Remaining true

Jeff Elliott
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Gros Morne Theatre Festival kicks off 18th year with three new plays

Stuart Simpson and Jenn Furlong shown in a scene from Theatre Newfoundland Labrador's production of Jim Cartwright's hillarious comedy "Two", playing until Sept. 14 at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cow Head.

"As beautiful as our scenery is, as wonderful as our Jiggs Dinner is, as sublime as our Irving Stations are - it's the culture you want to experience," said Jeff Pitcher, Artistic Director of Gros Morne Theatre Festival.

In a recent statement, he promised a season of professional Newfoundland performers telling stories, singing songs and rejoicing in their birthright.

"[The festival] is a professional Newfoundland and Labrador theatre company with world-class quality entertainment presenting six plays, with more than 160 performers and over 30 artists celebrating our culture, heritage and stories."

It began on May 31 with a tremendous outpouring of accolade from opening-night attendees, who piled into the quaint Warehouse Theatre to watch 'Two', one of three new plays to take the main stage in Cow Head this season.

Written by British Playwright Jim Cartwright and directed by Michael Waller, 'Two' is a fast-paced comedic depiction of lively bar banter set in a Northern England pub in 1989. A bickering landlord and landlady welcome audience members, before inviting them on a dialogue-fueled tour through the pub, which is filled to the brim with "sparkling comical characters, sparring couples and lovelorn singles," as the synopsis states.

From there, amidst stories unfolding and re-told memories, a fractured relationship is discovered underneath the light-hearted repartee.

"For the opening show we had 82 people in the audience - it was neat to open to an almost full house," said General Manager of Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador Gaylene Buckle.

The festival, which is celebrating its 18th year, will run until Sept 13 and with an impressive line-up of new plays and the return of dedicated favorites - such as the long-running 'Sinking of the SS Ethie'- individuals have been steadfast in booking ahead of time this year, said Buckle.

She acknowledged that individuals are coming to Newfoundland and Labrador with the theatre adding to the allure of visiting this province. As a result, the company has had nearly 2,000 reservation requests before the box office even opened.

"Our numbers have remained about the same for the past three years," said Buckle. "We end up having to turn away a lot of people - upwards of 800 people each year -- because we either don't have enough seats or because there is a lack of accommodation in the region and people end up cancelling their tickets or neglecting to book because there's nowhere for them to stay."

She said there are generally two shows running each night: one takes place at the Warehouse Theatre Main Stage, which seats 96 people; and the other takes place at the Shallow Bay Motel Conference Room, a venue that seats 90.

With the attraction of new shows - including the lyrical adaptation of Al Pittman's writings, 'With Cruel Times in Between', a play that has toured quite extensively across Newfoundland (and has even found its way to Tasmania) - she said they are trying to address the issues this year by offering a shuttle bus service upon request that makes a return trip from Rocky Harbor and Norris Point to Cow Head.

As for the material chosen each year for the festival, Buckle said it's impossible to tend to everyone's tastes.

"We wouldn't be who we are if we tried to please everyone," she said. "Every audience member is not going to love every play but if we feel proud that we've done the best that we can do, with our resources and with our time, then that's enough."

Over the years, such material has caused the development of a dedicated provincial audience, according to Buckle.

In the earlier years, when the attendance rates were lower, festivalgoers were mostly non-residents, she said. For the past few years, however, there is an even-split between residents and those from out-of-province.

"Whatever we do in Cow Head our mandate is to produce theatre that is relevant to our people - we produce shows with our local audience in mind so that, when we take those plays to the World stage, what they're seeing is us," she said. "The plays speak very much to who we are; to our lifestyle, our culture, and to our people -- and we remain true."

jeff.elliott@northernpen.ca

Organizations: Gros Morne Theatre, Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador Gaylene Buckle, Warehouse Theatre Main Stage

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Cow Head, Northern England Tasmania

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