Ottawa youth theatre group seeking solutions after bylaw bars backyard performance

The cast of the Company of Adventurers production of Comedy of Errors rehearses in an Old Ottawa South backyard. Provided by the Company of Adventurers

The community is rallying in hopes the show will go on in Old Ottawa South after a backyard youth theatre production received a bylaw complaint right before opening weekend.

Ottawa’s bylaw and regulatory services division sent a notice Thursday morning to Paul Keen and Cynthia Sugars, the husband and wife team behind the Company of Adventurers, informing the pair that their planned backyard performance of William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors for the coming weekend was to be called off.

Keen says the “terse, short letter” explained that Old Ottawa South was not zoned for theatrical performances.

The Company of Adventurers, which started 10 years ago when Keen’s and Sugars’ daughters put on a performance of Macbeth, has always operated out of the family’s backyard.

Read more: Ottawa father hopes to keep tree fort standing after kids get tear-down notice

Story continues below advertisement

Keen says they were confused when they received the notice and assumed there must have been a misunderstanding, as the theatre “company” is not a business and the troupe has never charged for admission, beyond suggested donations to charity.

He says he called the bylaw officer after receiving the initial notice but says “it was like talking to a brick wall.”

Roger Chapman, Ottawa’s director of bylaw and regulatory services, said in a statement to Global News on Friday that noise and gathering sizes are a concern for residential areas not zoned for theatrical performances.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Toronto-based theatre company brings smiles to seniors in long-term care online' Coronavirus: Toronto-based theatre company brings smiles to seniors in long-term care online
Coronavirus: Toronto-based theatre company brings smiles to seniors in long-term care online – Jul 22, 2020

Keen says the cast, which had just wrapped up its final dress rehearsal on Wednesday night before receiving the bad news on Thursday morning, is “devastated.”

Many of the actors, ranging in age from 11 to 17, were part of high school musicals that were upended when the novel coronavirus pandemic prematurely ended the 2019-2020 school year.

Story continues below advertisement

Keen says he and Sugars were certain the pandemic would spell the end of their annual neighbourhood production as well, but the neighbourhood families rallied to give the troupe a chance to perform.

The cast was divided into small pods for rehearsals to abide by earlier gathering limits, and the play itself was reworked to accommodate distancing and masks — The Comedy of Errors features a town put into lockdown over a trade war, a topic easily moulded to a COVID-19 interpretation.

Read more: Ottawa bylaw officer fired for ‘excessive use of force’ against a civilian

For families struggling to find a way to occupy their kids’ time during the extended school disruption, the structure of rehearsal has been a saving grace amid the pandemic.

“It’s something we do as a labour of love because the kids enjoy it so much,” Keen says.

Love’s labour was nearly lost until local politicians stepped in to find a compromise.

Keen says Capital Coun. Shawn Menard has worked with the Company of Adventurers to find a solution to the issue and has even heard from Nepean MPP Lisa McLeod’s office on the matter.

The current compromise will see two performances of the show go on as planned in the backyard this weekend for the actors’ families only.

Story continues below advertisement

The city has offered nearby Windsor Park as a venue for the remaining performances.

Though Mayor Jim Watson initially tweeted that the company had “accepted” this offer, Keen says it’s not an “ideal” solution.

The last-minute nature of the disruption means that the backyard show’s set, which the cast works together to construct every year, is not suitable for the park. Keen says they would need to fully rebuild and reblock for the park setting.

There are problems with acoustics as well, going from an enclosed backyard to a wide-open park.

“Getting them to project in a backyard can be hard enough, we’re just a little worried it could get lost in Windsor Park,” Keen says.

“We would love to keep it in the backyard because I think that’s really part of the magic of the show.”

Keen is thankful to members of the community for their “outpouring of support” when news of the cancellation first went public. The company will continue to work with the city in hopes that the show will go on as planned.

“Let’s hope it’s a comedy, not a tragedy,” Keen says.

Click to play video: '“Raising the Curtain” campaign looks to help reopen Picton’s Regent Theatre' “Raising the Curtain” campaign looks to help reopen Picton’s Regent Theatre
“Raising the Curtain” campaign looks to help reopen Picton’s Regent Theatre – Aug 23, 2020

Sponsored content