The Stage is Set

A new world-class venue in Cow Head is just the ticket for Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador.
By Nicola Ryan

For the past 25 seasons, Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador (TNL) has been putting on sold-out performances for the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. Based in beautiful Cow Head in Gros Morne National Park, the festival dedicates itself to the creation and development of plays for and about Newfoundland and Labrador, and entices hundreds of theatre-lovers to the small community every summer. It’s an absolutely world-class event that had definitely outgrown its original facilities. This year, after a brief COVID-19 delay, TNL is thrilled to be moving into a brand new state-of-the-art venue, The Nurse Myra Bennett Centre for the Performing Arts. 

Gaylene Buckle, TNL general manager, is thrilled over the new space. “It’s amazing,” she enthuses. “Every person who’s worked on that building has put their heart and soul into it to make sure it is what it is.”

The new, fully accessible facility is twice as large as their previous venue, the Warehouse Theatre. The main stage, the Fortis Theatre, has a 178-seat capacity, a large proscenium stage and tiered seating. Outside, an airy lobby welcomes eager audiences. 

“Certainly one of the things that we had uppermost in our minds when we were designing this facility was to make sure that that audience are getting the best experience they can get.” Gaylene says.

Backstage, the centre has expanded technical spaces, new dressing rooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen for preparing and serving the dinner theatre, and dedicated office space for the managers, directors and designers.

“We hired Denise Dolliver, who had been our production manager for many years, as our theatre liaison between the contractors and the architects and the company. So I can guarantee the attention to detail in every aspect of that building from the office to the box office to the production facilities to the performance venue. It’s all been so good and beautifully organized. Every artist and every community member that walks into that space and gets the tour is like, ‘Holy Moses!’ It’s hard to believe that this is in Newfoundland – let alone Cow Head, a community of 425!”

The new theatre is the result of many dedicated individuals coming together and working with a clear vision and a shared sense of pride. Monetary support came from contributions by the provincial and federal governments, plus more than $3.5 million that was raised from the private sector.

“The Set the Stage campaign led by [former premier] Brian Tobin brought the private money into play; Gudie Hutchings, our MP, was so instrumental, and all the departments have just been amazing to work with. Same with the provincial government and all the program officers. I can’t tell ya!” Gaylene says.

Contractors from Pittman’s Enterprises brought their expert craftsmanship, and the Dobbin Foundation contributed $1 million and gave the centre its name – a fitting tribute to Nurse Myra Bennett, hero of the Northern Peninsula and subject of TNL’s beloved play Tempting Providence. 

I’m not going to say that it hasn’t been without a hell of a lot of stress,” laughs Gaylene, “and a hell of a lot of work and hell of a lot of ‘oh my God what are we gonna do?’ But I can tell you that it’s been a great big amazing team of people who have put this thing together, and now I can’t wait to start sharing it with the world!”

From September to April, when the festival is not in session, TNL focuses on community engagement and outreach, and fostering new talent with their Corner Brook Youth Theatre. It was always the intention of TNL to put the new centre to use year-round as an incredible resource for the arts community. Management has lots of plans to open it up as a presentation venue for other plays, concerts and workshops; a workspace to design and create new costumes, sets and props; a location to collaborate with local farmers and producers; and especially a hub for the high school drama festival. “That’s one of the things we’ve been talking about for a number of years,” says Gaylene. “How much more can we create now that we have this lovely building?”

Last year, the Gros Morne Theatre Festival was disrupted, like most things, by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the company is eager to get back to treading the boards, albeit with a reduced lineup of shows scheduled with a local audience in mind and safety protocols including bubbled seating, masking, physical distancing and sanitizing in place. “In some ways, it’s probably not a bad thing that we have to limit what we’re doing and our audiences because it gives us an opportunity to really figure out how this building works,” says Gaylene. 

They’ve been working hard to adapt, adopting new software, creating meticulous contingency plans, and coming up with creative solutions to pandemic-era challenges. The company plans to film all its plays and make them available to patrons, with a little tour of the building included at the end of the show, so they can virtually attend.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to have a great big open house because COVID’s not allowing that,” sighs Gaylene. “We had it planned last year, but we didn’t want to go ahead and [reschedule] and then have to shut it down again. It’s just not the year. The Grand Celebration will be in early June of 2022 – please God! – when we can all get together and celebrate together.”

This year, the festival’s 25th season opens on June 25 with Tempting Providence and tickets are selling quickly. “It’s such a wonderful, beautiful play,” says Gaylene. “And to have the new centre named for Myra Bennett… it just feels amazing.”

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