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Memory Lane: Remembering when STC’s Oliver! brought some theatrical joy to a struggling Nickel City

In 1982 when the Sudbury Theatre Centre opened, Sudbury’s economy was in dire straits, but when the musical version of Dickens’ classic was staged, starring dozens of local children, it seemed to strike the perfect chord for this mining town
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Sudbury Theatre Centre enlisted 55 children to perform in the musical Oliver! in 1982. They missed six weeks of school. The experience ignited a love of performing for many.

When the Sudbury Theatre Centre opened its new building on Shaughnessy Street in the fall of 1982, it was the very worst of times for the city.

Sudbury was the unemployment capital of Canada. More than 20 per cent of the population was unemployed. There was a strike at Inco, and Falconbridge had ceased production.

Maclean's reporter Ian Austen found the choice of the STC's season opener, the musical Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens’ novel about hardship and poverty, a fitting allegory for Sudbury's woes, intended or not.

In the Oct. 18, 1982 issue, Austen wrote the glittering theatre opening night was a sharp contrast with the hard times that had befallen the city.

"It is not the image most people have of Sudbury: bottomless bottles of Cognac, champagne and French liqueur served up to 200 holders of $100-a-seat theatre tickets. But the grand opening of the city’s $2.2-million theatre centre last month was not without a certain irony. 

"When the curtain rose officially for the first time, it revealed a mob of 55 local children lamenting, in song, their meagre allotment of workhouse gruel. 

"When the final curtain fell on the musical version of Oliver Twist, and the gushing speeches from the theatre’s founders and politicians drew to an end, the gowned, tuxedoed, kilted and fur-draped leaders of Sudbury society squeezed back into the theatre’s bar.

"In the festive buzz of the party, the participants cheered (board chair) Morey Speigel, owner of a local construction company, as he mounted a wobbly table and toasted the centre. But when he alluded to the people in Sudbury, ‘who are not as happy as us tonight,’ his words were largely lost in the din of tinkling glass and chatter."

For the citizens who had worked so hard to raise money to build the new theatre, it was an occasion to celebrate and they had great expectations for the city's future arts and culture scene. And Sudbury audiences were hungry for diversion.

“Oliver!” with a cast of 70 sold out for two weeks and it was extended another three weeks. It ran for 44 performances from Sept. 22 to Oct. 30.

"Oliver! had 55 kids in it and they were all from the community," remembered Elizabeth and Catherine, STC artistic director Tony Lloyd's daughters. 

"He pulled these kids out of school for weeks but there would be tutors there. They did two shows a day most days — a matinee and evening performance — Monday was their only day off. They were up to 11 o’clock at night."

Parents played supporting roles. Art and Louise Peach recalled the experience when their sons performed.

"Our two boys, Michael and Chris, 12 and 10 respectively, were asked to audition — both were taking singing lessons, and both won parts in the kids’ chorus. Special arrangements were made with the schools as the boys attended for six weeks of rehearsal and 44 performances. 

"Parents were collared for shifts on backstage duties, keeping order, monitoring homework, getting them to the wings for their entry cues or pickup at the stage door after the performance … We delighted in this ‘life experience’ for our children." invites readers to share memories of performing in Oliver! or other STC productions during the 1980s with large casts of children and local actors such The Wizard of Oz, The King and I, Annie, The Sound of Music, and The Music Man. Stage parents are also invited to share memories.

For many, the experience of appearing in these mega productions changed their lives. Actor Leisa Way, who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1980-81 season), shared her memories in the book, A Theatre in Five Acts, 50 years of the Sudbury Theatre Centre.

"Between the ages of 14 and 19, I did 12 or 13 shows … During summer, I was involved in the young company. We did Babes in Arms, Oklahoma and Anne of Green Gables, The Musical. Tony, the director, introduced me to (co-writer) Don Harron and he said, 'This is going to be your Anne one day.' Two years later I was Anne of Green Gables in Charlottetown.

"I don’t know if I would have had all these experiences in any other place than Sudbury. Of course, it shaped who I became as a performer. I am so grateful for where I grew up."

Send your memories of performing on the STC stage to [email protected] or [email protected] for a follow-up article Jan. 26.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer and co-editor of "A Theatre in Five Acts, 50 years of the Sudbury Theatre Centre". Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program