A decade of Many Hats Theatre Company
The scene backstage 10 years ago at the first-ever Many Hats Theatre Company production is going to be a far cry from this year.
Original co-op member Ed Schneider described it in one word.
“Nerve-wracking,” said Schneider. “I cannot speak for everybody else, but we were all terrified we essentially had to cough up the money to do all of this. We had no machinery, if you know what I mean.”
Schneider and fellow original co-op members Ross Arnot and the man who helped start it all, Eric Hanston, gathered to recount the past decade at what is now the Nest and Nectar, the same spot at the Cannery Trade Centre where in 2007 the original co-op met for the first time giving birth to the Many Hats.
“We had no idea how many people were going to show up,” Arnot said of the first show, Maggie’s Getting Married, which is returning to the stage in Penticton in February to mark the occasion.
“We had nothing, we were starting from zero, bare stage,” Schneider said.
Originally aiming to do four shows a year, Many Hats became the only non-equity theatre company at the time given the rights to Sexy Laundry. It turned out to be a massive hit, which has left the summer show in the calendar to this day.
Play submissions now come from across Canada and the U.S. and Many Hats has drawn the attendance of several award-winning playwrights including Douglas Bowie, Michele Riml, Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw and Vernon’s Michael Poirier.
From those humble roots, Many Hats has not lost a nickel in 45 shows.
“The other thing I’m the most proud of and I think other members are too, is that we’ve done all of this on our own dime,” Hanston said. “We have never gone out for grants, we’ve never solicited donations.”
All the while completing major lighting upgrades, seating upgrades (with more possible in the future), stage upgrades and more out of the co-op’s pocket.
“There are a lot of theatre companies, including professional ones as well as amateurs, in the country who would love to say the same thing,” Schneider said. “We obviously found a need in the community because we have huge support.”
Play selection was another factor that has worked in Many Hats’ favour. Finding the balance between palatable and challenging performances.
“As directors we have all picked what would be considered somewhat more challenging plays. We do that knowing we aren’t going to get the audience we normally get,” Hanston said. “We go into that knowing that. It has to be done, not only for ourselves within the company, but out within the community too.”
Arnot said another of Many Hats’ successful strategies included attracting local talent who might not even know they had the acting ability inside them. He was quick to point to Jean Kearney, who made her Many Hats, and acting, debut in last year’s production of Mending Fences.
“She blew us away, she blew herself away. I don’t think she realized how good she was until she got there,” Schneider said.
On her acting resume under experience she literally put “zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”
“She told me ‘I just wanted to try it, it’s on my bucket list,’” Schneider said. “She just had the right look. She was the character. She was like a sponge, she absorbed everything.”
The community outside the Many Hats has shown support as well with 50 people in the last nine seasons hitting the stage from outside the co-op.
“That’s just people on stage, that doesn’t count people helping with set construction backstage, tech,” Hanston said.
Now approaching their 46th performance, a return to Maggie’s Getting Married, with a generational twist, Arnot pointed out one of the most important factors of their success.
“Through it all. We were all having fun no matter what,” Arnot said.
Their 46th show, Maggie’s Getting Married by Norm Foster. Revolves around Maggie and her titular nuptials. It takes place in Maggie’s parents kitchen after the wedding rehearsal and the night before her big day.
Shannon French and James Fofonoff played Maggie and fiancé Russell in the first performance 10 years ago. They now return as the parents, who were played by Phillip and Amos Seipp, and have both passed away.
“It’s 10 years later, we’re a grown-up theatre company, let’s have the parents played by the kids,” Schneider said.
The co-op continues to produce quality theatre in Penticton with different members stepping up at different times and roles shifting and changing in each production whether that’s acting, directing or any other role.
“Each co-op member has been able to be invaluable in a number of different ways. That’s why we’re called Many Hats,” Arnot said.
Hanston and Schneider couldn’t help but agree.