BMLSS) – both of which are attached to the Rene Caisse Theatre.
“It’s a unique relationship and it’s been a positive one,” says Tough. “It’s all about partnership. This is a welcoming place with an enthusiastic and cooperative spirit.”
Having a working theatre, with a state of the art lighting and sound system, provides the students of BMLSS a unique opportunity that few in the province are afforded.
“The Rene Caisse is unusual in that it is a teaching theatre, and unlike the other Muskoka theatres, it’s not municipally owned or operated,” says Paul Arril, who has been a member of the Bracebridge Arts Council since the early 1990s. “This creates its own set of challenges but it also provides wonderful opportunities for our young people to learn in a beautiful and professional setting.”
Both Tough and Arril spent much of their careers teaching drama at Muskoka schools, and Arril says the space available to BMLSS students now is a far cry from those earlier days..
“It’s quite a contrast with my old teaching space – the ‘dungeon’ in the old BML,” says Arrill. “That drama classroom was prone to flooding, as it was the only one in the whole school that was actually below ground level.”
It was that problem of suitable space for the performing arts which sparked the partnership that would eventually lead to the creation of the theatre.
The Bracebridge Arts Council began in 1987 as an arts umbrella organization but it quickly became apparent that the creation of a theatre space needed to become a top priority.
At the time, the performing arts took place wherever sufficient space could be found – the cafeteria at the former BMLSS downtown, the upstairs in the old Bracebridge Town Hall, the Riverside Inn (now the Quality Inn on Ecclestone Drive), the Rotary Hall or the former Centennial Centre (now Georgian College’s Muskoka Campus).
“My experience as a drama teacher at BMLSS combined with community theatre involvement had convinced me that a proper performance space was needed,” says Arril.
A number of initiatives were pursued throughout the 1990s. Bird’s Woolen Mill (now the Riverwalk Restaurant) was sought as a venue but talks with the municipality broke down. The Norwood Theatre was also considered as a potential new performing theatre space but it again it wasn’t to be.
The new theatre project remained in limbo until it reemerged with a new intensity in 2004 when the idea emerged for a new joint project high school and sports complex.
Tough says she received a call one day from then mayor Scott Northmore asking if the Arts Council would be interested in the presenting before Town council to discuss the possibility of locating a new theatre within the proposed complex.
Council was on board and the work of creating the new theatre began in earnest, with a group of enthusiastic volunteers that included Evelyn Brown, Ken Veitch, the mother-daughter team of Carol and Amy Bridle, Coray Schroeder and many others.
The group undertook every manner of fundraiser, from seat sales and concerts to seeking out patrons with a love of the arts and deep pockets.
The group raised nearly $2 million through their initial fundraising push – including a $500,000 donation from Essiac International who were given the naming rights to the theatre. Rene Caisse promoted Essiac tea (Caisse spelled backwards) as an alternative treatment for cancer from the 1920s to the 1970s.
In September of 2007 the Rene Caisse Theatre and the new Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School opened their doors for the first time to much fanfare.
“The dream had become a reality,” says Arrill.
State of the art sound and lighting, 303 seats built for comfort and ease of access, mens and womens change rooms, a 60 x 30 foot stage with a 15 x 20 foot screen for projections, such as the live MET opera performances frequently shown for the public, the theatre provides an unparalleled teaching space for aspiring drama and A/V students.
Some of those who have come through the ranks of the new BMLSS will again grace its stage on
Friday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 PM and Saturday Sept 30 at 2:00 PM for the Best of Bracebridge performance.
“We felt the Best of Bracebridge presented an excellent way of honouring all those creative people who have contributed so much to this community over the years,” says Arril. “This festival is also a way of highlighting the theatre and its unique role in Bracebridge, especially with a focus on the young people.”
The show is billed as a festival of sound, light, and laughter featuring a selection of art, photography,dance, drama, music and song. From the classic songs of the Rotary musicals to pipes and drums, ballet, modern and highland dance, choirs and bands, and accomplished local artists of all ages.
Dan Brooks, the musical director, has also written a festival theme song to mark the occasion called “Feel Your Heart”.
Original art, drama and music by BMLSS students and performances by community theatre actors will be accompanied by visual retrospectives.
Above all the show is a chance to celebrate a decade of fostering new and existing talent in Bracebridge’s artistic centerpiece, and look forward towards many more years of entertainment and education.