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Destination Kelowna: The Kelowna Actors Studio
Destination Kelowna: The Kelowna Actors Studio
In Vancouver, arts organizations and theatre companies are reeling under the impact of massive cuts to arts funding. From our recent visit to Kelowna for the Spring Wine Festival, Destination Travel: Kelowna in the Okanagan Wine Country , here is an inspiring story of "a little company that could" - The Kelowna Actors Studio is thriving and looking forward to an expanded season next year - and they do it through ticket sales.
Randy Leslie and Nathan Flavel are the brains, passion and talent behind Kelowna's independent theatre company, The Kelowna Actors Studio. Despite being a week away from the opening of "The Miracle Worker" when we called to see them, they generously took time out of their frenetic schedules to show us around their theatre and describe their impressive plans for 8 productions during their 2010/2011 season.
Although neither mentioned this during our talk, some prior research on my part revealed that both Nathan and Randy have established themselves as dedicated contributors to the cultural and entrepreneurial scene in Kelowna. Randy was the recipient of the first ever Okanagan Angel Award in 2005 for his contribution to the local arts scene and recently received a civic award for Honour in the Arts. Nathan was the recipient of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce Young Entrepreneur Of the Year award for his work with Kelowna Actors Studio.
So where did these two artist / entrepreneurs come from? Artistic Director/ Producer, Randy Leslie, explained that he has been an actor since 19 years of age and has over 90 directorial credits in Toronto, Ottawa and Kelowna. Before moving to Kelowna he worked at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto for 10 years as Director of Programming and Marketing. He was the founder and Artistic Director/Executive Director of City Centre Theatre Productions Inc. also in Toronto. He came to Kelowna about fifteen years ago. Randy was the first Executive Director for the Rotary Centre of the Arts before co-founding the Actors Studio.
Nathan Flavel, General Manager/Executive Producer describes himself as having a "very diversified skill set", having produced over 500 promotions, events and campaigns, from fundraisers to performances. Nathan was the Network Promotions Manager for 19 radio stations across Alberta and the Promotions Manager for local media Sun FM and The Bullet. Nathan's skill in graphic and web design spills over into his work in set and decor design for the productions, and for the restaurant which they also own.
We were curious about the theatre space. The building was originally a fruit packing plant back in the old days. Oddly foreshadowing the making over of this space as his own theatre, Randy has a picture taken almost 15 years ago, of himself standing in a miniature door in this huge grey building, right where the opening of the theatre is now.
Around that time, a gentleman came in to start a theatre company and redid the entire space, bringing up most of the decor from Aladdin Hotel in Vegas. Although he spent a lot of time in rebuilding, he never got the theatre company off the ground.
Another theatre company also attempted unsuccessfully to set up a program and it then became a film school for a while. Randy and Nathan had just started up running their theatre company out of the Rob Cardinal Studio space where the food bank is now, when the Kelowna Arts Development Office started up and the owners of the building approached them to take over the space.
" Our five year plan of eventually running a dinner theatre, became a 5 month plan" and the Actors Studio dinner theatre began. From 5 shows in the first year, they now will do 8 shows in the next year.
In addition they run an acting school. Randy designs all the educational and theatre programs, and teaches 30% of the classes. The other teachers have to be performers on their stage or have been professional performers in the past. They have a wide range of children who take the classes. Some children are ambitious and want to be "stars"- others are just in it for the fun of it
For practical experience they have a Performance Troupe, the main one that Randy teaches. Their last production was Mamma Mia and they will be doing the Wizard of Oz this summer. The Troupe does a full production, set , costumes, the works and they usually do 2 to 3 performances. The kids can eventually move up to main stage shows.
When we toured the theatre they were building the set for the Miracle Worker. Randy commented that they were doing a full production with none of the usual editing out of the small children. This show includes the little blind girls.
The artistic vision for this set was that everything was a little bit wonky and off and very plain - expressionistic except for the all important water pump. We were impressed with the set - as Amanda commented - "it was very 'Tim Burton' ". Sort of "seeing" the shows through Helen Keller's distorted images since she can neither see nor hear.
They work with some limitations. They have no fly gallery and limited wing space. They have a small shop in the back but most of the construction is done on the spot. The last show was Sweeney Todd. The set was unbelievable, very like the old Angela Lansbury version- with a turning unit and giant ramps - very large. In contrast this show is all about the acting. What you see is what you get for the set. On the other hand they have terrific rehearsal space.
This is a more than full-time job for both Randy and Nathan but it is a labour of love. They have for seven years been running at full capacity.
The Kelowna Actors Studio is not a non-profit. They do not receive any government funding, do not have a board, and the company survives on their own efforts. They rely strictly on ticket sales. When they took their original plan to the banks, they were told it looks nice on paper but it won't work so they funded it themselves and made it work.
They have almost 2000 subscribers and 20,000 people see their shows every season. The format is a dinner theatre, seating 190 people at tables on two levels. Circular and square tables of 10 to 20 are down on the main floor.
They also own a restaurant, The Green Room, across the way, that does the catering for the dinner theatre.
Nate was responsible for the renovation and decor. It's a long rectangular space giving the place the look and feel of a New York or Chicago Bistro.
There are two options for the dinner theatre, with prices running around 35 and 72 dollars; the higher prices are for Friday or Saturday shows. At a quarter after 6 they open the doors for a full dinner service. The Green Room caters and the buffet is set out on the box office counter from 6:15 till 7 pm. Then they strike the buffet and have a full bar so people can lounge and chat or go for a walk. At 7:30 they open the doors for the dessert-only theatre patrons. So you can choose dinner or just the dessert.
They also offer children and senior prices and give twenty percent discount for season subscribers. Each show runs 4 weeks with performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights as well as a Saturday matinee.
New in their programming this year is the Music Stand series. These are one night shows of big productions. The performers in evening gown and tuxedo will stand at the music stands although there may be one or two choreographed production numbers. Next year they will do Anything Goes and Carousel. They have several music directors that they work with. Rosalyn French, a veteran who worked on the original tour of West Side Story; Noreen Moore who works with a lot of choirs and Gwen Plett who teaches and also acts in their shows.
We completed our tour of the theatre, charmed by the passion and love of theatre that Randy and Nathan shared with us, and fired up by their enthusiasm. We were both impressed that they had managed to develop a cultural hub in this city, without funded support from any level of government. And we wished we could stay long enough in Kelowna to see The Miracle Worker.
We said our good-byes and wandered across the street to have an early dinner at The Green Room. As part of the Spring Wine Festival the restaurant was partnering with The View Winery for a food and wine tasting special. We chatted with Chef Scott Nystrom, and tasted a Pinotage, Rose and Gewürtzraminer with Jennifer Molgat of The View Winery.
And then a slow and spectacular drive back alongside the west shore of the stunning Lake Okanagan capped the day off beautifully.