Theatre 'cultural star of downtown Courtenay'

RAINBOW YOUTH THEATRE had a big cast for Anne of Green Gables, just one of the many presentations at the Sid Williams Theatre. - PHOTO SUBMITTED
RAINBOW YOUTH THEATRE had a big cast for Anne of Green Gables, just one of the many presentations at the Sid Williams Theatre.
— image credit: PHOTO SUBMITTED

It's easy to take things for granted.

Like the glacier. I rarely think about it, but once in a while as I'm walking along Fifth Street, I'll glance up and think, "Wow, what a gorgeous chunk of ice."

It's the same with the Sid. Along with the Comox Valley Art Gallery, Courtenay Museum and library, it's a shining cultural star of downtown Courtenay. Still, I seldom consider the social, educational and economic impact the theatre has on the community.

And just as the glacier can be seen from many locations, so the Sid is used by people residing from Black Creek to Fanny Bay, the Village of Cumberland to Hornby Island and beyond.

In fact, statistics as of Dec. 31, 2011 show Courtenay patrons at 36 per cent, Comox at 21 per cent and the Comox Valley Regional District at 11 per cent. And nearly one-quarter of theatre users come from other areas of Vancouver Island and adjacent islands.

The theatre's roots stretch back to 1935 when newspaper owner E.W. Bickle built the Bickle Theatre on the corner of Fifth and Cliffe. Although it was primarily a movie house, live performances also graced the stage. But over time, the more lavish Palace Theatre a few blocks away attracted most of the action.

For a while the Bickle was used as an auction house but by the late 1960s the building was dilapidated and deserted.

Then George Hobson, mayor of Courtenay at the time, launched his Total Community Participation Project. Volunteers scrubbed, painted, patched and pried gum off seats to create a new Civic Theatre. In 1984 the facility was rechristened the Sid Williams Civic Theatre.

Today, the Sid is one of the busiest community theatres in B.C. "Even in these tough economic times, the theatre is being used 250 dates out of the year," notes general manager Deborah Renz.

A large part of the activity at the Sid is by local theatre user groups who receive booking preference and subsidized rates. The theatre also offers numerous educational opportunities such as work experience, job shadowing and outreach activities.

"A lot of local youth get some type of career training at the theatre," says Renz. "It's very well-connected with the community."

But as well as community productions, the theatre also brings in a diverse range of top quality entertainment from throughout Canada and internationally.

As well as providing an opportunity for local residents to see shows without forking over big bucks for a trip to Vancouver, these community and out of town acts generate an economic spinoff that makes a more-than-decent-sized splash in the local economy.

For local productions posters are printed, lumber and paint purchased to create sets, people buy gas, pay babysitters and often go out for dinner or coffee before or after the show. Out-of-town productions include expenditures such as accommodation and meals for performers.

And the Sid employs 18 to 20 full- and part-time staff who spend at least part of their earnings in the Comox Valley.

According to figures from the Canada Council for the Arts, 2.5 times the amount spent on ticket sales is a realistic estimate of the economic spinoff a performance generates in a community.

Based on that figure and excluding the cost of tickets, the one-day spinoff from the Arts Club Theatre's The Buddy Holly Story could have reached $53,000. The annual spinoff from Sid-presented events alone could hit half a million dollars, never mind the rental events on top of that.

But like many business and most arts organizations, the Sid is feeling a financial pinch.

"2007 was an economic high for the Comox Valley and a banner year for the theatre," says Renz. "But in 2008 the economy took a massive nosedive. Provincial and federal grants have been reduced to artists and arts organizations, yet costs are increasing."

As a gesture to support the community, the City of Courtenay decided to freeze rental rates and the Sid Williams Theatre Society decided to follow suit by not increasing their community booking fees.

"Our fees and level of service have remained the same but it's a challenge," says Renz. "A large cast production requires lots of technical support and front-of-house operations can be labour-intensive."

The theatre society hired a consultant to review and make recommendations regarding operating costs and the bottom line is the theatre can't trim costs any further without a reduction of services. So the theatre society is raising rental and and ticket handling fees and asking municipalities and the regional district for additional funding.

Increasing the ratio of commercial productions could generate more revenue for the theatre but many benefits to the community would be lost.

"The board of directors is looking at creative ways to fundraise," says Renz. "We're not the only arts organization facing these challenges; it's happening all across the province and country.

"Arts and culture adds so much to the vibrancy and vitality of a community," she adds. "It's difficult when funding is an issue."

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