The Early Years
In the 1980s, Port Colborne was going through a difficult period of economic decline and high unemployment. Shops were closing and our historic West Street was mostly derelict with many boarded up buildings. As one means of alleviating the situation, a government economic program injected funds into the area by supporting professional theatre in Port Colborne.
A group of local citizens formed a Board of Directors with Don Gram as Chairman and Charles Salmon representing the government program. Also on the board was Dr. Doug MacDonald who holds the distinction of naming the fledgling theatre “Showboat Festival Theatre”. What a perfect name for a theatre by the canal!
Three comedies were produced in the first season 1987 with artistic director Dean Tedesco with tickets selling for $7 and $15 for a subscription. Performances took place in the auditorium of Lakeview Park Secondary School (now Lakeshore Catholic High School). Tedesco was one of a number of local citizens who joined together and formed Showboat and set in motion the Showboat tradition of summer laughter and fun.
In 1988, Blake Heathcote became the Artistic Director and remained with the company until 1997. He had already worked in theatre in Canada and the US for many years and had been assistant director to Harold Prince on three Broadway plays. The playbill that year listed 5 comedic productions including The Fantasticks, Arsenic and Old Lace and the premiere of an original play by Heathcote (others were to follow in subsequent years).
The 1990/91 seasons included such productions as The Gin Game, Harvey and Dial M for Murder.
In 1992 a Young People’s Summer Theatre program was advertised for ages 6 to 16. It included improvisation, theatre makeup, mime, puppetry and storytelling. The Administrative Office and Box Office moved to the historic Humberstone Community Centre on Highway 3. At this time, tickets could also be purchased through the Brock Centre for the Arts. By now, an impressive company of professional actors and technicians had been formed, some returning to Showboat for many seasons.
In 1993 the Showboat Volunteer Guild was added to the family providing assistance in virtually all areas of the theatre.
Roselawn Centre for the Arts and Theatre-In-The-Round
1994 marks the beginning of a three-year transitional period for Showboat as the company moved to the beautiful Roselawn Centre for the Arts.
Under Heathcote, Showboat would become known for its work in creating new scripts that feature humour. He would go on to write many comedy reviews and plays that saw their premiere on our stage.
He once wrote, in an essay entitled “The Trials of a Humourist”: “In these gray, modern times, playwrights are writing nothing but that grim, stark stuff… I am all for tortured souls in moderation, but a good laugh from time to time never hurt anybody.”
His goal was “to create the best plays and productions in the world for our audiences” and “to define a healthy arts / community / business relationship.
Undoubtedly, however, his most significant contribution to Showboat was his mandate to change the way people watch a play.
While working in England with Alan Ayckbourn in the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round in North Yorkshire, Heathcote had conceived the idea of creating a similar theatrical space in Port Colborne and it would be unique in Canada. To achieve this goal, work proceeded on the redevelopment of the dormant curling rink space at Roselawn. Shows were then presented in the main dining room. According to the 1994 brochure, this created an “intimate theatre where no seat is further than 20 feet from the stage. The theatre is fully licensed and sumptuous food is available at the on-site restaurant”.
One patron from that time still fondly remembers that “the seating was cabaret style with chairs and small tables. With limited space for both actors and props, the plays were well chosen to suit this venue.”
Theatre-in-the-Round in our present space became reality in 1997 and its uniqueness became a point of great pride for Showboat for years to come. Promotional material at this time exudes optimism, excitement and pride in Roselawn as the Home of Showboat Festival Theatre “a company that’s recognized as one of Canada’s best and brightest.” For years to come, as our logo clearly and proudly stated, we were Showboat Festival Theatre in the round.
In 1998 Burton Lancaster became Artistic Director of Showboat. He had begun his professional theatre career in his native England with such companies as The Royal Court and the Old Vic. After extensive touring in Britain and Europe, and fifteen West End productions, he came to Canada to work at Expo 67. He stayed on to work in Canadian cities from coast to coast.
Lancaster soon established a Showboat tradition of ending (and sometimes also beginning) each season with an original musical review. In a 1998 interview he said “I think it’s good to open and close with a musical….it makes for an upbeat season.” These shows – 9 in all – included Lullabye of Broadway, Blue Suede Shoes and Pretty Woman. They always took audiences on a happy trip down memory lane and sent them home humming the tunes. Music was one of Lancaster’s early loves – he played guitar, bass and trumpet in several bands.
One reviewer wrote, “He admits the stories of his musicals, as with most, are a bit silly but the music drives the show… audiences love them and it’s a big hook to bring them back next year.”
There was much more than music during these years. In a 2001 interview, Lancaster said, “I look for plays that have something to say, that are ‘good’ plays for the actors and audience, serious plays, no fluff.” His playbills included an adaptation of Misery by Stephen King, Educating Rita, and the multi award winning Salt Water Moon.
A review in Pulse Niagara says that his production of Affections of May by Norm Foster “has a regional flavour and small town feel to it. When combined with the intimate ‘theatre-in-the-round’ which sets this play in the middle of the audience, you feel that what you are watching could be just around the corner from your own home. This slice of life, staged in the heart of the audience, is sincere.”
Over the years, many distinguished Canadian actors returned often to Showboat for the pleasure of working in this unique and challenging format… Theatre-in-the-Round.
David Savoy became Artistic Director in 2004 until 2008. Savoy was the Artistic Director of the St. Lawrence Stage Company in Brockville, spent three seasons at the Shaw Festival and directed over 20 plays and musicals for The Sunshine Theatre in Orillia where he was Resident Director for over a decade.
Savoy made use of the “moveable and removable” components of the Roselawn Theatre by switching from in-the-round productions to traditional stage and back over the seasons. His gentle, approachable nature made him a popular figure with patrons. Wearing his signature red socks, he greeted the busloads of ladies from Sherkston who regularly came to see him.
In a 2004 interview, he said “Theatre, like most things, is about doing one thing, and doing it well…There’s nothing more joyful for me than making people laugh.” He certainly succeeded! The Leader raved in his first season “3 FOR 3. Three jump-to-our-feet applause hits!”
Savoy also introduced us to his successor, Thom Currie, who starred in The Foursome (2004) and The Love List (2008). Currie had enjoyed a varied career as an actor, playwright and producer on both sides of the Atlantic. After settling in Toronto, he worked in theatre, film and television in both English and French. He was Artistic Director of the Georgian Theatre Festival and founder of an international children’s theatre, ReallyLittleTheatre.
Starting as Artistic Director in 2008, Currie returned Showboat to its roots, ensuring that all productions were created exclusively as theatre-in-the-round. His playbills demonstrated a fine balance between humour, mystery and music.To mark the 25th anniversary season in 2011, Currie conceived an original 50s-inspired play, Back In 59. He had also written Mama’s Country Record Collection which went on to be a travelling production performed in theatres across the province.
Showboat Theatre and Lighthouse Theatre
At the end of the 2012 season, the Showboat Board of Directors reached a heart-breaking decision…..we were ceasing operations. The state of the economy, fewer American tourists due to border issues and flagging audience attendance, had resulted in three difficult years and we did not have the resources to go forward.
Knowing Showboat still had incredible potential, the Showboat board of directors reached out to Derek Ritschel, Artistic Director of Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover, just up the coast of Lake Erie, to consider a partnership between the two theatres.
Derek Ritschel along with Administrative Director, Helen Wagenaar, met with the former Showboat Board and a new partnership and a new vision were born! Lighthouse would run summer theatre programming at Showboat with Ritschel as the Artistic Director. The summer season productions would travel from Port Dover to Port Colborne so that Showboat could continue to offer live theatre to its dedicated audience.
Ritschel is an immensely successful actor and director at Lighthouse and has performed there hundreds of times. He has directed 8 productions and written and premiered 2 original plays.
In the first three years of the new partnership, Showboat has flourished. Ritschel’s drive and enthusiasm are both inspiring and infectious. His vision for Showboat is clear…
“It is my one and only goal to see Showboat grow from a four week season to a full 12 week summer season. This will take the audience from 5500 to 12,000 within the next five seasons. It’s a big goal……but if we don’t think big, we will never achieve greatness.
Lighthouse Festival at the Roselawn Theatre
In 2020, amid the global Covid-19 pandemic the City of Port Colborne and Lighthouse Festival reached a new agreement that would allow Lighthouse to expand from the summer season and stage live theatre and other entertainment offerings in the Roselawn theatre all year round, taking over the management of the theatre completely and operating under the name Lighthouse Festival
Some of this history is on display in the backstage bar area. Replicas of Showboat playbills are mounted on the wall along with costumes from past productions.
Please make a point of visiting the display and celebrating our amazing history!