The plays are the thing!
The upcoming 2012 season, the 30th for the Thousand Islands Playhouse in scenic Gananoque, Ontario, will be the last act for theatre founders Greg Wanless and Kathryn McKay. This husband-and-wife theatrical team will exit the stage with mixed emotions after what has been a remarkably successful run.
When the lights dim on the evening of May 11 at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario, it will mark the start of the swansong season for Artistic Director Greg Wanless, Arts’68, Artsci’82.
Wanless, now a long-time Queen’s Drama professor, founded the theatre company in 1982, and has spent the past three decades along with his wife who is the Associate Artistic Director, Kathryn MacKay, Artsci’82, building a company that has grown exponentially in both attendance and artistic reputation. The once smalltown summer theatre company that produced three plays for a total audience of fewer than 6,000 over 10 weeks in its first season, has grown to become an impressive and internationally known company.
The Playhouse now stages eight productions a year on its two stages, and its 26-week season attracts an audience of in excess of 50,000, a dramatic accomplishment by any standard.
The road to this success had more plot twists and turns than a Neil Simon comedy. After leaving Queen’s in 1968 without his degree, Wanless – a Brockville, Ontario, native, who started as a physics major – took to the stage as an itinerant actor before signing onto a five-year stint with the Stratford Festival. In 1981, he’d finished his run at Stratford and decided to see the world. He made it just 375 kilometres down the road, as far east as Kingston.
Back in the town where he spent his student days, he enrolled in an English course with Prof. Grant Sampson. “I spent a wonderful summer getting into literature,” says Wanless, “And I also met Kathryn [MacKay] the next fall in Drama210 – Theatre History.” The result truly became theatre history.
MacKay’s class had staged a play, and at the closing night party in early 1982, one of her classmates Jill Thomson, Artsci’82, approached Wanless. “What are you going to do next?” she challenged him.
“Open a theatre,” he replied.
“Gananoque,” he answered. He had acted for several summers in Gananoque tent theatre and knew the town well.
“As soon as I raise some money,” he replied, though he had no real plan in place.
“Well, I’ve got some money” Thomson replied. And that was the kick-start that set everything in motion.
Shortly after that, one very cold morning in February 1982, Wanless, who was an impoverished student and living in his housecoat to stay warm in a small, drafty apartment on Bagot Street, picked up the phone and began making calls in hopes of hustling up some support for his playhouse. First he called Gerry Tinlin, a friend, summer theatre buff, and local broadcaster, who would soon become a principal backer and a Playhouse booster. Then Wanless called Hal “Moose” McCarney, BA’52, a member of Queen’s Football Hall of Fame and a prominent Gananoque businessman to ask if he might be willing to help find some support for a new summer theatre in the town.
Wanless didn’t know it at the time, but he couldn’t have chosen a better potential patron than McCarney.It was noon when Wanless got off the phone after a long conversation with him, and a blizzard was raging outside, but Moose told Wanless to meet him in Gananoque at 1 pm. Shedding his housecoat, he hopped into his car and raced the 25 km east to Gananoque, where he discovered that McCarney had summoned members of the town’s Chamber of Commerce as well as other prominent residents to meet him. By the time their session together ended, Wanless had an additional $15,000 in pledges on the table. Within a week that amount had grown to $50,000, enough money for Wanless to start making some serious plans.
He needed a venue and the Gananoque Canoe Club seemed to be the perfect site, although the 1909 building and its broad verandas and docks were in serious disrepair. McCarney came to the rescue again, arranging for the Rotary Club to sell the building to the newly formed Thousand Islands Playhouse company for a dollar. There was just one catch: the Rotary Club had a buyback clause in the sales agreement, if the theatre didn’t make a go of it. Wanless thinks the expectation was that he would renovate the building and if the theatre failed, the Rotary Club could buy back a fully renovated building for the same dollar it had sold the building for. Despite the odds, that never happened “Greg is an anomaly,” says Kathryn MacKay. “He’s an artist, but he’s also a practical, resourceful, visionary businessman.”
Wanless now had an antiquated building, but he needed contractors and actors. By the end of April, he and MacKay, who by now were a couple, had pulled together a troupe of fellow Queen’s people and several faculty members who were willing to help them get started on stage and off. The students moved en masse into a run-down, barely habitable old building in Gananoque that they dubbed “The Swamp.” When they weren’t renovating the Canoe Club, they were fixing up the Swamp, shopping, and cooking, and somehow rehearsing for their first play – Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors – which opened on June 25, 1982.
MacKay remembers those early years together. “We had a rocky relationship at first, falling in and out of love, but we were having a wonderful time creating a theatre,” she says. They finally married in 1986, and subsequently had two sons, Jeremy and Marcus. “In those days we ran the theatre during the winter from our home, while Greg was teaching drama at Queen’s,” MacKay recalls.
Wanless and MacKay took turns directing, stage-managing, acting, running the house, managing operations – box office, sponsorships and patrons, writing ads, and handling contracts for the professional actors who soon were attracted to the Playhouse – and raising their sons.
Wanless and MacKay have decided that this summer, the Thousand Islands Playhouse’s 31st season, is the right time to step down. “Our challenges are no longer artistic ones,” says Wanless. “We now spend more and more of our days raising funds. It’s time to let someone else have a turn.”
Wanless and MacKay have ambitious plans, with time for travel and involvement with other theatres. Wanless will also continue teaching at Queen’s. “My teaching philosophy is to never say no to them. I don’t want to tell students they can’t do something or tell them that they’re wrong,” he says. “I didn’t like that kind of teaching when I was a student. I want each student to think for himself or herself, to learn, and to try.”
Greg Wanless is one of those rare individuals who practises what he preaches, and his “never say no” philosophy has resulted in an enduring legacy to Canadian theatre and to the town of Gananoque.