A Canadian Icon Graces the Highlands Summer Festival Stage

You may have noticed that we haven’t said a great deal here about the appearance of Don Harron and his partner Claudette on the Highlands Summer Festival stage this past Monday and Tuesday.

We weren’t being coy or overlooking his presence in this year’s program on purpose. It was just that with both performances sold out in late January, we didn’t want to be fanning the flames and raising the hopes of those without a ticket.

Rarely does the Highlands Summer Festival have a complete sell-out, including the back row of seats we like to refer to as Producers’ Row. These seats are generally not offered for sale and are used by staff. But that was not the case both Monday and Tuesday nights. Even Producers’ Row, with its compromised sight lines was filled with ticketed patrons.

The audiences were amply rewarded as they watched a veteran of 75 years in the entertainment business…..Don Harron started when he was ten years of age….took to the stage. It was a treat to be in the same room with a man whose performing arts resume is as lengthy and as outstanding as his.

Of course, we all remember him as Charlie Farquharson, a character he developed in the annual satirical revue of the 1950’s, Spring Thaw. Most, however would know Charlie from his appearances on the US comedy program, Hee Haw.

And while the bumbling farmer from Parry Sound is still his signature piece, Don Harron has so much more to his performing credits, including a host of television dramatic roles, acting on Broadway and off-Broadway plays, being a part of the company that started the Stratford Shakespeare Festival over 50 years ago and the man who wrote the libretto for the musical adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, now in its 46th year. Along the way he has written numerous book, most under Charlie’s pen name, but a few serious volumes as well.

At 85 years of age, Don Harron is truly an icon of Canadian performing arts and a national treasure. He is a man who revels in the opportunity to entertain and has the graciousness to spend time with audience members after the performance, signing books or just chatting.
It was a delight to have Charlie and the equally charming Claudette on our stage, if only for two performances this past week. Our only regret is that we could not have shared the experience with more of our audience members

Woof Woof for Sylvia – a Kooky Canine Romp Through the Looking Glass of Life

Here is what the Haliburton County Voice (www.countyvoice.ca)
had to say about the Highlands Summer Festival’s second dramatic production, Sylvia:

Seamus O’Bradaigh

Hear the one about the dyslexic atheist? Doesn’t believe in Dog.

Dyslexic atheists might have a bone to pick with Sylvia, but you won’t find their ilk anywhere in the barking mad Haliburton Highlands – heavenly haven to a committed cognoscente of canine canoodlers. Ignore the howling heathens; and run as quick as your four – er – two legs will carry you; run fast like a whippet; finagle a ticket; bribe the concierge in the lobby at Haliburton’s Northern Lights Pavilion of the Performing Arts.

That’s where you’ll find Sylvia, a charmingly neurotic, esoteric and entirely delightful dog who, like most dogs we know, carry secrets, wonders and special gifts of healing and rejuvenation, drawn unerringly from their unique tail-wagging capacity for unconditional love.

Sylvia emerges in the opening act as benign deus ex machina. A dog warp-wrapped in human form. A canny canine and a perplexing Heinz 57 mixture of passion, piss and pop-eyed vinegar; Sylvia is a sumptuous soul wrought from the fertile and spark-addled synapses that click like pin-balls in the wonderfully eclectic mind of playwright A.R. Gurney.

Sylvia is a stray, who suddenly and profoundly wheedles her way into the lives of Kate and Greg, a newly transplanted middle-aged couple from the New York suburbs, adjusting to their new life in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Kate (played lovingly by Lesley English), armed with a recently acquired MA in English, is ready to embark on a new career, teaching Shakespeare to middle school kids in Harlem. Greg (played by the effervescent Brian Kipping) is in the middle of a mid-life crisis and is disenchanted, drifting, and devoid of compass. His corporate sales job in the banking industry was manageable when they were raising their kids in suburbia.

The kids are in college, Kate has developed a sinecure of her own; and Greg is in search of something, anything to draw his focus from boardroom to broader horizon. Enter Sylvia (Jocelyn Regina), a discombobulated bundle of fun Greg picks up in the park one day while cadging an extended lunch. He’s had an argument with his boss Harold, and is sitting on a park bench when Sylvia lands, quite literally, in his lap. She has a single tag on her collar embossed with her name. Enamored, smitten, and in love, Greg brings her home to the apartment – and Kate, who is neither smitten nor enamored of this huge infringement on her privacy.

Ahh, what a sweet collision.

Sylvia prompts the inevitable romantic triangle. Greg sees it as win-win. Kate at one poignant point in the play, says that Sylvia is chomping a serious hole in their 22-year marriage.

See Sylvia run; see Sylvia chase red ball; see Sylvia sit; see Sylvia strut smooth and slinky in black low cut evening gown; see Sylvia swear like a drunken sailor on shore leave in Singapore? Whoooa! Down Sylvia, down! Okay, so Dr. Seuss it ain’t. Thank Dog for that.

If you like metaphor you’ll love Sylvia. If you love irony you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be swept away. If you flunked English, but love a good raunchy comedy that tousles your head and rubs you ecstatically just behind the ears – and elsewhere – you will find common ground in this tale about all kinds of love. This play weaves its rich, wonderful and convoluted magic on many levels.

The sincere art had the opening night crowd at Northern Lights pawing the air, rolling over, and clapping their paws. Almost hearkening a seminal Oscar moment: “They like me! They really, really like me!”

Two thumbs for the stunningly stylish siren: Sylvia. And bravo for those equally ambiguous owners, Kate and Greg, two iconoclasts seeking something. The something is not Sylvia, or at least not the transmogrified Sylvia played so marvelously by Jocelyn. The something they’re seeking is deeper, and more manifest; they are seeking solace for the dwindling years, and the effect time’s passage wreaks on marriage, and life. Kipping and English are marvelous as the discombobulated couple struggling to place face on their relationship. We know they will find it through Sylvia.

But how?

Ahh, there’s the rub.

Sylvia. Catalyst, conduit, or crass interloper?

Thankfully and thoughtfully, Gurney, a uniquely talented master of dialogue and the sharp aside, has left room for interpretation. We relate to her charming owners. We fall in love with the puppy. And we howl like the Baskervilles at Gurney’s triple foil: pot-smoking dog park philosopher and book club of the month aficionado Tom; Phyllis, the whiskey swilling socialite with an unabridged gamut of Upper West Side neuroses; and Dr. Leslie, the ambiguous, analgesic and androgynous Demerol and Psilocybin enhanced shrink. There are a myriad of reasons for the gales of laughter that accompanies the three characters – they are all played by Jocelyn’s dad, the reigning master of Haliburton summer theater, Tom Regina. Tom is the bomb in all three roles. Two are played in drag, but Dr. Leslie is redundant enough to defy description. Let’s just say she adheres to neither Jung nor Freud. Dr. Leslie is more Gaga but the Lady part must alas wait; for the mandatory Olympic drug tests.

There is no risk of Tom upstaging his daughter, who absolutely stole the hearts and made off with the fricasseed minds of the patrons on opening night.

Sylvia can be played in different ways by different actors. Some directors taper the on stage manifestations and movements to the actress they’re working with. Director Laurence Follows is a member of the first family of Canadian theater and the brother of Megan Follows. He’s a well known Canadian director and established one of the country’s most successful and commercial theater companies, a troupe responsible for opening the Panasonic Theater on Yonge in Toronto. He is also a renowned acting coach, mentor and muse. Follows said just prior to the play on Monday evening that he gave Jocelyn room to grow with the role. She plays it just as I would – and do every day with my own dog Billie Jean O’Bradaigh – wide open. She rolls over, catches doggie treats in her mouth and searches on all fours for those “f-ing cats” that have, says Sylvia, been messing with dogs since the dawn of time. She leaps on visitors and even smells the inviting crotch of Phyllis. Sending Phyllis into shaking guzzles of medicinal scotch from the bottle. Just another night at the Regina household? Probably not, but oh what a beautiful dance.

The audience clearly enjoyed the sweet play within the play and like Tom and Jocelyn, just rolled with it, into the aisles.

Sylvia is a winner, and as a New York Times reviewer said in an original synopsis, probably one of the most critic proof and enduring plays written by Gurney. It is, as it has always been – since it opened on Broadway in the mid-nineties with Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role – an utterly delightful romp through the dog park and poop-filled corridors of our unadorned, raw and manic psyches.

Follows showed an impeccable feel for character development. And he allowed Jocelyn the freedom to work with the role.

Over the top? Never. We like our dogs witty, wonderful and wise. And scratchy, sheddy, and gas-passing. And I’m pretty sure that everyone fell in love with Sylvia Monday night.

Kudos to Greg and Kate, who find fulfillment and love and rejuvenation.

We won’t spoil the ending. Suffice to say. If you weren’t reaching for a hankie, you don’t know dogs.

We’re all just a little wiser and happier for knowing Sylvia.

Now, up boys and girls! Stand up for Sylvia, dammit!

Good boys! Good girls. Here’s a treat. No wait … you just got it!

SYLVIA By A. R. Gurney; directed by Laurence Follows; sets by Lynne Hyde; costume designer, Melissa Stephens; lighting by Craig Saunders; sound John Page; production stage manager, Jenna Dibblee. WITH: Jocelyn Regina (Sylvia), Brian Kipping (Greg), Lesley English (Kate) and Tom Regina (Tom/Phyllis/ Leslie)
Presented by Highlands Summer Festival, artistic producer; Scot Denton, president, Jack Brezina.

Sylvia Barks Up a Laugh

Here is what the Haliburton Echo had to say about Sylvia in its July 20, 2010 edition:

By Angelica Blenich

Sylvia is man’s best friend.

A delightful and delicious dog, played by theatre veteran Jocelyn Regina, Sylvia is the heart and title of a vibrant new comedy currently playing at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion as part of the Highlands Summer Festival.

Running from now until July 30, the heartwarming tale features a married couple, Greg and Kate, who decide to adopt a dog for a short period of time only to discover Sylvia may be more than they bargained for. [Editor’s note, the play includes adult language and a mature subject and is not suitable for young ages.]

A play about the relationship between a man and his four-legged friend, Sylvia is a complex study of human emotions and opportunities. Through the eyes of a dog and her masters, the audience witnesses to the true meaning of love in all its forms.

A dog’s life however, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Just ask Regina.

A musical theatre performance student entering her final year of studies at Sheridan College, Regina is no stranger to Haliburton or the summer festival. Currently in her 10th season with the festival, Regina believes taking on the role of a canine was a lot for her to chew.

“It’s a really interesting challenge,” said Regina on what drew her to the character of Sylvia. “It’s not something you have the opportunity to do a lot of so I was excited to have such a big role to focus on and work on.

“At school we do so much scene study where you only do one scene from the show and then you have to move onto the next class because everything moves so fast. We don’t get the opportunity to work on something so in depth for such a long period of time.”

Regina’s first ties to the Highlands Summer Festival came when she was only a child, thanks to some strong family connections.

“I started to become involved with the festival by doing front of house and stage crew when I was young,” said Regina. “My parents were some of the founding members of the festival, so I’ve been going to see shows ever since it has started as well as being involved.

“The opportunities I’ve had here have been amazing and definitely helped me develop and grow as an actress and realize this is what I’m really passionate about.”

Although having the honour of playing the title character, Regina believes there is more to the play than just a dog.

“The show’s name is Sylvia but it really is an ensemble production,” said Regina. “There are only four members in the cast and the relationship between the husband and wife is one of the main points of the play, as well as the relationship between the dog and husband, her owner.

“They go through a lot of stuff during the course of the show and I think it’s really moving,” said Regina.

Under the direction of Laurence Follows, a member of one of Canada’s most prestigious theatrical families, Sylvia was brought to new levels.

A part-time resident of Haliburton, this was the first time he became involved with the festival.

Follows, who teaches at the University of Toronto, was connected to the festival through artistic producer Scot Denton, however his first encounter with the festival happened under a peculiar set of circumstances.

“I went for a walk one day through the woods and found an old logger’s path,” said Follows. “I noticed someone had built a new home and went to look at it thinking no one had moved in yet. Wrong! The people were there and it ended up being Betty and David [Mills] who are involved with the festival. We sat down and started chatting and that’s how I started getting involved, through trespassing!”

The experience of directing Sylvia, said Follows, was both professionally challenging and life changing.

“The play is quite popular as it’s done quite a bit,” said Follows. “It was really a fantastic experience. I’ve worked a long time in professional theatre but there was something really extra special about this.

“You work with people where this is not their profession. They have a lot of other things they have to do. They came in with a kind of dedication and work ethic in the hopes to make that play the best they possibly could and surrounded by a community of people who went above and beyond what you could even ask for in professional theatre.

“What was really thrilling for me was that it went beyond the play. It was an expression of the community.

“The actors worked really hard to communicate that play in a way that would influence and entertain and move and inspire the community. They’re really doing it to make a difference.”

For Regina, it was the dedication and work ethic that Follows had that made the difference.

“He has such high expectations and such a commitment to excellence,” said Regina. “He knows what he wants and he doesn’t let you get away with anything. He’s always pushing and has brought the level of this play to new levels.

“I’m really happy to be working with him because I felt really inspired all summer. It’s work but it’s a lot of fun too.”

Apart from the theatrical opportunity, Follows admits the play and the festival changed his perspective of Haliburton.

“For me I went from someone who was living up here part-time and loving it to someone who now has a community,” said Follows. “You feel like you’re at home.”

Unforgettable Experience for Mother & Daughter Duo

The following article appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the Haliburton Echo:

By Darren Lum

For the mother and daughter team of Myrna MacBrien and Annie MacBrien-Lyons The Goodbye Girl musical was a perfect fit.

With the premise of the single mother, working in the theatre arts it was more than just uncanny that they would get the opportunity to act with each other in the Highlands Summer Festival play, running now until July 16.

“It’s just weird that Annie happened to be the right age and I happened to be in the right situation,” she said.The Grade 7/8 teacher has been involved with theatre and is raising her 10-year-old daughter in a way quite similar to the play’s premise.

Unlike strangers this team already knew what to expect from each other (for the most part) and it makes the acting experience far more relaxed.

“It makes things easier. I don’t have to worry about her because she is here. She is so experienced. I don’t have to worry about her getting her props or her costumes. She knows what to do so it is actually a lot easier,” she said.

Usually actors use the rehearsals leading up to a performance to make the necessary connections, said her co-star Matt Selby, who was a little envious of the existing bond between the mother and daughter duo.

“It’s the hardest thing for an actor. Some are very natural at creating a bond right away,” he said. “Luckily in the rehearsal period you get to create that bond and usually by opening night you’re good.”

Although this isn’t the first time the mother and daughter have shared the stage, the two got the opportunity to act opposite of each other, which taught MacBrien that her daughter could not only act well, but could learn the script lines better than her.

“That was a bummer. She picked it up so fast and I didn’t,” she said.

Through rehearsals MacBrien was often left surprised by how talented her daughter is and said it took great effort to not break from character to scream it aloud.

Annie always knew her mother could dance, but was given a real showcase of her talents and was impressed she said.

The first time they shared the stage was when Annie was three-years-old. For the single mother it started as a way to remain with her daughter and to pursue her passion that started eight years ago in Scenes from my Dock in Gravenhurst.

MacBrien and her daughter, who used to live in Huntsville, are now residents of Oakville, but have been regular visitors to the area because of friends such as Sue Shikaze and Thom Lambert.

Years before MacBrien taught she worked at the Bark Lake Leadership Centre with Lambert and attended teachers’ college with Shikaze.

She has also worked with local singer and songwriter David Archibald over the years.

It’s the people and the place that has always stayed with her and keeps her coming back to Haliburton.

MacBrien isn’t sure if they’ll get another opportunity to share the stage in such a significant way, but will always remember acting with her daughter.

“You know when people take their family to Walt Disney World and it is that trip of a lifetime you’ll always remember it. It’s sort of like that for me. This is as I’ll always remember it for as long as I live.”

The Goodbye Girl delights opening audiences

The Highlands Summer Festival season is officially underway with the opening production of The Goodbye Girl kicking things off on Monday, July 5. This infectious musical captured the hearts of the audience as Paula, played by Myrna McBrien and Eliot played by Matt Selby, led a cast of over 20 through their paces.

The audience immediately responded to the great humour and music that fills the show. The play begins with the two principals at each others throats in the opening scenes. Their animosity melts into affection as they find they have more in common than they originally thought. The audience in particular loved the scene in which Elliot first proposes to Paula’s daughter as they float on the pond in central Park. Lucy is played Myrna’s real-life daughter Annie. Elliot wins the young girl’s approval and so, it is a musical after all, the boy gets the girl, but not before their relationship goes through one more crisis.

With a story by Neil Simon and music by Marvin Hamlisch, it is a sure-fire winner that has brought audiences to their feet each night since it opened.

The Goodbye Girl runs evenings at 8 p.m. until July 16, with a matinee on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Note the opening concert of the season, Summer Wind, is on Monday July 12. For tickets, call the box office at 705-457-9933.

Annual General Meeting, President’s Report

Highlands Summer Festival

Annual General Meeting

President’s Report

April 25, 2010

It was a pleasure, once again, to serve as the president of the Highland Summer Festival’s Board of Directors during the 2009 season. This past season was our tenth, an important milestone in a performing arts organization. I am aware of many theatre companies which barely lasted a season.

The anniversary was marked with a Gala evening just about a year ago today at which we reprised some of the outstanding performances of the past nine years and also provided a sneak preview of the 2009 season. For those who have been involved with the Festival since its inception and the many patrons who have been with us from the start, it was an enjoyable journey down memory lane.

The 2009 season was successful in many ways. Artistically the Festival presented some of the best theatre seen on the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion Stage. This was due in no small part to the dedication of our creative team led by Artistic Producer Scot Denton. Working with producers David Mills and Melissa Stephens, they created a delightful six weeks of live theatre and concerts.

Our association with the Highlands Opera Studio continues to grow as does this wonderful program under the guidance of Artistic Directors Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka. The Opera Studio, in its third year last season, is acquiring a reputation and recognition that will stand it is good stead as it evolves in the future.

Together, the Summer Festival and the Opera Studio attracted over 70% average attendance with many shows in the upper 80% range. We are pleased the attendance remains strong and among our loyal patrons we are encouraged to see many new faces as well.

Financially, the Highlands Summer Festival/Highlands Opera Studio managed to balance its books, barely, borrowing from an earlier surplus to cover a small deficit. As a not for profit, charitable organization, breaking even, to my mind, is a minimal expectation. Quite frankly, I would be more comfortable generating a modest surplus each season to set aside for contingencies or major capital expenditures. I am also very aware of the financial impact the company has on the community, with expenses and income approaching a half million dollars. We are a significant part of the summer economy in the Highlands.

Our strength continues to be the people attracted to Highlands Summer Festival, many of whom volunteer their time. Without their participation it would be difficult to mount as challenging a repertoire as we do each year. Hats off to those individuals, whose many and varied skills ensure the season unfolds as it should each year.

I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically acknowledge the hard work of two other key members of the management team.  Business manager Betty Mills, who multi-faceted involvement extends far beyond the parameters of those of a business manager, is key to the organization. As well, box office manager Jim Frost and his wife Marilyn continue to be our first line of contact with patrons. Jim manages tickets for over 40 performances and does a great job of making sure everyone gets the best seat possible.

We have just come throughout our first full year as a registered charitable company. I am fortunate to have a dedicated group of individuals who serve on the board of directors. Their guidance and involvement has helped ensure the success of this past season. My Thanks to Vice Chair Tammy Rea, Secretary Craig Saunders, Treasurer Paul Heffer and Directors Joan Chapple, Rob Eaton and Joan Hawley for their hard work last year and into this season, especially during my extended absence earlier this year.

Our patrons continue to support Highlands Summer Festival and the Highlands Opera Studio, not only by purchasing tickets, but through generous donations. Patron participation in Friends of the Highlands Summer Festival, donations of time and expertise, grants from various sources including Foundations, Businesses, the Haliburton County Development Corporation and the federal department of Human Resources Development helps make this one of the most vibrant summer theatre companies in the province.

Of course, live theatre thrives only when an audience is present. The many people who believe in what we do and attend the dramatic, concert and opera productions validate our efforts and help ensure the viability of the organization. In this digital age, live theatre is still an entrancing form of entertainment that continues to create magical moments that other forms of entertainment can’t seem to duplicate. We are grateful for the enthusiastic response of our audiences and rededicate ourselves to providing the best in live performances this summer and into the future.

Thank you all for another great season and we look forward to doing something dramatic again this summer.

Thank you.

Jack Brezina,

April 25, 2010