Oliver! behind the scenes
Published June 28, 2016
When you enter the doors of the corrugated tin building marked Highlands Summer Festival Limited, prepare to get dirty.
“Careful of everything you’re wearing,” Betty Mills says as she dips a brush into a container of wood stain. “There’s wet paint everywhere.”
Betty surveys the work of her crew – three seniors, one summer student.
“A little darker,” she says to a woman sponge-painting a faux-brick wall. “That’s looking good,” she says of a coal chute’s interior.
Through a door marked Psychiatric Unit – a remnant from last year’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (but believe me, Betty says, it fits) – another crew is hard at work. Here sawdust litters the floor and Betty’s husband David and his crew of builders operate band saws and power drills.
Today they’re working on a two-sided door. One side, the grey worn wood of a basement filled with coffins, the other, the oxblood red of a wealthy merchant’s dining room.
Soon this door will swing open and Oliver!, the Highland Summer Festival’s season opener, will take over the stage of Haliburton’s Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion.
But for now it’s up to a gang of volunteers, mostly seniors, to transform masonite into the sooty walls of 19th century London, plywood into the dining room where half-starved orphans will sing Food Glorious Food. From March until late June, from 10 to one, four days a week, this corrugated tin building, otherwise known as “The Shop,” becomes a second home to these set-building volunteers.
David measures the door frame, making some final adjustments.
“The hinge system is a bit tricky,” he says and tests the door. It works.
In Haliburton, a place known for its civic-minded population, volunteer-run organizations such as the Highlands Summer Festival, always seem to work.
“We’ve never had a problem finding volunteers,” says David. “The reality is we all get shack wacky around here come January or February.”
It’s 2 o’clock and the Millses are finally home. David gets up to take a pizza out of the oven. Betty laughs.
“But you can only get volunteers until the end of black fly season,” she says. “When the good weather comes they don’t want to spend all day painting in a shop. They want to go fishing and golfing and canoeing. They want to have their grandchildren over to their house.”
David returns and pours Betty a glass of white wine. She looks out the floor-to-ceiling windows of a home that backs onto a green wall of forest. Barefoot, still in their “shop” clothes, they propose a toast.
“To new friends,” they say.
It’s been 16 years since David and Betty sat in another living room of another Haliburton home and toasted to a new summertime community theatre group.
Haliburton had just built the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion and professional theatre groups from Toronto were already eyeing the place. People like David and Betty were wary of city folk taking over and taking off with all the cash.
“There were 18 of us,” David says. “We all threw $50 in the pot and that was our start-up money. We all agreed that if it tanked we would go up to $1,000 each to pay the bills.”
It never tanked. The group of 18’s venture transformed into a not-for-profit festival that has become a beacon of community-run theatre success. Surviving solely on ticket and sponsorship revenue, the shows regularly sell out during the six-week season that features three plays of eight-night runs.
“We grew too fast,” says Betty.” We grew so fast we were running like heck to keep up because we didn’t expect the response.”
The response came from a community addicted to the arts. It came from a population of cottagers who still express surprise when they walk through the doors of Haliburton Highlands Secondary School and find a 212-seat state-of-the-art theatre where a gymnasium once stood. But the response is sustained by something more than being able to fulfill the need for a summer diversion.
“We’re crazy about theatre,” says Betty. And their patrons feel it. It’s built right into the sets.
Betty paints a plywood frame with brown stain.
“I have a limited amount of time to do this,” she says and picks up a cylindrical tool carved with curvy lines. “This is a wood graining tool. An artist in Minden taught me this technique.”
She bends, rolling the tool lengthwise in one fell swoop. The quarter-inch plywood transforms into richly-grained hardwood.
The Shop is not the place to talk. There’s too much to be done.
“Here’s a roller,” Betty says. “Jenny will show you what to do.”
Jenny Rieger dips a long-handled roller into a tray of black.
“Don’t forget the sides,” she says lifting a wooden panel three times her size.
Ilsemarie Tarte inspects. “You missed a spot,” she says. “There, “ she points. “And there. You’d be surprised at what shows up on stage.”
What will appear on stage, in less than three weeks’ time, is the company’s biggest production ever. A cast of 33 will inhabit these sets. David and Betty know they’re just part of what they call a “family,” a cast and crew whose teamwork will ensure audiences are never disappointed. But they also know they’re the bones of the operation. They are the workhouse walls that stand firm. The London Bridge that holds up the weight.
David stands in front of a silhouette of St. Paul’s cathedral, adjusting the rollers on the bottom of the stage flooring.
“These aren’t going to work,” he says and walks back into the Psychiatric Unit.
It’s this kind of attention to detail theatre-goers never see – thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes care that begins when scripts arrive in November and ends when the last set is taken down in August.
Betty sips her wine, looking out at the garden. Wind chimes tinkle in the breeze.
“Every year we get incrementally better at everything,” she says.
David agrees. “It’s getting to the point that, in my opinion anyway, that the theatre has outgrown us.”
The Millses are well aware of the limitations of a population of 17,000 to provide individuals capable of mounting such professional productions. For this reason, they’re not afraid to experiment, to create something sustainable. The group often “imports” lead actors, directors, choreographers, set designers.
“We successfully intertwine professionals with amateurs and make it work.” says David. He sips his wine. “We’re community theatre but we’re not community theatre because our standards are high. They’re really high.”
High standards don’t get in the way, however, of encouraging locals to participate. Especially youth. Throughout the years, the Millses have watched amateur talent transform into professional. They’ve watched actresses head off to L.A., stage managers mount broadway productions.
“As former educators, we’ve always had a huge focus on involving young people,” says Betty. “We have kids that have gone through all the training from set design to stage managing who are doing just as good a job as any kid coming out of Sheridan College.”
David begins to say something, but Betty stops him.
“Don’t miss the hummingbird,” she says and points outside.
For a minute, the room goes silent. A hummingbird flits from flower to flower.
“That’s what’s really happening,” says Betty. “This is real time. This is why people live in Haliburton.”
In just a few days, the Millses will board a flight bound for Tokyo. It will be their first time leaving Haliburton while the paint dries on a set still sitting in The Shop. David was recently elected district governor for the Lions Club and has been invited to a swearing-in ceremony hosted in Japan. The set-building crew has told them “no emails, no texts, just enjoy yourselves.”
“But there’s no way that when we’re in Japan we won’t be thinking – they’re doing this right now, they’re doing that right now,” says David and takes a bite of pizza.
Betty isn’t worried.
“You only worry about things you can do something about,” says Betty. “Learn that.”
The trip to Japan marks the beginning of a new act. David’s new responsibilities will mean less time for theatre. Less time with the theatre family he and Betty so cherish.
“The family of theatre stays with you your whole life,” says Betty. “It’s is a life-altering experience. It’s very hard to part company at the end.”
She gets up and gathers the dishes. It’s time to go. They have a long list of things to do before their flight.
“Tomorrow we’ll tidy up the shop and have it ready for rehearsal,” says David. “And then it’s Sayonara.”
Beside The Shop, Melissa Stephens slides open the door of a rail car.
“I covet suits and blazers,” she says. “They’re so hard to find these days.”
It’s 30 degrees, hotter inside the windowless rail car. Stephens rifles through jackets made of velvet and wool and silk .
“This is the fur coat section,” she says from the back corner. “Here are the overcoats, frock coats, the tails and tuxes.”
Totes labelled with things like “pinafores” and “crinolines” and “bow ties” line the shelves. Stephens holds up a gown of creamy taffeta shot with a stripe of blue velvet and golden braiding, a flower-patterned bodice fluted with boning. Her favourite creation.
Even with beads of sweat running down her face, Stephens smiles. The contents of this rail car are her grand oeuvre. For 16 years, the teacher by day, self-taught costume designer by night has wielded fabric to transform regular human beings into princesses, war heroes, psychiatric patients.
It’s because of people like Stephens that David and Betty have nothing to worry about. Stephens is one of the original group of 18 who have never looked back after throwing their 50 bucks into the pot.
“I give up my whole summer for this,” she says, sliding the door closed.
Today she will continue fittings for a show she’s nicknamed “Boots and Pockets.” She’ll practise her tricks of the trade, ripping the collars off Oxford shirts and spraying them with tea. Distressing 15 workhouse outfits she made from bed sheets. Creating suspenders from strips of leather and elastic.
She’ll transform the contemporary into Charles Dickens’ England. With a budget of $2,200 for all three shows (“and I’ve never gone over budget,” Stephens says), she’ll take the magic-making baton David and Betty have passed on and complete the race to the July 4 finish line.
Stephens opens the door to The Shop. Inside, the Oliver! set is ready for transport.
“Stand on the bridge,” she says. “I’ll take your photo.”
The stairs look just like the blocks of limestone they’re meant to resemble, and feel just as solid.
“There’s nothing like it,” David had said the other day, “when the set’s up and you look down from the top of the house and you think, yeah, we did that.”
Somewhere David and Betty Mills are looking down from the heights of an airplane, and here in Haliburton, London Bridge stands firm.