When you believe in something, it’s such a good feeling when someone else sees what you see. I’ve always known I wasn’t viewing my hometown of Gananoque through rose-coloured glasses and have loved watching the growth and character increase over the years. As someone who grew up here, it is sad to see certain buildings fall into disrepair, days ticking by and adding up until we become all too familiar with the empty structures, no longer able to remember their glory days. Needless to say it was exciting to hear that the Royal Theatre was coming to life inside the place I’ve personally only ever known as the town bowling alley….and the owners, Frayne McCarthy and Kevin John Saylor, are determined to bowl a strike (thanks to my dad I simply cannot resist a good pun when I see the opportunity!) I was invited to visit the Royal to experience a lovely piece of theatre called Souvenir, a heartwarming play brought to life by Nadia Verrucci and Chris Barillaro. Walking into the building was surreal and I could sense a level of comfort that yes, this is RIGHT. This is the form that should be honoured, a place for artistic expression and cultural immersion. It is meant to have a stage….and a full house! Though the hard work isn’t over yet, it’s amazing what has been accomplished to date and I am thrilled for what’s to come.
What can you tell us about the state of the building when you took ownership?
Frayne: The state of the building when we first visited? Well, to begin with, the first thing we noticed from the outside was that there were tarps on the roof… many plastic tarps on the roof!
Kevin: We immediately deduced that there was an issue with the roof’s integrity and that there were likely leaks from the rain and melting snow, and that easy guess was confirmed when we came into the building. You could smell the dampness as you came in.
Frayne: Walking up a soggy carpet to the main level, we came to the principal area of the bowling centre, where two lanes were closed due to flooding. With its water-stained dropped-ceiling and garish fluorescent lights brightening the lanes, gutters, pins and ball-returns, it was hard to imagine that this building was originally conceived for live performance.
Kevin: Having no interest in purchasing a bowling business, we were there to assess the possibility of returning this building to its original theatrical vocation, but because of so many years of obvious neglect, we almost walked away from it.
Why this building? Why Gananoque?
Frayne: Ultimately, we wanted this building because, despite its era as a bowling centre, the property’s original vocation, the purpose for which The Royal Theatre Thousand Islands was carefully designed by the Delaney family in the first place, was for live performance. It was a Vaudeville Theatre!
Kevin: This is not a church or a grocery store that we were considering retrofitting to our creative purpose; this was actually a real theatre buried under a retrofit for a bowling alley! We could see that… but we wondered how much work and what kind of resources would be needed to rescue the Royal.
Frayne: Kevin and I aren’t tradesmen, particularly young, and neither are we monetarily wealthy, so we had to ask ourselves if this was even feasible. But you just had to look at the building properly, and use a little imagination, to know that the heart of a theatre was still beating within its walls.
Kevin: Now, the location of Gananoque and the remarkable beauty of the town and its community had not yet sunk in.
Frayne: Kevin established and ran a wonderful performing arts program in Kahnawake, the Mohawk reservation where he was raised, for twenty amazing years. It had just closed, and we were looking at options to open a new theatre in the Montreal area.
Unfortunately, everything was simply too costly. Then, I proposed that it might be a good idea to turn the page completely, and start fresh in Ontario. It was November when Kevin found the “Delaney Bowl” on a real estate listing site online. We called a real-estate agent friend, and we took a little road trip!
As I mentioned, that first visit was a little disheartening. The building was in terrible condition, and the bowling alley retrofit had all but obliterated the original theatre interior… but we were with a real estate agent friend who suggested we grab some dinner and talk about what we’d just looked at. We took a window seat in a small local restaurant. As we talked about the pros and cons of the property we’d just visited, something unexpected happened. A crowd seemed to be gathering on the street outside, and then, kind of magically, the local Santa Claus parade rolled by, and it was a spirited and joyful event. We knew then that this was a community we would want to become a part of. Gan, as many residents call it, is truly a wonderful town.
Kevin: Of course, just liking a town, appreciating its character and residents, doesn’t necessarily make it a good place to start a new business. However, we did perform a formal Federally-approved feasibility study to ascertain that our business plan for Gananoque could work. The study was glowingly in favour of success! Gananoque is already the home of the well-established Thousand Islands Playhouse, running two terrific venues, the Springer and Firehall theatres, so the town is already an Arts destination. And then consider the incredible natural beauty of the Thousand Islands themselves, which draw thousands of tourists from all over the world, and attract summer residents who consider Gan their home base. Add to that the fact that geographically this picturesque town, which is full of shops, galleries, great restaurants, pubs and bistros featuring live entertainment, many hotels, and world-class B&B accommodations, is located just off Highway 401, and is an amazing hub, surrounded by two World Cities (Toronto and Montreal), the Nation’s Capital (Ottawa), Kingston, Brockville, many other satellite communities, and with New York just across the river!
Frayne: We discovered that Gananoque, Thousand Islands is the best-located entertainment destination in Ontario! The potential for Gananoque to become one of Canada’s greatest theatre towns, with three fully-operational performance venues, an outdoor amphitheatre, and two gazebos suitable for entertainment, is certainly there to be developed! With a little vision, and some understanding of the Arts as an industry, Gananoque has the potential to be the new Stratford!
Kevin: We’re better situated than both Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, if you really think about it. We just need to recognize what we have here, and start to appreciate the potential for success.
So much heart and soul has gone into making the Royal Theatre show-ready, what are some moments you’ve had along the way that have filled your heart?
Kevin: The most important and heart-warming part of the long process has been how this project has brought volunteers to the Royal and into our lives. It was as simple as saying “yes” when someone asked if they could help. These people have become our closest friends and they are the heart and soul of the Royal. This really is a theatre that was made possible through their considerable efforts and generosity. We are forever grateful to our volunteers, and we still welcome anyone who wants to become a part of the “Royal Family”!
Frayne: I’d also like to share a little story about a friend in Ottawa who started something amazing that really helped us to gain momentum and credibility. Marie Claude Bourque is a fellow actor whom I had not seen in many years. She was following our progress with the Royal on Facebook with some interest. She said “I want to help”, and I simply said “yes.” What she did was gather together an amazing creative team to put on a 25th Anniversary Les Misérables Cast Reunion concert to benefit the Royal Theatre Thousand Islands! We had both performed in the world premiere French-language production of the show. Marie Claude and her incredible team succeeded in bringing together most of the original cast, a large choir, and wonderful musicians to all donate their talents and efforts to the cause. They booked the magnificent Rialto Theatre in Montreal, coordinated an astounding publicity campaign, and put on a sold-out show that was widely recognized as the theatre event of the year in Montreal, drew attention to our project, and provided a large donation that was incredibly timely.
Kevin: That event and the large donation were dam breakers for us. We were seeking funding from certain agencies that were looking for various indications of the reasonableness of our plans. That magnificent event and large donation were a great signal to the agencies that we were embarking on a legitimate business in the realm of performing arts.
What is your biggest vision for the Royal Theatre?
Kevin: Success would be for Gananoque to really embrace this theatre industry, and bring the thriving tourist business down at the waterfront up into the town itself. I would like to see the Royal help to make all local businesses thrive. But I suppose the biggest vision for the Royal would be to know that it is wanted and appreciated and growing. I hope that the Royal brings joy to many people.
Frayne: Success would be to simply operate a theatre that presents good entertainment, which also manages to pay us back some kind of salary too. We don’t need much, but we’d like to be able to make our own ends meet while being a vital part of a growing theatre scene in Eastern Ontario.
Why is it so important to give local artists and creatives a special place to showcase their talents?
Frayne: We came from the Montreal area, where we noticed a sad trend. Independent theatre companies are constantly flourishing, especially with each new crop of graduates from the various university and college theatre programs in the city. These new actors graduate from school, but as they are not yet in the actors’ unions, they are unable to work unless they produce themselves. So, with limited means, they do produce themselves, presenting some very exciting theatre in some very ad-hoc spaces.
Kevin: When producing oneself, renting a “real” theatre is usually simply too expensive for a lot of talent to even consider. Unconventional spaces are now being crudely retrofitted to become theatre venues with varying degrees of success… and even they are expensive. But we got to know one theatre owner in Montreal who proposed a bold deal to anyone interested in using his classic restored theatre. He offered his hall, his equipment, even his staff, for half of the box-office take. It was a dream deal for many performing artists and independent theatre companies. We decided to use his model.
Frayne: The Royal’s in-house production company takes care of providing the Royal theatre itself, our equipment (maybe even props, costumes, or set pieces we have can be used), we help with publicity, and we even have our generous group of volunteers ready to perform front-of-house duties. The Artists bring the show and also work on publicity. In the end, we share the net box-office proceeds 50/50 after tax.
Kevin: And, as our concept was inspired by observing the need for theatrical venues for local independent talent in Montreal, we hope that the Royal will be a boon to local talent here as well. We are not looking to import shows from far away. We consider our “region” to include all of Eastern Ontario, and reach as far as Montreal. Obviously, we hope that, as we get to know the talent in the region, an increasing number of acts we host on the Royal stage will come from right here in Gananoque.
As you know, Arrow It Forward features women entrepreneurs (well, up to this point, congrats on being the first men! Note to my readers: Kevin and Frayne support so many women entrepreneurs and help them flourish…that’s my justification for “straying” and I’m stickin’ to it!) Can you list some notable ladies that you’ve crossed paths with at the theatre? And what about on the upcoming lineup?
Kevin: Women are people. We’re all just people. Artists are men and women, and any variation of gender or race or culture that exists. We’ve crossed paths and enjoyed working with many notably talented people, and many of them happen to be women. Frayne mentioned Marie-Claude Bourque specifically. She is a successful entrepreneur, who owns and operates the Opus Academy of music in the Orleans area of Ottawa (http://www.opusacademy.ca/Opus_Academy/newDesign/mobile/ ). To begin to list others would perhaps be unfair because we could not include the huge number of women who have been important in our theatre lives.
Frayne: Our upcoming lineup is always being discovered, and we are presently looking into who might want to present their work on the Royal Stage next Spring and Summer. We are also looking forward to enjoying working with some of Gananoque’s home talent for some upcoming plays, including an evening of comedic one-acts, and a production of “A Christmas Carol” which will feature authentic Victorian era music. And we are also excited to welcome back Turpin’s Trail for a Holiday Concert, featuring original songs from their new Christmas album!
Has theatre always been a part of your life?
Kevin: It has always been my dream to be an actor, and I knew I wanted to pursue my ambition from a very early age. I’ve been lucky to have received a very good theatre education, mostly in New York, and I was working as an actor in New York City until I came home to be with my parents through their respective battles with cancer. I then stayed in Canada, on the reservation, where I founded Turtle Island Theatre which I ran for 20 years.
Frayne: Kevin has four Theatre degrees, including his Masters, and a Fellowship Degree from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He also has a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada for his contribution to the Arts in Canada. Kev doesn’t toot his own horn very much.
Kevin: And Frayne has an international career as an actor, having performed in both French and English throughout Europe and across Canada. And he’s a playwright, and a painter.
Frayne: When I was younger, the possibility of being an actor seemed impossible, so I dismissed it. I always felt empathy for the characters I saw in films, but I never imagined I could explore a career as an actor… so, I pursued visual arts instead. Thank goodness, I eventually found my way onstage. Theatre is home.
If someone wants to perform at the Royal Theatre, how should they go about this?
Kevin: They just need to contact us.
Frayne: Pitch us your piece, and describe how complete the project is. The Artists are their own producers, basically, so we are looking for a package that just needs a nice venue and some encouraging support! Call us or write us, or even drop in to the Royal!
When jumping into entrepreneurship, there is often much hesitation, often one too many soft bounces on the diving board…. what advice can you offer to someone who is currently in that state of mind?
Frayne: First, be sure you know how to swim. Is this a business you really know, and are confident you can make work? Then, test the waters. We commissioned a feasibility study to determine that Gananoque was the right location for us. And watch out for sharks, crocodiles and alligators! Sometimes the very people you think should be in a position to help you have other agendas that hamper your progress. Seek out trustworthy advisors, and be ready to invest in professional legal assistance.
Kevin: Our advisors have been invaluable. We’ve been so fortunate to have people with valuable areas of expertise join us and champion us. An entrepreneur who may face unexpected push-back from powers-that-be will need moral support and guidance from the right people. Get to know your community, be welcoming to those who truly can help, but be careful where you place your trust.
Frayne: You are obviously presenting a diving analogy, Emily, and it would be easy to say “take the plunge.” But I suppose what we’re suggesting, based on our own experience, is to stop the soft-bouncing, get off the diving board altogether, and then wade into the water instead. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid eventually getting in over your head, but if you’ve taken some good lessons and you aren’t swimming alone, your trustworthy friends and partners will try to make sure you don’t drown. With luck, your business will grow swimmingly.
Kevin: Maybe as the business grows, it might be fun to explore that diving board later on… but you don’t need it to get your feet wet at the start.
What is your next big priority with the Royal?
Kevin: One of the first things that attracted us to this building; one of the things that cried out to us that this was still a real theatre, was the imposing marquee. Right now, it’s like our grand marquee is dormant, waiting for us to restore and update it, so that its running lights can sparkle once again, as it announces the Royal as an exciting venue for the Performing Arts. But we’re not talking about slapping on a coat of paint. We need to bring the marquee back to life properly. It will be beautiful and practical… and it will be a very expensive undertaking. A fundraising campaign is presently being organized to assist us with this very project, and we are very grateful to everyone who is getting behind it and supporting our progress. This particular improvement to the Royal’s architectural facade may possibly be as important to our success as the interior improvements we’ve already made.
Frayne: And the restored Royal marquee will definitely help to bring people up to King Street once again. Imagine those elegant running lights, and the names of entertainers and plays illuminated to announce that the Royal is alive and thriving, right along with the Playhouse, and Gananoque’s wonderful restaurants, pubs, galleries, shops, hotels, and B&Bs. Enjoy the water, see the islands, then come up to the town and see what Gan really has to offer locals and visitors alike… and if you’re visiting, maybe stay awhile, friends. We have performers on at least four stages, and in every pub and bistro in town! Haven’t you heard? Gananoque is Ontario’s Best-Located Entertainment Destination!
Kevin: And that’s why we’re here!
Disclosure: This post was sponsored in collaboration with the Royal.
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