As Highlands Summer Festival heads into its 20th season one of the founders of the organization says he’s taking a step back to allow someone else to take the lead.
Jack Brezina has been president of the board for more than a decade and was one of the original group who came together with an idea for providing live performances in the new theatre in Haliburton.
“It started out as a partnership. Eighteen individuals got together in 1999 in Melissa’s [Stephens] living room” he said.
“The new theatre [the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion] had just been built. That was the impetus to get together and say let’s do something with that facility” he said.
The first season 2000 featured five locally produced plays starring local actors.
Part of the theatre’s early success had to do with the eclectic group it attracted. Not everyone was interested in acting and people were eager to roll up their sleeves and get involved with costumes or set construction.
“Some people were not stage people not actors. They were just enthusiastic about theatre in our community and volunteered from that aspect or agreed to be a partner from that aspect” Brezina said. “We had a nice cross-section of individuals with a variety of skills and interests.”
In the early years Brezina had less time to offer as he was the owner of the Minden Times. He took photos did publicity and put together the programs.
After selling the paper in 2001 he was able to increase his commitment and in 2007 became president of the board when it became a registered charity. In that role he guided the organization through its decision-making process helping with setting the budget and approving the season.
He also became one of the more visible members of the organization.
“Over time I’ve become – and anybody would be – the face of the organization. Who people call up if they’ve got a problem or if they want to pitch a play to us” he said.
The mandate of Highlands Summer Festival is to encourage the growth of theatrical skills in the community especially among young people. They run a program for youth called Early Stages which is an apprenticeship theatre program. The cast and crew of their productions are also mostly comprised of local people.
“We’ve certainly fulfilled the mandate in our growth of theatre experience in the community” Brezina said. “I’m going to say 90 per cent of the individuals you see on stage and close to 100 per cent of the people backstage are local individuals … other than the two shows we bring in from the outside … which means they’re getting a chance to show their stuff but also learn because they’re working with a professional director who is hopefully taking them to the next level in whatever they do.”
Each summer three productions are locally produced and two are brought in. Professional directors are hired and the artistic producer Scot Denton is a former instructor from Sheridan College.
Brezina said the results are obvious; sets and costumes improve each year lighting is done right and the actors deliver performances garnering rave reviews year after year.
Highlands Summer Festival is a member of the Ontario Summer Theatre organization a co-operative made up of theatre groups that are “full professional.”
“We’re obviously not but our work is presented at a level that they feel we are worthy of being a member of that organization” he said.
This past season audiences were treated to a range of performances kicking off the season with Romeo and Juliet followed by Not Quite Sherlock with Chris Gibbs Cliffhanger Weimar to Vaudeville and The Dining Room.
Although Brezina will no longer be the president of the festival board he still intends to be involved and will act as a resource to the next president.
There will be challenges; this year Highlands Summer Festival ended the season with a deficit.
“It [the season] unfolded well artistically with lots of positive comments from the patrons. Ticket sales were off our projections however and we ended the season in a deficit position which the board is working to eliminate” Brezina said in a follow-up email.
A new fundraiser will be part of making up that shortfall. Called the “Non-Event Event” it asks donors to give money for an event that isn’t happening when one can “feel free to talk as loud as you would like leave your cellphone on [and] videotaping flash photography and falling asleep are permitted.”
Brezina said the biggest reward of working with Highlands Summer Festival each year is talking to audience members in the lobby.
While sometimes that includes constructive criticism overwhelmingly response is positive.
“Most of the time people say to me ‘this is the best I’ve seen.’ I’ve had comments like ‘I don’t know why I drive to Toronto to see theatre when this is happening here; you guys are doing a fabulous job.’ I like to think I accept those remarks on behalf of everybody in the organization because I know how collaborative the theatre process is” he said.
“I’m pleased we’ve had that kind of impact on our community and would like to see it continue for long after I’m gone.”
Brezina has offered to take time to mentor a new president once someone is found. He has committed to staying on the board until the annual general meeting in April at latest.