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A Closer Look at Westben Arts Festival Theatre

Dreams, everyone has them. It is a beautiful thing to see dreams come true, even for those around you. It can give you hope for the ones of your own; it brings a sense of warmth, delight, satisfaction, and overwhelming joy.

These are the feelings that sweep over me as I sit in my row at the back of the Barn.

There is a gentle breeze passing over my face and tussling my hair as the sweeping notes of fantastical piano and ringing voices singing a collection of Broadway favourites. They range from Oklahoma to Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and South Pacific, with more than your ears could feast on in between.

Brian Findley has once again arranged a winning performance and has brought together fabulous talent from a across the country to this beautifully incomparable setting.

In the rolling farmland of Trent Hills lies a thing of beauty with rustic timbers and open doors; it is acoustically and architecturally masterful. It is a barn, known to those familiar with it as “The Barn”.

It doesn’t house cows, chickens, horses, or other livestock, but rather something even more precious: Westben Arts Festival Theatre.

In 1999, Arts and Culture in Trent Hills and surrounding counties was changed forever when Brian Findley (Pianist, Composer, and Artistic Director), and Donna Bennet (Soprano, Co-founder, and Marketing Director) founded The Westben Arts Festival Theatre.

Westben is a not-for-profit run by a Board of Directors, and is dedicated to presenting theatre and music from seasoned and budding musicians, singers, actors, and artists.

Donna and Brian are both in their own right internationally successful musicians and singers, but in 1990, after living and working in Europe, the couple made the decision to return to Campbelford, Donna’s hometown. Music still being their passion, and seeing the enthusiasm and talent of the community, they hosted and preformed many performances at local venues.

They made a tangible investment in the community, young people, and cross-generationally. They taught music lessons for advanced music students. They also ran the music program at St. John’s United Church, in Campbelford.

They are two people with so much talent and vision, that they can’t seem to help themselves from pouring it into others. They are recognizers of talent, but more than that, they have continually committed themselves to the development of other people’s talents and abilities.

As a local resident of the area, I (and many others) am so very proud to have such dedicated people as Brian and Donna working and living here.

People are what make things happen; Brian and Donna are just such people who inspire others to do and be more. They are why Westben has been and will continue to be a success.

My first connection with Westben was in public school. We went to see a show with our class and some other classes from our school and surrounding area. I don’t remember much except the violin, the Barn, and the feeling of delight in the sounds that were coming from the stage.

My connection has been brought much closer to home in the last year as my own Mum now sings with the Westben Festival Chorus. I’ve rarely been so proud of anyone. More importantly for me is that she loves it not only for the music, but for the people whom she has the opportunity to sing and work with. She also volunteers her time to help with whatever is needed on performance days.

“This is a unique place that brings artists on the international level and local talent together to mix beautifully and grow like a family or garden. It’s an exceptionally beautiful setting which we hope and have seen affect the artists. There is a freedom to explore, grow, and connect with the audiences” says Brian.

This is something felt and understood by those attending, as well as the artists performing. After the show I had the privilege of discussing this point with all of the performing artists that day. Across the board it is felt that Westben is something different, something special.

Working with Brian and Donna is something of a special privilege in itself, as they are so kind, welcoming, and encouraging. They give the artists the confidence to do what they do best.

More than singers, the people performing at Westben are communicators; they tell stories and dreams in a way that, mixed with the setting of The Barn, comes across as more than magical. As with anything, this quality and style is passed on from those at the top. Donna and Brian instill excellence and style by being such a wonderful example of these very qualities.

“Singing with Brian is so very special. Being from Campbelford and having known Brian since I was twelve years old, coming home and singing, firstly in English and Broadway favourites, is something so different and wonderful. There are family and home connections here that make this a very emotional experience. I am glad that the weather was good to have the Barn open so that I can look out over the field and not to look into the crowd. That would have been too much, seeing the faces of family and friends for me to contain the emotions I am feeling” says Virginia Hatfield.

Hatfield is a Campbelford native and is becoming known across the country. She is a University of Toronto Faculty of Music graduate, and has also studied at the Britten-Pears School in Adleburgh.

Westben has continued to grow in success and attendance for many reasons over the years, but one that has continually brought to my attention while talking to patrons was the various types of performances and the quality of the shows put on. There really just is something for everyone.

There are people such as Dan Morris and Bill Hendricks who have come back “every year for the last 10 years, at least a few times a year.”

“The performances are fantastic! They are varied in style. We especially like the Broadway styled shows.”

Broadway Rainbows is one of Westben’s well-known original compilation shows of many Broadway favorites, featuring songs from West Side Story to Fiddler on the Roof.

These performances take shape because of the excellent performers and directors, but are held together because of the vast and dedicated volunteer base. Every year there are over 250 volunteers in various positions. Like all excellent volunteers, these people give freely of their time because of their love of the arts and their dedication to local talent.

Anyone I have interviewed in the last few days have all said the exact same thing: “I love working with Brian.”

Music has been a big part of my life since as long as I can remember. More importantly, good quality music has not only become important to me but very nearly essential. Westben is and shall remain one of my favorite venues to see and hear music for this very reason. It is such a perfect blend of local and international talent.

I had the wonderful opportunity of speaking with Artistic Director Brian Findley briefly after the show.

What has been the most exciting part of 2013?

That we are still here, and that people love and enjoy our performances and keep coming back. That there are still so many possibilities for growth and development.

This year you were able to purchase a Steinway Concert Grande Piano. Could you tell me about this?

Yes, we have always wanted a world class instrument for the artists and the community because we feel they deserve it, for many reasons. It’s something to be shared and heard by everyone and anyone who comes here. It is a 40 year-old Steinway and it’s just coming into its prime.

We found it surprisingly enough on Craigslist and received a grant from Celebrate Ontario to cover part of the cost. The rest we will be fund-raising for in the upcoming months. Westben, like almost all other Artistic institutions, continue to run and expand their programs on the generous support of donors.

What are your goals for 2014?

Developing an Opera program, one that would involve more people locally and across the country. Also, to grow regular attendance, be better known to people in and outside the area. For others to share in the Dream that is Westben. Everything else is still in the works and thus I can’t give too much away… other than 2014 should be a very exciting season.

What would you say to those who still have not yet been to Westben this season or even previous?

Don’t miss it! There is amazing talent here, at the Juno level, the internationally renowned level! There is just some really amazing artists and communicators. It’s more than an ordinary performance.

Unfortunately, the summer season is over. However, there is also “The Little Match Girl” which is a semi-staged Christmas production. It will feature the voices of Donna Bennet and the combined Westben Youth, Teen, and Festival Choruses. It is an original work by Brian Findley.

Dates and times for the performances can be found on the Westben website. Tickets for these performances are reasonably priced, especially for those of us on a more budgeted income. For a student, it is $15 for an excellent night of entertainment is not something easily found.

With Campbelford being under an hour away from Peterborough, this could in the future be something which hopefully a greater portion of the student body could take part in.

All I can say after all this excitement is that you need to go take in some of this amazing talent. This is and has something for everyone. So, I hope to see you out at The Barn!

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