Last of three parts
Margaret Stacey didn’t set foot in the Capitol Theatre until shortly before it re-opened in April 1988. But she quickly became — and remains — the person most closely associated with its revival.
Stacey ran a theatre in Cranbrook years earlier and organized a Kootenay drama festival at the Capitol shortly before its grand opening. Yet it didn’t occur to her to apply for the manager’s job.
“But my husband said ‘Why don’t you try for that?’ I had just come off 12 years of community theatre and four children. He said do it.”
She did. Among her first duties: repainting roses on the theatre walls based on the original design. In those days, Stacey was the only employee of a very hands-on board. Elaine Henderson then joined to help with clerical duties. But what she really needed, Stacey realized, was a technician. She found one in Paul Pokorny, a Bradislava-trained lighting designer.
“He poured his heart and soul into this place for about four years,” she says. “And his brother Peter came afterwards.” (Paul’s still in the area while Peter now works at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria.)
Next up was technical director Harvey Dutoff, now the theatre’s longest-serving employee with more than 20 years under his belt. Back then the technician was also the custodian.
“We were all custodians,” Stacey says. “There wasn’t a lot of money to go around. Everything was on a shoestring. We were doing cash out of a shoebox. We had a Gestener. I preferred the money to go into the [theatre] program rather than the [printed] program. We had to watch pennies and be very careful about everything we did.”
(Today in addition to Dutoff the staff consists of manager Stephanie Fischer, assistant manager Eva McKimm, assistant tech director Terry Brennan, buillding manager Dodi Zerr and bookkeeper Brad Fergusson.)
Following nearly six years of start-and-stop restoration that cost $1.2 million, the Capitol opened with great expectations, which it largely met or exceeded. In the first four months, nearly 15,000 people went through its doors.
“It was quite a magnificent experience to open it,” says Stacey, who heard almost daily from people who remembered the theatre in its earlier incarnation, 30 to 60 years prior.
“People remembered coming into movies when they were kids or in dance class. They really liked to tell me stories of how they snuck in. That was their biggest joy.”
At first there was also a contingent who felt the theatre was a bad investment, but over time — perhaps as their children or grandchildren appeared in Capitol productions — that sentiment went away. “They’ve been remarkably forgiving,” Stacey laughs.
One of the Capitol’s first major coups was staging a new work by Canadian author Carol Shields, who happened to be visiting Nelson. Stacey had instructions to make summer youth theatre happen and found grants to hire 11 students for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
On a whim, she called Shields to ask if she had a play.
“I have one that’s only been done at Rivereast Collegiate in Manitoba,” Shields replied. “But it’s not published yet and probably not even finished. It’s kind of an airport comedy. I haven’t decided whether to call it Arrivals and Departures or Departures and Arrivals.”
“She sent it off to me and it was a wonderful script,” Stacey recalls. “The students loved it. It was quirky, bizarre, funny, well-written.” Arrivals and Departures, as it was finally known, was a hit. It went around the school festival circuit and was produced by the Arts Club in Vancouver and even in Japan.
“But this is where it really got started,” says Stacey, who still has a note from Shields.
Two “particularly great” performers in the cast that summer were the late Bentley Nichvolodoff as Charlie Brown and Bessie Wapp as Snoopy. Wapp’s been on the Capitol stage dozens of times since.
Stacey soon realized she couldn’t direct the show and answer the phone too, so professional directors were brought in. Most summers saw two and sometimes three shows.
“I could barely keep out of the theatre for those three weeks,” she says. “I was just so into it. We opened up for tourists to drop in on rehearsals. Watching Allison [Girvan] or Geoff [Burns] direct was a show of its own.”
One trend she noticed was that slowly but surely it became socially acceptable for boys to take part.
“Joel Cottingham, Patrick Metzger, and Rowan Tichenor all flocked in about the same time,” she says. “It took a little while to get critical mass but it became cool for our young people to be in theatre.”
The summer program is still going strong: this year saw 55 kids audition, including many boys and many who are already stage veterans, having participated for four or five years. While it was once thought the Capitol would support a professional troupe, it has instead become a teaching theatre, and Stacey has had the pleasure of watching her young charges blossom on stage and in some cases go on to professional careers.
“Pow moments,” she says. “And so many of them. Sarah Allen and Tom Middleditch pop up on TV from time to time.” (When interviewed recently, Stacey was reliving those days by typing the names of all 1,000 past performers into a database.)
The Capitol’s other signature performance, the Christmas pantomime, actually began in 1987 in the Civic Theatre. Stacey, who did several pantos in Cranbrook, says the Capitol’s board told her “it’s a niche to fill, a tradition to start, and it’s really important to start these things in the first year.”
Stacey wrote the first show, A Kootenay Snow White, which she says wasn’t really a pantomime but did have a “cast of thousands.” The director, Lorraine Havercroft, was a retired dance teacher who had been on Broadway and simply walked into the Capitol one day.
Since then Stacey says key leadership has come from Laurie Jarvis, a performer or director in practically every panto to date.
Over 17 years as manager, Stacey booked her share of memorable touring acts, among them dancer Margie Gillis — who didn’t really tour; she just came to Nelson — and tenor Michael Burgess, known for his performance in the Toronto production of Les Miserables. Burgess’ technical set-up, Stacey recalls, cost more than his fee. She convinced him to do a recital with his pianist, which “you could hear three blocks away with only whispers. It was a fabulous show.”
She is especially fond of rising stars who played the Capitol just as they were beginning to take off. “I think you can name just about any Canadian group and we had them here,” she says.
By the end of her tenure, Stacey says the theatre had gone from “tentative to quite well established.” It was part of the city’s core and one of Nelson’s key summer attractions. While its programming has changed over the years, the Capitol continues to be a cultural hub, incubating everything from children’s theatre to community opera to the Corazon youth choir.
“I certainly believe it made a big difference,” Stacey says. “If you look at the scene now, you see Sydney Galbraith putting together Cabaret, the Amy Ferguson Institute sponsoring things like KHAOS, Richard Rowberry’s productions, and Jeff and Liesl Forst working with small kids. It’s more alive than ever.”
LITTLE THEATRE, BIG REACH
Twenty-five years after it re-opened, what sort of reputation does the Capitol Theatre have?
“It’s known as a small theatre that brings in quite amazing touring acts,” says manager Stephanie Fischer. “It’s known for the quality of what is on stage here.”
Patrons can trust they won’t waste their money on a Capitol show, she says, crediting the Nelson Overture Concert Society for helping to ensure that.
The theatre is also known for its summer youth program and Christmas pantomime.
“You watch kids come very shy on the first day and two weeks later they’re fearless,” Fischer says.
“It’s a producing theatre,” says former manager Marg Stacey. “It’s not just a roadhouse or presenting theatre. It’s a combination. I think the founders wanted it to be like the motherhouse. That’s how you build volunteers.”
Thirdly, it is known for supporting local groups who need space for productions.
“We really try to keep the rent affordable,” Fischer says.
“If you really charged what it was worth, they would never come,” Stacey confirms. “They’d find every church basement they could.”
Last year the theatre had 109 shows and was occupied 193 days including rehearsal time but not including production, technical, or board meetings.