Mark Critch was 15 years old when he got his first paying gig on the main stage at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, as an actor in a production of Kevin Major’s coming-of-age novel “Hold Fast” directed by Pete Soucy.
Critch has never been far from that stage ever since, whether it was performing with Rising Tide Theatre or hosting fundraising concerts with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.
Some of the theatre staff he met as a teenager — including technical manager Karl Simmons and stage manager Dave Hewitt — still work at the ACC, and Critch often bumps into them, never forgetting, he said, how they inspired him when he was starting out.
“Their professionalism and guidance really set a bar for me,” Critch says. “They treated me at 15 the same way they treated anyone, from Buddy Wasisname to Reveen.”
Three years after his original performance, Critch was cast in the lead role of “Tomorrow Will Be Sunday,” Rising Tide’s reinterpretation of the very first show to have ever been produced on the main stage at the ACC, in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary.
“The director was a much-lauded director from Montreal named Guy Sprung,” Critch recalls. “He advised me afterwards to move away and go to theatre school. I said, ‘Why would I move away when I can learn from these people here?’ I couldn’t imagine a better place to perform or a better group of people to learn from.”
Critch is one of many treasures of the local arts community to have gotten a start at the ACC, and one of thousands of St. John’s residents to have grown up as patrons, their first experiences with the venue as children counting the twinkling star lights in the theatre on a trip to see Raffi or Mr. Dressup, or maybe as visitors to the children’s library.
Another of those people is Aiden Flynn — actor, theatre director and current director of the arts and culture centres in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Flynn’s first professional contact with the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre as a performer was in the Basement Theatre (now the Barbara Barrett Theatre), where he says he worked on projects and tried out new pieces for the first time before a non-university audience alongside colleagues such as Petrina Bromley, Ruth Lawrence, Danielle Irvine, Janet Edmonds and Robert Chafe.
“That was a really valuable experience,” Flynn says.
So, too, was his experience with the arts and culture centres’ touring program, which allowed him and others to see the province, sometimes for the first time.
Could that have inspired a shift in the theatre work being produced locally?
It’s possible, Flynn says.
“It made everybody more comfortable being on the road. The possibility is that it made us more worldly and kind of opened peripherals. I think the other thing it might have done was allowed us to see ourselves in the context of the province, and probably fed a lot of the writing that happened, too. We were writing songs and stories, not only about St. John’s but about what we saw (across the province).”
A number of arts organizations have fostered a close relationship with the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre over the years — the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, for instance, and Kittiwake Dance Theatre, among others — but one of the longest standing is Rising Tide, which brought its show “Terese’s Creed” to the Basement Theatre in 1979. Many traditional plays followed.
“I remember an opening night, Joey (Smallwood) and John Crosbie, arch enemies, in opposing boxes in the theatre,” says Donna Butt, co-founder and artistic director of Rising Tide, laughing. “Back in those days you could do a lot of different things. It was very exciting and the place was packed.”
Rising Tide’s political satirical romp “Revue” opened at the St. John’s ACC in 1984, with three sold-out shows. A couple of years later, Butt says, the centre offered to tour the show, which is still wildly popular — not an easy trip to this day, with a dozen performers on the road in the middle of winter.
“When we worked on that relationship, it was partly about getting Newfoundland plays on the stage,” Butt told The Telegram. “I think when the ACC opened, there were very strong feelings in the arts community that we really wanted to express the Newfoundland story. Alongside that, it was about finding our own voices. There was also a really strong feeling that Newfoundland had been swamped with Confederation, that our own culture was being lost.”
The ACC, Butt says, represented a kind of enemy at the time, something that didn’t necessarily depict Newfoundland culture. It was a common general sentiment from the beginning, but barriers were gradually broken down.
“I remember as a kid, before I started work here, all the editorials in the papers were basically about the white elephant that Joey Smallwood was building up by Memorial (University), and that nobody in Newfoundland would use this place because it was too elitist, too big,” says Karl Simmons. “How would we ever get 1,000 people to come and view something? Fast forward to today and we can’t keep up with the bookings — there’s a lineup of people looking to book shows here.”
That’s the biggest challenge when it comes to running the centre these days, Flynn says — making sure organizations like Rising Tide and the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra are balanced with other smaller, newer or more amateur groups.
“There are really well-oiled theatrical machines running off the main stage now, and they’re producing amazing work and it’s of really high calibre,” Flynn says. “The problem that we have is making sure that we find the time for everybody to get access to it. On top of the great local productions that are happening, we want to have engagements with musicians, we want to have engagements with dancers, we want to make sure it’s at various levels.”
Flynn also wants the public to feel a sense of ownership over the place.
The benefits of a venue like the ACC aren’t just economic, he says, and he feels its presence is just as important in the community as a police station or hospital or school.
“The arts and culture centres are, to me, as necessary as any bridge or ferry,” Critch says. “Each one of those famous lights could represent a thousand lives touched by performances witnessed on that stage.”