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Ottawa youth theatre group faces Friday deadline to end backyard production

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

An Ottawa youth theatre group will find out by the end of the week whether its Shakespearean production is to be or not to be as the city’s bylaw division has imposed a Friday deadline for the troupe to move its planned performances from the directors’ backyard or else face a fine.

The Company of Adventurers, a youth theatre group based in the Old Ottawa South backyard of Paul Keen and Cynthia Sugars, was told last Thursday that its planned production of “The Comedy of Errors” was the subject of a bylaw complaint for operating a theatre in a residential neighbourhood.

The infraction threatened the kids’ upcoming performances while outraging many in the community who felt the show should go on.

Early attempts at a compromise, including offering a last-minute move to nearby Windsor Park, didn’t satisfy the troupe.

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The kids were allowed to perform in the backyard for an audience of families only this past weekend, but bylaw services director Roger Chapman visited the stage on Monday to discuss the issue with the homeowners.

Though Keen said Tuesday he felt the visit went well, he said that bylaw’s statements to media about the outcomes of their discussion are “misleading” and, in some cases, “wrong.”

Chapman told Global News in a statement late Monday that bylaw services issued a notice of violation after the visit to the Old Ottawa South home ordering the owners to stop using their backyard for theatrical performances as of Sept. 4.

He said the Company of Adventurers operators “did not intend to adhere to a verbal agreement which would have seen the play proceed at nearby Windsor Park.”

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Though Mayor Jim Watson tweeted on Friday that the park compromise had been accepted, Keen told Global News last week that the theatre company had never agreed to move the production to Windsor Park, citing difficulties adapting the staging to an open park.

“The media statement makes it sounds like we had reneged on a verbal agreement,” he said Tuesday.

Chapman’s statement also said that bylaw’s investigation revealed that participants were charged a $500 membership fee to participate in the play, in addition to a “week-long day camp” on the grounds.
Keen said this too is misleading.

Children do pay $500 to participate in the Company of Adventurers’ annual plays, but this money is solely to cover the expenses associated with running a production, Keen said.

“It sounds like a lot. But by the time you put together all of the costumes, sets, props, all that stuff, it goes,” he said.

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Performances are free with suggested donations to charity and the theatre group does not make any profit in its operations, Keen said. He added the group explicitly limits the number of children it works with each year to provide a better individual experience for each of the actors.

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“If we were in it for the money, we could easily double the number and make money,” he said.

The “day camp” Chapman’s statement references is a week of daily rehearsals from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., usually near the end of the summer.

While the plays are usually rehearsed for two evenings each week during the summer, Keen said they have had years where the whole cast isn’t ever together at a single session due to regular summers interruptions such as vacations, so the group asks participants to block off one week where they can collectively hammer out any bugs before the curtain rises.

Keen said there are no additional fees associated with the production from this week and its hours mean it’s usually not disruptive to neighbours who tend to be at work during the day, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed that situation this summer.

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Keen also confirmed Tuesday that the Company of Adventurers received a verbal warning about running a backyard theatre group in 2019, but his conversation with the bylaw officer then had ended differently.

He said the result was an acknowledgment that the theatre company was not a for-profit operation and sat in a “gray zone.”

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The officer told him the performances could continue provided the stage was shifted to a park or other venue, and Keen said he did shop around for other locales, but the expenses associated with renting theatres would have made costs for participants exorbitant.

And with the pandemic shutting down public gatherings in the spring, rehearsing in a park would have been illegal at the start of the production.

Keen and his wife don’t know who complained the bylaw about the issue, but are hoping the city can speak with the party to find a solution.

For now, the Company of Adventurers feel left adrift in their sea of troubles.

“My wife and I both wake up thinking, ‘Boy, I don’t know if I can take another day of this,’” Keen said.

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