Port Stanley Festival Theatre

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Denise Mader’s new play, This One, has its world premiere in Port Stanley this month.
Photo courtesy of photosbyMG

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
Denise Mader’s This One is about family and loss, farming and dating, and how to make a really good pecan pie. It’s funny and touching and completely engaging, and while they don’t grow pecans on the shores of Lake Erie it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to watch this play than in the Port Stanley Festival Theatre.

Mader wrote the play as a half hour Fringe piece, then expanded it to a two act version which is having its premiere in Port Stanley, where it runs until August 13. It’s set in an apartment where Mader is preparing to host a surprise birthday party. She’s promised to bake a pecan pie, something her mother always made but which she has never attempted.

Through the course of the play Mader bakes her pie onstage, slowly unfolding the stories of her childhood on a Southern Ontario farm, her intense relationship with her mother, and her growing acceptance of the life she’s carved out for herself. There is no fourth wall here: the audience is guests who have arrived early – a sneeze from someone in the front row elicits a “bless you” from Mader. As we filed out after the show I half expected to find Mader in the lobby, passing out pieces of freshly-baked pie (something she apparently has done at Fringe performances).

This One is a deeply personal, autobiographical play, and it clearly resonates with southern Ontario audiences. Mader’s tales of farm work are rich with the insight that comes only from experience (baling straw is much easier work than baling hay, and wet hay is the worst of all) and her attempts at rolling out a pastry bring knowing nods and laughs from the audience.

This is theatre doing what it does best: building tales that people engage with, telling a community stories about itself, and inviting us to dig deeper into our shared experiences.

It’s not surprising that Simon Joynes, artistic director of the Port Stanley Festival Theatre, encouraged Mader to develop the play after she sent him the one act version: in his 11 years at the theatre he has shown a tremendous commitment to developing new works, and to ensuring that the theatre is truly the heart of the community. Four of the five shows in Port Stanley this season are original productions; three of them are brand new works, including two that have their premiere in Port Stanley (Joynes’ own play, Birds of a Feather, played in early July.)

This is a theatre that isn’t afraid of bold moves, whether that means commissioning new works, or taking on a $2.2 million expansion in a village of 3,000 people.

2016 is the company’s first season in its new Grace Auditorium (named at the request of an anonymous and significant donor). While it’s still housed in the former town hall on the shores of Kettle Creek, the space is a significant improvement over the old one. “The stage floor is level!” theatre manager Melissa Kempf laughs as she takes me on a backstage tour. “We used to be able to sit in the theatre and hear the open mic nights going on outside. And people froze in the seats on one side and were too warm on the other.” The renovation takes care of that and more, as well as adding 51 seats to bring the theatre to a capacity of 202.

It still needs another $100,000 or so to complete the renovations, but nobody I spoke with seems overly concerned. “That theatre is really at the heart of this community,” said Jean Vedova. “And they have an incredible board of directors.”

The Kettle Creek Inn is a charming hotel and restaurant at the heart of the village.

The Kettle Creek Inn is a charming hotel and restaurant at the heart of the village.

Vedova is the co-owner of another community institution: The Kettle Creek Inn, an utterly charming hotel a very short walk from the theatre.

Vedova and her partners bought the Inn in 1983, just a few years after the theatre opened in the town hall. In a sense, they – and the village itself – have grown together.

The Inn was built in 1849 as a summer home for a Justice of the Peace. By 1983, it was derelict. “Anybody in their right mind said we were out of our minds to buy it,” said Vedova.

Port Stanley was at a low point, too. It was once a booming resort town, with a casino and ferry connections to the U.S., a waterfront midway and The Stork Club dance hall with the biggest dance floor in the region. Little of that remained by the early ‘80s. “This area had been rather forgotten,” says Vedova.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and the village has transformed itself into that most enchanting of mixes: a beachfront artistic centre that still has a working class core. It’s a mix of tourism and creative enterprise, but also a place where fishing boats still unload their catch every day.

Port Stanley appeals to tourists, but it also remains a working port.

Port Stanley appeals to tourists, but it also remains a working port.

Like many of the sites in Port Stanley, the Kettle Creek Inn is a celebration of art. Every room is named after a local artist, and features that artist’s work on the walls (we stayed in the Candy McManiman room). Guests who enjoy the work in their room are free to buy it directly from the artist.

Candy McManiman is one of the local artists whose work is on display in the Inn's rooms.

Candy McManiman is one of the local artists whose work is on display in the Inn’s rooms.

There are hundreds of artists living here, showing their work in galleries throughout the village. Some estimates say that 15 per cent of the villagers are creative professionals: writers and painters, musicians and photographers and chefs.

Oh, boy, are there chefs! Any visit to Port Stanley has to include time to eat.

At the Kettle Creek Inn, we sat in the garden courtyard on a summer’s evening, enjoying the cool breeze and luxuriating in the creations from chef Rob Lampman. Smoked trout was served on cup-like baby endive leaves, each drizzled with a white wine maple gastrique, crumbles of Devils’ Rock blue cheese and delicate pickled grapes. Chicken supreme was marinated in tequila and served on a bed of creamy queso fresco grits, with blistered grape tomatoes and charred sweet corn. If you prefer something a bit less ornate, you’re given a choice of two menus when you’re seated – one fine dining, and one casual, a nice touch that lets you select the style of dining you prefer.

The smoked trout appetizer at Kettle Creek Inn is a dish not to be missed.

The smoked trout appetizer at Kettle Creek Inn is a dish not to be missed.

And the Kettle Creek Inn is just one of many dining delights in this tiny village. A few blocks away, the Windjammer Inn has been listed four times in Where to Eat In Canada. Within walking distance of the inns, you’ll find everything from tapas to barbecue. The Main Beach alone has several options, including GT’s On The Beach (named the World’s Best Beach Bar in a CNN poll in 2013), and Mackie’s, a beachfront restaurant that’s been serving perch and chips and it’s own incredibly-refreshing orangeade every summer since 1911.

Many of the old homes have been converted into galleries, shops and restaurants.

Many of the old homes have been converted into galleries, shops and restaurants.

Most of the cooks and chefs here take pride in using the abundant local ingredients, including fish purchased in the village and wines created just a few kilometres away.

Port Stanley may be small, but it packs a big punch. You can eat well, swim in the balmy waters, see a great show, and discover a new painter. And somewhere in this enchanting village, you can be sure, you will find someone who can bake a damn fine pecan pie, even after Denise Mader leaves town.

Local attractions
The Port Stanley Terminal Railway offers tours of the surrounding countryside several times a day.
There are two beaches in town – Main Beach has water toy rentals, beachside dining, and miles of sand to walk on, while Little Beach offers a more sheltered area perfect for families when the big waves roll in.
Quai du Vin is the nearest of the Lake Erie wineries, a family-run operation with 22 acres of grapes and winery and vineyard tours all summer long.
Moore Water Gardens is a one-of-a-kind garden centre, specializing in aquatic plants and pond supplies.
Broderick’s Ice Cream Parlour will draw you in after the show – you can smell the waffle cones cooking.

Blogger Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

Blogger Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

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