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Sharyn Ayliffe talks about theatre in these times

December 2, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

Theatre Orangeville’s General Manager, Sharyn Ayliffe, took some time to talk to the Citizen about how the theatre has grown and the team has dealt with the past many months. She explained how they have kept Theatre Orangeville surviving as the cultural heart of the community, with the passion for performing arts.

“All things considered, it’s going really well,” she said. “I’m super pleased and really quite proud of this team. This time six months ago, we really had no idea where we would be by now.”

Truth of the theatre being closed – but closed! – to the public and the staff by mid-March, 2020, left them and us in limbo. Finally, it was, as Artistic Director, David Nairn once told the Citizen, he got tired of not doing theatre, so that they put their heads together and found a way to be back in front of audiences. Not the same – yet in another way.

Thus it was, from August, 2020, Theatre Orangeville began to create, in every way demanded by Covid-19 protocols, “cabarets” of entertainment, with singers and poets – actors who were familiar to Theatre Orangeville audiences. Little vignettes of drama and comedy, all went into bringing theatre online into the homes of people who missed it.

Ms. Ayliffe outlined the process, “Six months into the pandemic, we began doing shows. For a mix of reasons, I guess: first and foremost, we needed to define a way to do what we do, for our artists and staff and in a more meaningful way, we wanted to spread some joy, art, levity. It was quite clear that this wasn’t going away and we needed to find another avenue to do what we do and waiting for it to end was not an option.”

“It was for David, whose job is the artistic vision of the theatre to decide. We had had no shortage of conversations with respect to the want of a desire to present entertainment.”

The cabaret style programming really gave the chance to engage artists; it is a very collaborative art form. David Nairn is the visionary for all this and ultimately “holds the buck” as far as programming is concerned. Then TOV teams think how to make it happen.

The pandemic hit as Ms. Ayliffe was about to step into her job as General Manager.

“When I had applied and was offered the job, I didn’t step into that seat until March 2, 2020. Through all of that process, the pandemic was completely unknown. When I went into the position, I had my idea of what I thought I was getting into and, of course, that’s not what happened. It’s been a very interesting 20 months: the things I’ve learnt and the skills I developed, I never imagined.”

From the months of producing cabarets online, TOV moved on to producing online plays, performed originally in the theatre itself and under the skill of videographer, Sara May, brought as close to theatre as film could be to the at-home screens of anyone who wanted to watch: across the country, anywhere in the world.

The best part of it all was that “we were very fortunate to be able to keep on all our staff, though. We got supported but we also had a great determination to preserver. At no point, did we say we can’t do what we normally do; we said, how else can we do it?”

It was not only for the staff but through grants and government funding got them through.

Despite the provincial regulations saying we are back to 100 per cent capacity, Theatre Orangeville is “nowhere near that.” They have lessened the spacing of audiences but still to only to about 40 per cent and will do that until March.

Said Sharyn Ayliffe, “It was completely unrealistic to go to 100 per cent. at this point.

“It was so critical to us that people didn’t need to wonder if they were safe. We wanted them to feel safe so that people could come and really enjoy the show without wondering about the person sitting next to them. A lot of that is about perceptions as much as science.”

What gives them all confidence about the future is, collectively as a company, what they have taken from these past few months is not to expect anything. As a group, the TOV creative team is incredibly flexible as a company. 

“No matter what comes next, we’re ready for it,” she reported.

The headline of all this is the hard work that has been devoted to learning that flexibility. There has been a lot of work on the hybrid that is theatre on film. There are some patrons who have been coming to the theatre for 25 years and are just not ready or comfortable to come in person. They do not want theatre not to be part of their patrons’ lives. This theatre is certainly not going anywhere anytime soon, we were assured.

What is important to know from this is, “I think what I’ve taken away from all this, is the reinforcement of the collaborative nature of live theatre and the coming together to create are [proof] the sharing of art through theatre is so valuable. It’s so rewarding to see our staff come and be prepared to change course.

“It’s been a good reminder of why I’ve chosen theatre as my art; these people are really like no others.”

Sadly still, there is no return to the Victorian Christmas Gala, a signature event of Orangeville’s social life and Theatre Orangeville’s foremost fundraiser. To help with the lost, the second 50/50 draw is on and all are encouraged to participate.

“The same thing as we always want to tell people why they should come to the theatre,” said Sharyn Ayliffe, “There’s some really brilliant work happening in the theatre and online. Support these shows; these artists deserve audiences; the teams worked really hard so we can keep saying: ‘Come and enjoy the show’.”

Here is such good news: Rod Beattie’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is up next. The theatrical magician, Rod Beattie, has brought us so many hours of wonderful Wingfield Stories is, in “collaboration with Dickens,” performing his rendition of A Christmas Carol, in which, as he assured us in another interview: “I do everyone.”

A Christmas Carol opened this week and runs until December 23. For details and tickets go to or call the Box Office: 519-942-3423/1-800-424-1295

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