It has been many years since we attended a live theatre performance, but this autumn’s dearth of fine weather found us looking for indoor activities earlier in the year than usual. What to do, and where to go? For many years we had been hearing about the wonderful theatre experiences enjoyed by friends in the tiny community of Chemainus on Vancouver Island’s east coast, so one wet and stormy afternoon we headed out for an evening performance at the Chemainus Theatre Festival.
Now just rolling in to the final couple of months of its twenty-first season, The Chemainus theatre company has earned a well-deserved reputation in the performance world in British Columbia. Over the course of the past couple of decades it has grown to become the third-largest theatre company in the province, attracting in excess of 80,000 attendees per season. Considering that Chemainus was little more than a dying mill town just 30 years ago the fact that live theatre has not only survived, but thrived, is a revelation.
The theatre festival has its own purpose-built ‘home’ and that, no doubt, has much to do with the success that the company has enjoyed. The stunningly beautiful building sits on the edge of town and includes box office space, spacious, comfortable upper and lower lounge/lobby areas, a beautiful gift shop and a 160-seat dining room. Soaring ceilings, curved staircases and beautiful interior finishes are awash in natural light. The theatre is so superbly designed that there isn’t a bad seat in the house. It is, quite simply, a lovely elegant building perfectly suited to a memorable live theatre experience.
Our evening commenced on the upper level in the Playbill Dining Room, where a sumptuous dinner buffet beckoned. While it would have been easy to simply leave the dining area as one big cavernous 160-seat open space it was nice to see that careful consideration was given to providing a more intimate experience. The décor and the division of the room into smaller areas with the use of suspended lengths of drapery added much to the ambiance, as did the continuous music provided on the house piano. The buffet is one of the best we have enjoyed – there was plenty of diversity and innovation in the offerings and the food was fresh and hot. Unlike so many buffets at similar events, this one was akin to dining at a high-end resort. The wait staff in the dining room was friendly and very efficient, and we greatly appreciated the opportunity to enjoy an excellent locally-produced wine with our meals. It was a lovely, casual beginning to the evening.
We had explored the gift gallery on the lower level earlier in the day so had chosen the 6:30 dinner seating, but earlier options at 5:30 and 6:00 were also available, allowing more time to linger over the meal or check out the gallery, which stays open into the evening.
From dinner, on to the main event. The evening’s performance of A Pretty Girl is the story of the conclusion and repercussions of a 20-year separation of a Polish family divided between Holocaust-seized Poland and New York City. The gripping performances by the excellent cast left us enraptured and contemplative. The nuances and difficulties of such a life-changing situation were so vividly brought to the stage that we were left just a little bit stunned – a sure sign that the actors, stage crew and everyone else involved with this company had done their jobs, and done them well. The huge talents at the Chemainus Theatre Festival will draw us back again and again – I had forgotten over the course of the years how much I enjoyed live theatre so am thankful, in a perverse way, for the less than stellar autumn weather that has driven me back to that enchanted world.