All the world’s a stage: community theatre in Windsor-Essex

Angelica Haggert
By Angelica Haggert April 21, 2018 17:25

By Angelica Haggert

Every theatrical play tells a story. Some we’re familiar with — Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Grease, Annie, Macbeth. But some stories unfold behind the scenes: the stories of the hardworking cast and crew behind the scenes. These people come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. They work with different theatre companies. But they have something in common.

Chris

The curtain has risen 42 times on productions he’s been a part of and he’s only 33 years old. In theatre parlance, that makes him a veteran. But there’ll likely be no Tony award or Broadway debut in Chris Fazekas’ future; he’s firmly committed to “am-drams,” a.k.a. amateur dramatics — that is, community theatre.

Chris Fazekas watches a rehearsal of Singin’ in the Rain at the Windsor Light Music Theatre rehearsal hall. Photo by Angelica Haggert.

“It’s a labour of love. I do it, because it’s so much fun to do,” says Fazekas.

If all the world’s a stage and everyone is a player, then community theatre provides the perfect setting to get in the game. From taking tickets at the door to performing a starring role, each production is presented by the community for the community and keeps local arts alive and thriving.

Fazekas hasn’t been without a show for more than two weeks in over a decade. On a Monday, he works a nine-hour shift as the housekeeping manager for a hotel downtown. But that’s just the job that pays the bills; after the long day on his feet, he heads to the rehearsal hall as the director of the upcoming production of Singin’ in the Rain with Windsor Light Music Theatre. He’s got a rehearsal to run.

Regardless of how the work day went, he’s the first to arrive and the last to leave.

It’s community theatre. And it’s where he’s found calm in his chaos.

Community theatre is a simple concept: small groups of average people, in borrowed spaces or more permanent companies with rehearsal halls and a regular stage.

Participants are generally unpaid.

The month of February is about halfway through the rehearsal process for the spring show at Windsor Light. Fazekas is confident his cast and crew are ready for what they call a “rough run.”

“It’s going to be a mess,” laughs Fazekas before rehearsal. “But it will show us what we know and what we don’t know, so we know what to work on next.”

The rehearsal starts with a goal of running Act One without stopping. Despite having never done this before, the actors have a “get it done” attitude that you can almost feel when you walk into the space. They’re eager to show their director — Fazekas — the hard work they’ve put in to master what he’s taught them.

It doesn’t really go as planned. They get about 10 minutes in when a music mix-up slows the production to a halt. Then there’s the ensemble dance scene that six people were missing for when it was learned. Through all the hiccups, Fazekas patiently coaches actors through their blocking, while his assistant director prompts line cues and his stage manager scribbles notes. There are many collisions mid-scene and many scurries across the rehearsal floor for actors to get in their proper positions. Collective groans erupt when someone forgets a line or misses the mark in an ensemble dance number. The group has been rehearsing two or three times a week for about two months, with less than two months until opening night.

Actors rehearse steps to a choreographed dance number during a Singin’ in the Rain rehearsal. Photo by Angelica Haggert.

The Singin’ in the Rain journey started like every theatre journey starts: with an audition.

“Everyone coming to an audition usually hates them,” laughs Fazekas. “I want to give people the chance to showcase their best,” says Fazekas. “And then I have to dash some of their dreams.”

Fazekas’ theatre credits include roles both on and off the stage. For Singin’ in the Rain, he’s the director and has the responsibility of not only ensuring actors know their lines, blocking and choreography, but he also needs to ensure all other departments are adhering to the schedule. On a rehearsal night, he somehow has to find time to talk to the people in the props, costume and set building departments. The 20 minutes actors take to stretch and warm up at 7 p.m. when rehearsal starts is when Fazekas chases down these people throughout the building. He has to make decisions often without pausing to have a proper conversation.

“Blue chairs or yellow?” someone in the props department asks. Fazekas was just passing through but stops to debate colour choices. Even though it is ultimately his decision, as director, Fazekas listens to the opinion of those in each department. They are volunteers too.

Ruth

Shows often get more hopeful stars at rehearsals than there are spots to fill in the show. Ruth Brown has been there. She auditioned for a role at Windsor Light for 10 years before she even made it into the pit (the choral section that sits, in many cases, under the stage).

Ruth Brown has worked for almost every theatre company that exists in Windsor-Essex. The stage is her home. Photo by Angelica Haggert.

“Even when you’re discouraged and they don’t give you the part … (or) you get the callback but you don’t get the part, you still keep going,” says Brown. “You still go and you try and you try and you try.”

She’s been involved in theatre for more than 40 years and estimates she’s worked on more than 100 productions. Sometimes she does three a year — an effort she calls “crazy.”

Brown can’t count the number of times she auditioned and got nothing. Although she has worked with Fazekas and at Windsor Light, lately she’s been spending her time in Ridgetown. Unlike Fazekas, Brown tends to move from company to company in the Greater Windsor area and ultimately dreams of opening her own community theatre organization.

Brown regularly calls herself a “nothing.” She’s referring to the extras in the ensemble that fill the stage. In movie credits they’d be called “Girl 1,” or “Doctor 2.” Brown rarely holds a lead role but seems to cherish her place as a “nothing” on stage.

And for a “nothing,” Brown is someone the audience always notices on stage.

“People watch me, even when I’m a ‘nothing,’” says Brown. “They never know what I’m going to do.”

To make being a “nothing” be more exciting, Brown “digs deep” during the rehearsal process.

“I come up with a backstory of who I am,” says Brown. “You have to come up with a backstory and make it yours.”

In a production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Brown was an ensemble member in the town scene. So, she made it her own.

“I was the town madam,” she giggles. “And I believed it!”

Her eyes get wide as she explains how everyone bought her backstory. She’s been lucky to work with directors who encourage that kind of motivation.

Brown is loud and bubbly and perforates our conversation with hysterical bits of laughter. It’s contagious and impossible to not join in her glee. She’s worked almost everywhere: on stage, in the pit chorus, directing, costume department and props area. Brown has also worked in children’s community theatre, which offers its own unique set of challenges.

“You don’t just get the kids, you get the parents,” Brown laughs. The dedication that it takes to be involved in community theatre is unreal — imagine being the parent who has to make sure their child is at rehearsal on time.

According to Brown, during rehearsals is when this group of random strangers becomes family. She says you spend more time with them than you do anyone else.

“You’re all in and you’re kind of feeling your way and you make new friends,” says Brown. “And then you end up with life friends. It’s the meeting of minds of different people.”

Brown says people involved in community theatre are a different “breed.”

“We wear our heart on our sleeves,” says Brown. “In that sense, we’re also very self-centred. I’d like to think that I can make a difference in somebody else’s day.”

Eric

Eric Smith only has about 10 productions under his belt, but he also thinks there is a self-centred attitude that comes with being involved in theatre.

Eric Smith never expected to find himself on the stage. Photo by Angelica Haggert.

“There’s a confidence that borders on arrogance that comes with doing shows,” says Smith. “It becomes easier if you don’t care what the audience thinks, and that can easily translate to other things in your life.”

Smith says it boosts his confidence, and he doesn’t have to worry about making sure that everyone’s happy — including the audience.

Smith has worked with a handful of Windsor theatre companies, including Theatre Windsor and Ghost Light Players. He’s found he feels the most “at home” at Kordazone, where he spends two or three nights a week for three or four hours at a time for four months: all just at rehearsal.

“There’s something fun about working on a project with your friends,” says Smith. “There’s the enjoyment of building something and accomplishing something, but it doesn’t feel like work.” Smith works full time as an insurance broker and has a teaching degree in history from the University of Windsor. Despite his hours at rehearsal after busy work days, Smith is often also found taking tickets at the door or painting a wall as a show gets ready for the stage.

“You go up on stage and do the fun part, and then you watch other people do the serious part,” Smith says. He considers those serious parts, like building and painting sets, making props or taking tickets, the front-line of the theatre.

“You realize there’s a lot of people doing fairly serious work so I can go up and do make believe. So, you feel like it’s your duty to start doing some of those things, especially when you’ve been with a theatre for a long time. You build up a loyalty to that place and you want to help them out.”

Smith has never worked with Fazekas or Brown, but he’s seen them perform on stage. He met Fazekas through a monthly board game night when one theatre friend brought another. The two had a running Dungeons and Dragons night for awhile but competing rehearsal schedules make it difficult to see other friends or even family on a regular basis.

Smith says most of his friends have come from the theatre, in one way or another. It makes it easier to spend long hours in rehearsal.

“It’s this weird little world of in-jokes and little games that we try to play with each other,” says Smith. “You’re like kids on a playground really.”

Smith in real life is quiet and reserved.

“People often assume that because you do theatre you’re very personally dramatic,” says Smith. “And I’m not. I’m fairly reserved so it tends to surprise people.” Smith’s family has even suggested he “act like an actor” while out at a gathering.

“If I had a couple months and you told me exactly the words to say, I might be able to do it!” Smith laughs. He doesn’t think you could ever truly fill a room of such extreme personalities, and think it works better to have different kinds of people fill the different kinds of roles.

Stephanie

Stephanie Craigg is one of those people you’d never stereotype as an actor. Craigg has Turner Syndrome — among other things, this means Craigg is short. But she’s been acting since she was in Grade 8, more than 18 years ago.

Stephanie Craigg doesn’t let her height stop her from participating in community theatre. Photo by Angelica Haggert.

One of her first roles was as Snow White in a Christmas version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“I auditioned and I really, really wanted to be Snow White,” remembers Craigg. “My little sister said they’d never have Snow White be smaller than the dwarfs!” Craigg ended up with the leading role and knew immediately she wanted to do more theatre.

Craigg has worked her height into different roles, often playing children in adult productions. She’s also been a Munchkin in Wizard of Oz, and a hobbit like Bilbo Baggins in a parody version of The Hobbit. She’s also played creatures like owls. Craigg can’t imagine not doing theatre.

“The whole process, from the auditions to the rehearsals to the tech week, to the actual performances. I just love it,” says Craigg.

“I love getting the chance to immerse myself in these characters, in these situations that otherwise I would never get the chance to.”

But even more than that, “it’s the people,” says Craigg.

“Windsor has such an amazing theatre community. They really do become like family,” says Craigg. “You become so close to everyone and it’s just… it’s an experience unlike anything else I’d ever been a part of.

“The number of hours and late nights and the times that I’ve come home from a rehearsal to pull an all-nighter to finish a paper for school,” Craigg remembers. “It’s completely worth it because I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Growing up, Craigg was shy and introverted. Like Smith, she found that theatre has helped bring her out of her shell. The two have worked together on a number of productions and their paths will likely cross again.

Craigg has been a huge proponent for community theatre in Windsor. She makes an effort to get to productions from many of the area theatre companies. Even though she’s never worked with Fazekas or Brown, she’s seen them both on stage or  a few aisles back in shared audiences.

“I can go see a show pretty much with any theatre company and know that I’m either going to know someone in the show, or I’m going to run into someone who is there watching the show as well,” says Craigg. She often buys solo tickets, because she’s that confident she’ll meet up, unplanned, with someone she knows.

“We have so many talented people here in Windsor,” says Craigg. “These people are probably some of the passionate people you’re ever going to meet, because they’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it for the love of the experience. That really comes across when you see them on stage, when you talk to them.”

The score for Singin’ in the Rain. Director Chris Fazekas makes blocking, choreography and set movement notes on the music. Photo by Angelica Haggert.

The Performance

After rehearsals are done — the sets and built and painted, the costumes are made, the tickets are sold — after all of that, the cast finally delivers their show to an audience.

“Opening night, it’s always magic,” says Fazekas.

“When you come out and the audience gets it, you get a high off that that you can’t buy,” says Brown. “There isn’t $100 million that could ever… I can’t tell you what that does to the inside.”

Fazekas says the actors deserve the audience’s reaction after the long haul of rehearsing and preparing to perform. And Windsor-area audiences give these actors exactly what they need.

“Windsor is a great town. The whole area is really great,” says Fazekas. “I have never been part of a show where I felt that they’re not getting it. They’re (the audiences) always very warm and receptive of what we’re trying to present to them.”

Brown loves to give the audience that “little bit of magic.”

“Every day you walk out there and it’s a new audience and there might be somebody who has never been before,” says Brown.

Even with all those hours invested into each production, if theatre was his day job, Fazekas doesn’t think he’d like it nearly as much.

“This is what I do for fun,” says Fazekas. “If I had to work at it every single day because it was my job, I don’t know that I would have the same passion for it.”

For all of these people involved with community theatre, the commonality goes beyond just the stage. It’s that the reward for their hours of commitment is more than a paycheque — it’s a family.

“We’re a family because we’re all each other’s kind of crazy,” says Fazekas. “You come together with everyone that you’re cast with, because you all want to be there for a specific purpose.”

Though they may not end up on stage with each other for years at a time, or even at all, Fazekas says the flexibility of these friendships is something specific to theatre people.

“I think that kind of fluid friendship is something that’s really fascinating,” says Fazekas. “And something that maybe other people wouldn’t get to experience.

Opening Night

At time of publication, opening night for Singin’ in the Rain is just a few weeks away. The cast has rehearsed with the orchestra, the costumes have arrived and been fitted. Fazekas spent six hours one night painting umbrellas with glitter. Someone had to do it.

The show is almost ready.

Will you be in the audience?

Angelica Haggert
By Angelica Haggert April 21, 2018 17:25

Latest TV Broadcast

MediaPlex Live @ 1

MediaPlex News Now

Get Social!

Follow us, Like us, Love us, Watch us, Plus!

CAPSTONE PROJECTS 2017-2018