Wolfville Theatre Festival

Bare-chested landscapers dragged rakes through a mound of dirt where the front lawn will soon be planted.

Wolfville Theatre Festival

Bare-chested landscapers dragged rakes through a mound of dirt where the front lawn will soon be planted. Inside, a dour fire marshal hovered, waiting to begin his inspection, box-office attendants scrambled to correct a mix-up over a subscriber's tickets, and a maintenance man searched vainly for the lost key to the theatre's only van. Just another day of chaos, panic - and exhilaration - at the Atlantic Theatre Festival, Canada's newest summer classical stage experience, located in the leafy splendor of Wolfville, N.S. "Everyone has worked so hard to get to this point," says Angela Gelinas, who joined the festival as general manager nine months ago, when the theatre building was a derelict hockey rink and not a single actor had auditioned for the repertory company. "We are all extremely tired. The challenge is keeping the momentum up."

Nothing helps banish fatigue like success. And no less an expert than acclaimed Canadian classical actor Christopher Plummer rates the new theatre - with its thrust stage jutting out into the audience as in the days of Shakespeare - "the most beautiful of its kind there is." Toronto's Globe and Mail called the festival's curtain-raiser, Shakespeare's The Tempest, "disciplined and powerful," while Halifax's Daily News raved that a production of Georges Feydeau's farce A Flea in Her Ear was "paralyzingly funny." The public seems to approve, as well: so far, the festival has sold 15,000 tickets out of a season total of 43,000. Gushed Michael Bawtree, the festival's artistic director and a proud parent: "It is unbelievable how everything has come together."

Wolfville's achievement is particularly impressive considering the painful birth of the country's premier classical festival in Stratford, Ont. Now, the grand old man of Canadian summer theatre, Stratford spent its first years in the early 1950s operating under a tent and fending off public skepticism. Wolfville, a gorgeous university town of 3,000 in the province's verdant Annapolis Valley, has been far more welcoming. From the moment that Bawtree and some friends sat around a kitchen table in 1993 and hatched a plan to create a local theatre festival that could meet international standards, the dream has proven contagious. The province, under a municipal infrastructure program, doled out $2.2 million for construction costs. Acadia University, the town's biggest employer, donated the rotting, vacant rink for a token $1 a year. Big corporations - including the Bank of Montreal and Nova Scotia Power Inc. - helped with the $1.6-million operating budget, of which $700,000 is expected to come from ticket sales. And dozens of townspeople got into the act, volunteering as ushers. "We are all excited by Michael's vision," says Gwen Phillips, mayor of the town, which gave the festival $10,000 worth of new sewers.

Bawtree's inspiration has lured some of the world's greatest theatrical names to small-town Nova Scotia to join the solid professionals and untested talents who make up the company. British native Michael Langham, for 12 years artistic director of the Stratford Festival and more recently artistic director at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minn., is directing The Tempest as well as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which opens on July 28. His Prospero is Peter Donat, one of the continent's finest classical actors, who was born in Kentville, just 20 km from Wolfville, where he attended university. "There was no hesitation," says Donat, 67, now based in San Francisco, explaining his reaction when Bawtree asked him to join the cast. "Who would not go for an adventure like this?"

Plummer, who ran into Bawtree last summer while filming the Hollywood adaptation of the Stephen King novel Dolores Claiborne on Nova Scotia's south shore, echoes that sentiment. So far, the actor's involvement has been limited to a benefit performance of his one-man stage show, A Word or Two, Before You Go, at the festival last October and twisting the arms of friends in the theatre community for financial support. But Plummer, who is now working on his autobiography, says he dearly wants to spend a season acting or even directing at the Atlantic festival. "It has so many more advantages than Stratford did starting out," says the Toronto-born actor, 65. "This is a baby born fully developed. I've never seen a community respond to a festival like this."

It nevertheless remains a struggle. To break even during the inaugural season, the festival needs to sell 11,000 more tickets and raise another $500,000 in private donations - a major challenge for a new, untested theatre. Last week, however, Bawtree and his band of dreamers were flushed with excitement and noble purpose - and confident that their offspring faces a golden future. Said actor Bill Carr, 40, a native Nova Scotian who was running creativity workshops when Bawtree convinced him to join the troupe: "We can all feel it - this is the start of something special."

Maclean's July 10, 1995