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Reminiscing: Cheryl Stagg remembers the early years of the Stephenville Theatre Festival


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Cheryl Stagg, the founding manager of the Stephenville Theatre Festival, is seen in front of the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre.

STEPHENVILLE  As the Stephenville Theatre Festival celebrates its 35th anniversary season, the founding general manager and current patron of the festival, is reflecting on those years.

Cheryl Stagg is very much looking forward to the Festival Gala performance, taking place on Sunday, Aug. 11, because it will feature 35 years of memories of musical numbers, choreography and scenes from each of those years.

Looking back, she said the Gala was initially a product of the company members themselves. It was one show the artistic director did not rule and artists chose what they wanted to do to demonstrate what they felt they did best — whether acting, poetry, song, dance or comedy.

Later, themes were chosen for the Gala and it took on a more musical focus, such as Elton John music, Broadway music, the music of Webber and Rice.

Stagg said today’s festival operates on an entirely different model than the original festival.

“That’s not to say one model is better or worse than the other,” she said. “They’re just different, that’s all.”

In the late 1970s, Stephenville was a wannabe tourism destination without a unique hook to pull tourists in. Then along came Maxim Mazumdar.

Stagg said at that time the people of Stephenville were pretty cosmopolitan in their attitudes and because of the community’s history with the American air force base, residents were used to a transient population and frequent exposure to visiting stars from the world of entertainment.

By 1979, when Mazumdar arrived, they had been missing that aspect of life for about 15 years.

That all changed when Mazumdar was able to attract stars from London, England, New York and all over Canada, all who knew him and respected him from his own work on the world stage. The professional theatre activity also attracted worldwide tourists.

“It was like bringing a national or international touring company, meeting all their artistic demands to the best of your ability and keeping them here eight to 10 weeks,” Stagg said.

The challenges were enormous and at peak, the budget reached almost $450,000 for a single season.

“We would begin each season with no money at all and have to raise up to that amount one way or another. It was not easy,” she said.

Luckily, money followed the big name artists and corporate funding was accessed from corporations all over Canada. Media attention also followed the stars, so the festival had the benefit of much international free publicity.

“They viewed us as something akin to an artists’ colony in a remote rural area; and theatre goers from all over wanted to come and experience that for themselves,” Stagg said.

She doesn’t believe that festival model could have been sustained for 35 years and believes the change brought in over time by boards, artistic directors and staff were changes made in a timely fashion, as the region developed a community of its own professional theatre artists.

Stagg said the pool of Newfoundland artists has grown enormously and a career in professional theatre in Newfoundland and Labrador is more realistic today than in 1979.

“I believe the Stephenville Theatre Festival did a lot to bring that about,” she said.

Keith Pike, the current artistic director of the festival, said this year’s Gala will feature melodies and short scenes from productions over the years.

“It will celebrate all the incredible theatre produced that led us to where we are now,” he said.

The Gala will feature festival alumni, including: Darren Martin, Vanessa MacArthur and Dave Bennett and possibly a few others. There will be pieces of Shakespeare, Jesus Christ Superstar, from West Side Story, Newfoundland folk music, rock music and country.

“Really anything that created a fabric that is the Stephenville Theatre Festival,” Pike said.

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