“All the world’s a stage” wrote William Shakespeare some five centuries ago, and for generations, for weeks on end at different times of the year, Bella Coola Valley residents have turned the stage at Lobelco Hall into their own small world. From Japan to Manhattan, from Istanbul to Kansas, Valley women, men, and children of all ages have trod the boards at Lobelco, and at times other venues, turning the space for a brief time into another world for themselves and their audiences.
This past year marked the 50th Anniversary of the Bella Coola Little Theatre Guild – officially formed in 1963 after decades of earlier live theatre in the Valley. Since the 1930’s Valley folks have been hamming it up on stage with performances at first produced by the Women’s Institute and the local PTA, events remembered fondly by Maureen Harrison, who recalls going to performances as a schoolgirl when her love of the theatre was instilled. The theatre those days was spearheaded by Reg Edwards, remembered by Maureen as “an Englishman who worked with Fisheries”.
Since then, the casts, crews, directors, and producers of more than 100 productions have created a host of worlds on stage: They have set the audience on edge with the super-natural suspense of “The Monkey’s Paw”, and probed the existential questions raised in “Waiting for Godot”. They have examined the dark spaces of the human mind in the “Giocanda Smile”, the greed and guilt of “All My Sons”, and the bleak, destructive social forces that wreak ruin in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, the parody of 1950’s American fear of Communism.
They have also sent their audiences into gales of hilarity with farcical comedy including mistaken identity and gender- swapping, along with sweeping romantic musical productions such as “My Fair Lady” and “The Merry Widow”, with highly choreographed dance scenes, elaborate stage craft, and home-devised special effects.
Too numerous to name, the Guild has been blessed with hundreds of participants over its 50 years, including the mechanical/electrical genius who fashioned home-made footlights – still in use decades after their creation, and a backstage light dimming apparatus of metal rods raised and lowered with cords into glass jugs of foul-smelling liquid and panels of sheet metal which, when shaken in a certain way, created rolling thunder synchronized with the lightening flashing on-stage. Maureen recalls the stagecraft that went into making for faster set changes.
“Nothing is worse for the director,” she says, “than seeing the audience sitting there while the crew is changing the scenery.”
Along with the musicals, dramas, and comedies, the Guild also presented themed gala events – 15 of them in all. These included: An Hawaiian Gala, a Western Gala, a Space Gala (in 1969, the year of the first Moon landing), a Roman Gala, and a Mediterranean Cruise Gala. Other ambitious events with locally written scripts commemorated the BC/Canada confederation – the Centennial Ball in 1971. Eighteenth-Century seafaring expeditions were celebrated in 1977 with the Captain Cook Ball. The Guild celebrated its 25th anniversary with a big event in 1988, and the 1994 Norwegian Centennial Pageant commemorated the Valley’s Norwegian settlement of 1894.
Throughout these times, Maureen, who directed 23 of the larger productions between 1969 and 2006, was among the stalwarts in the Guild. She recalls Molly Walker, motoring along Highway 20 with a P-A system on her pickup truck announcing upcoming performances; and sporting a huge white rabbit costume around town to promote the whimsical comedy “Harvey”. She reminisces about the scene at the Ascot racetrack in “My Fair Lady” (1981) with the English ladies in their finery decked out in showy hats each stitched together by hand. Then there was the time in 1971 when the poster advertising the upcoming “Nude with Violin” raised the ire of certain Valley residents. She remembers actor Ken Corbould driving down regularly from Stuie for rehearsals of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” in 1988; and similarly for his part in “Noises Off!” – probably one of the cleverest staging and funniest productions of the 50 years.
A fire in Lobelco Hall forced the Guild to take its 1974 – 1976 productions to the SAMS school auditorium. The huge cast of “Annie Get Your Gun” provided a major challenge, but as always, the obstacles were overcome, and the show went on. Renovations to Lobelco reduced the changing-room space, and cast access to “stage right” became choked off, sometimes requiring an actor to engage in a mad footrace back stage in order to re-enter on cue “stage left”. Then there was the on-stage gunshot during rehearsal – a startling event to the visiting veterinarian who was conducting a clinic in the room behind.
Maureen remembers the Guild’s “most polished” production as “The Club” (1983), in which six women pretended to be members of an all-male club at a time when women were excluded from such places. She recalls the 1981 staging of “My Fair Lady” as the most challenging. But maybe not: She also remembers coming into the production of “Here’s Love” in 1993. This stage version of “Miracle on 34th Street” – complete with a Macey’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – had more than 50 performers in the cast. Maureen came into the production half-way through the rehearsals, taking on the task of directing the dozen or so children under 12 years old.
While she has enjoyed all of her time in Guild productions through the years, Maureen says she had “the most fun” with “The Pyjama Game”, which she directed with Liz Endicott in 2004. “It was a lot of fun and work over the years,” she says, “but even so, it was always easy to find people to help.”
These days, 50 years on, as times have changed in the Bella Coola Valley, so has the world of the Bella Coola Little Theatre Guild. With the aging population and the intrusion of other forms of entertainment, (television, movie rentals, and the Internet) the outside world is in every local living room, and fewer and fewer Valley residents have been stepping forward to become involved in amateur theatre. While many seem to have an interest in performing on the stage, it has become increasingly difficult to identify people to take on the role of directing and producing.
While the Guild has historically engaged in at least one production annually and often two or three, the Guild has been inactive for four of the past seven years. The most recent Little Theatre Guild production (2012) was “The Noble Spaniard” a Somerset Maugham situation comedy directed by John Morton, who has been involved as an actor and director/producer since the 1970’s. Says John, “we do this (amateur theatre production) for ourselves, but also for our community.” He says live theatre provides “not only satisfaction for the actors and everyone associated with a successful production, but great entertainment. The Theatre Guild has contributed tremendously to the Valley,” he adds. John believes that institutions such as the Theatre Guild “define the culture and fabric of our community and through that enrichment make it a more attractive place to live.”
Those involved in the Guild over the years hope to see a new production in the works this year, and this requires Valley residents – those involved in the past and others who want to enjoy themselves participating in live theatre – to come forward and help open the curtain on a 51st season for the Bella Coola Little Theatre Guild.