The Ottawa Little Theatre that could

The incubator for pros and home for amateurs thrives 100 years after its first play
Suzanne Bowness
The Ottawa Little Theatre that could
Photograph by Blair Gable

Rich Little was moping around the house. The 18-year-old had vague dreams of a career on the stage, so his mother took him down to Ottawa Little Theatre, where he auditioned for his first role. He got the part—and four lines. “I got a laugh,” he says. “And I walked off stage and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do for a living.’”

Last week, Little—a master impressionist who has appeared everywhere from The Ed Sullivan Show to Laugh-In to Hollywood Squares—brought his latest one-man act, Jimmy Stewart & Friends, from Las Vegas to Ottawa for a benefit concert to honour the community theatre where he got his start. “I think if it wasn’t for the Ottawa Little Theatre I wouldn’t have gotten into showbiz,” he says. “I learned my craft there.” Although he performed in about 15 shows beginning with that first role in the mid-’50s, Little says he also used to sit in the wings and watch other performances. “It was a great education to see really skilled actors work.”

The oldest continuously producing communty theatre in Canada turns 100 this year; it predates the National Arts Centre by 56 years. Some very early shows were in what is now the Canadian Museum of Nature. Its niche is mainstream productions, the standards as opposed to the edgy and the avant-garde, offered at reasonable prices.

Even as it was an incubator for talent such as playwright Roberston Davies and actors Dan Aykroyd and Ann-Marie MacDonald, the theatre was also a hub for dedicated amateurs. That was one reason Lynn McGuigan decided to take the job of executive director in 2009. “I think it is key to the success of any art form to have people practising at all levels—and community theatres are an important part of that mix.”

It is also a little like a family. As a girl, civil servant Venetia Lawless watched her mother perform on stage, and now she is a leading lady herself. Jim Hogan volunteered as a sound designer for 25 years before inheriting one of the few paid positions, stage manager, from his uncle. His daughter Angela Hogan, also a volunteer, is now a sound technician for Carnival cruise lines. One regular theatregoer, who died last year, had been attending shows since 1934.

And when a 1970 fire destroyed the former Methodist church the theatre was then housed in, a couple of board members mortgaged their houses to raise the money to build a new theatre on the King Edward Avenue site, which came with a ghost. Constructed atop the church burial ground, excavators uncovered a stone with the name Martha on it. Stories abound of strange noises on the catwalk, for example, and believer or not, the last one out always bids Martha goodnight before turning off the lights. By 1977 the mortgage was paid off, and last year the theatre had a comfortable $238,000 surplus on its $1.1-million budget.

The building gets a lot of credit for the theatre’s commercial success, because the permanent physical space means room for daily rehearsals. Geoff Gruson, the executive director of the Police Sector Council, has done 85 shows over 35 years with the OLT. When he acts in other productions, sometimes he doesn’t get on stage to rehearse until midnight the day of a performance. “At OLT, we have two solid weeks on stage to polish a production.” It also allows enough physical space to put on shows like this summer’s Dangerous Liaisons, which had 19 scene changes, not to mention big wings for larger casts and crews.

A committee sifted through more than 800 shows mounted by OLT to choose a play from each decade for the anniversary season, with Arthur Miller’s All My Sons making the cut, as well as A.A. Milne’s Mr. Pim Passes By.

Actor Luba Goy of Canadian Air Farce fame started acting in the children’s theatre, which toured high schools with productions such as Alice in Wonderland and Rumplestiltskin. She recalls a vibrant community-theatre scene in Ottawa, but says OLT set a standard. “When you did something with the Ottawa Little Theatre it carried some weight,” says Goy. “It was very well known and respected.”