BERWICK, NS - Six years ago, the congregation of St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church in Berwick came up with the idea of a dinner theatre as a fundraiser. The project is now in its seventh year and still going strong.
“We were trying to think of a way to raise money for the church,” said directors Debbie Gillis and Gisela Currie. “Our congregation isn't large, but we have a lot of talent for our size.”
And with a project like this, “everybody's talents can be used, in one way or another.”
Gillis and Currie, who have both been involved in the dinner theatre from the start, first approached the congregation with the idea and got an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“It takes the whole parish to put on something like this, and they were all in favour, big-time.”
The scripts, which are “all Christian-based,” are purchased through a company called Christian Publishers.
“We usually buy the script in the early spring,” Gillis said. “We choose the people for the parts and in June, get together for a run-through. Regular rehearsals begin in September, Sundays and Tuesdays, two hours per rehearsal.”
Those who aren't acting “have other jobs to do,” including ticket sales and promotion, preparing and cooking food, hall preparation, set construction and decoration, props, costumes, and anything else that needs doing. “It's a real team effort.”
This year's production, which runs Nov. 17 and 18, 24 and 25 – the doors will be open by 6 p.m., with the evening's entertainment getting underway at 6:30 – is entitled “AVR Radio Presents 'A Down Home Christmas'.”
Gillis said the use of AVR's name is deliberate, and part of the play. “This year,” she said, “we're collaborating with the radio station. AVR has allowed us to use their name, and has provided us with props as well as prizes.”
She made it clear that “no actual AVR employees are part of the cast – though there are probably a few who might like to be.”
As in past years, the cast members are from the St. Anthony's congregation, as are all the 'behind the scenes' players. “We always hold auditions,” Currie said.
“After six years, it's getting easier (to cast the parts), because we have a better idea of what we have to work with. The actors who have been in previous shows are used to it, actually look forward to it.”
In fact, the majority of this year's cast has all been in one or more previous productions.
“There's a job for everyone,” Gillis says. “The actors have to commit to all of it. The 'behind the scenes' people have a bit more flexibility, and have some choice in when they get to work.”
The music is provided by a group of congregation members, including Dave Hasler, Rick Coulombe, Tatyana Currie and Vern Fraser. Usually, three of the group performs every night. Otherwise, the cast is the same for the entire run.
Gillis pointed out, “we've found over the years that what the audiences really enjoy is music and interactive games. A lot of people like being interactive, or if they don't really like it themselves, they enjoy watching other people.”
The dinner theatre has become “our biggest fundraiser of the year,” Currie said. “We seat 480 people for the four shows, 120 per show, 12 tables of 10 people each. People really look forward to it, and so do we. It's become a highlight of our year.”
She added, “we always get great comments. People come year after year, and will often purchase an entire table. We get people attending from around the province, and as far away as New Brunswick.”
For Mary Ellen Lonergan, this will be her fifth time as part of the dinner theatre cast. “I got involved because it was a unique fundraiser, and it sounded like fun. It's still fun, even after this many years.
“People ask me each fall if I'm going to be in the dinner theatre this year,” she said. “When you've done it before, they expect you to be part of it, and look for you each time. I don't sing, but they always manage to find a part for me, even in a musical.”
To Lonergan, “it's like we're a big family, and we end up seeing a lot of each other before this is done. It's like hanging out with your church family and having a lot of fun.
“You don't realize the amount of talent we have here,” she said, “with not that big a congregation to draw from. There's no pressure to perform, and you're already enjoying it before you start doing it.”
Tickets for the St. Anthony's dinner theatre are $25. To purchase a ticket, or for more information, contact Dorothy or Graeme at 902-538-7407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of Oct. 31, more than 300 of the 480 tickets were already spoken for. According to Gillis, “we're about 75 per cent sold out, and the third night (Nov. 24) is already sold out.”