Managing Artistic Director, Thousand Islands Playhouse, Gananoque Ontario
For the last year, I’ve been trying to wrangle an interview with the Managing Artistic Director of Gananoque’s Thousand Islands Playhouse, Brett Christopher.
Finally, after seeing a terrific production of ‘Jersey Boys’ the night before, I was able to score that elusive interview with the guy who jokingly called himself the ‘man of mystery’.
Sometimes, I kick myself as to why I didn’t try to get to know more about theatre companies outside of Toronto. After reviewing a solid production of ‘The Music Man’ and now ‘Jersey Boys’, I plan to keep my eye on what’s happening in the Thousand Islands Playhouse for its 2023 season.
I’m always curious to ask the artists where they completed their theatre training. When I posed this question to begin the conversation, Brett laughed as he was poking fun at himself to tell me the circuitous path he took to explain where he completed his education.
Brett grew up in Toronto before his family moved to Kingston. He attended university for two years at Trent where he bluntly stated he bombed out because he was having a lot of fun. (and I won’t go into further details as we each have our definition of ‘fun’) At that time, he wasn’t allowed to apply to another university for one year, so Brett returned to high school and took all the Science and Math courses. Yes, he was 21 years of age and taking Grade 11 Biology.
His sister was involved in theatre and Brett says it was just like something from the film and tv show ‘Fame’. She didn’t want to go to the audition for the school musical. Brett said he would attend with her. Brett jokingly then said because of his gender he got a leading part in the show and she didn’t. Brett played Matthew in ‘Anne of Green Gables’ at KCVI in Kingston alongside artist Maev Beaty who played Marilla and Chilina Kennedy who played Anne.
How I wish I could go back in time to see the three of them in these iconic roles.
Brett was pleased to have been introduced to the world of the theatre in high school but didn’t pursue it immediately. He attended Queen’s, got his degree there, graduated, bought a restaurant, and worked there for a couple of years. He then worked at Easter Seals for a while.
The one thing that made Brett happy throughout all of this time was theatre.
At the age of 25, he applied to George Brown and Sheridan and got into both. He had no idea how to sing or dance (or act at that time), so Brett chose George Brown and did his 3-year training here and went into the industry upon graduation.
At the end of 2016, Brett was asked to come and take over the General Manager’s job at Thousand Islands Playhouse. By the end of 2017, Ashlie Corcoran who was the Artistic Director of Thousand Islands got the job to run the Arts Club. The two positions were merged and Brett took over the position of Managing Artistic Director in 2017.
And how is he feeling both professionally and personally about this slow gradual return to the live performing arts?
Professionally, he calls this time ‘strangely satisfying, but not without its ups and downs with short staff, and struggling in departments on account of Covid. Brett gathered with all of the staff of the Playhouse currently under employment at that time. There were eight who were part of the team. He sent everyone home as instructed but the Playhouse would still move forward with the 8 productions in the 2020 season as planned.
Close to $450 K in tickets were sold so it was important to keep pushing toward the season plans even though they were sitting at home. When he realized that the season would not be progressing as planned, Brett asked his staff what I think is an important question that all theatre groups (professional and non-professional) should be asking themselves:
“What is this organization beyond making plays?”
The Playhouse then reached out to the Gananoque community to see how they were doing. A lot of the playgoers who attend are seniors who live alone or who might have been scared, so they got on the phone and just started phoning people as a check-in to see how they were doing. Brett further added:
“This was not in any way to elicit donations or to sell tickets but simply to ask if there’s anything we can do to help you out. Do you need anything in particular – hand sanitizer, toilet paper (and we remember the hoarding back then)? Or do you just want to talk on the phone?”
A theatre company that changed its relationship with its patrons to check in and not look for anything in return. What a touching gesture!
This reaching out initiated a wave of change in the organization, according to Brett. He didn’t look upon this time as a pivot for the Playhouse but as an evolution to something quite different. For example, the Black Box Theatre/Firehall became a depot for the farmers in the area where volunteers came together with the farmers to pick up every Thursday for needed supplies.
The Playhouse was trying to find ways to leverage the resources they had, from facilities to people and communication. In other words, the theatre was on board to help in the re-invigoration of the economic recovery of Gananoque. Brett sat on the panel for Covid recovery in Gananoque. With the closure of the local Salvation Army, the Playhouse developed a winter coat drive collecting 650 winter coats and distributing them in a rack in front of the building. Just this past year, two free tickets were slipped into each coat pocket for people to come to see a show.
Again, the theatre company reached out to their patrons and community to be of assistance in whatever way it could. I kept thinking, “What a selfless communal act of service.”
Fast forward to today, and ‘Jersey Boys’ (which plays to October 30) is the biggest show of this 2022 season. Brett said at the opening night (and the Playhouse team speaks to each audience before the performance begins) that he encourages people to come at least an hour – an hour and a half before the show to eat in the restaurants or browse in some of the local stores to help the community get back on its feet. From what Brett told me, audiences have been doing that.
I did. In attending both shows I ate in the restaurants and donated to the Playhouse. This summer, in a town of 5000 like Gananoque, more than 45K audience members have made their way to the theatre and browsed in the shops, ate in the restaurants, and stayed in the inns, bed and breakfasts and local hotels.
And once again, I’m gobsmacked at the Playhouse’s giving back to the community to get this seasonal town back on its feet. Our conversation led to other examples where the Playhouse was giving back to the community.
Personally, there have been ups and downs for Brett but there is this thrill of being back in a group of people which hasn’t been done in a long time as we all know. But, being involved in community theatre myself for over thirty years. Brett spoke of the fatigue level right now since the company is right at the end of its season and I get it. Everyone’s tired but there is a huge sense of accomplishment.
And where does Brett Christopher, the person, see himself in the next proverbial five years?
He jokingly spoke about a Best Before Date for Artistic Directors. He’s at the five-year mark now. Within the next five years, he’s developing a succession plan. He wants to build a pond path instead of merely wiping out and starting something else.
Brett sees a growth opportunity for the Playhouse within the next three-five years as he begins the re-development of their spaces and infrastructure towards accessibility and community use of the venue for twelve hours a day instead of just three.
The other focus within the next three-five years is cementing the financial footing. When Brett was brought in in 2016, the company was in serious financial difficulty and was almost unable to make payroll. Since this time, there has been a recovery from that financial bottom and they have done so while continuing to build bigger productions and widen their impact. The next few years will be cementing an operating model that ensures the Playhouse’s permanency within the community of Gananoque and the industry.
When Brett is ready to walk out the door, he wants to know that the Playhouse, which has been here for 40 years, will be here for another 40.
Brett exuded such a confident aura about him during our interview that I can sense the Playhouse will be here.
To learn more about the Thousand Islands Playhouse, visit their Facebook page or www.1000islandsplayhouse.com.
The Thousand Islands Playhouse just recently announced its 2023 season:
Ken Ludwig’s ‘Baskerville’ June 2-24
‘The Sound of Music’ July 4 – August 6
Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel’ August 4 – August 27
‘Bittergirl’, The Musical August 18 – September 10
Hannah Moscovitch’s ‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes’ September 8 – October 1
‘Once’ September 26 – October 22
Christopher Morris’s ‘The Runner’ November 2 – November 19