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Kate Story and Ryan Kerr of the Theatre On King during the Theatre's 10th Anniversary Party on July 14th 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay

"Just Say Yes": The Theatre on King Celebrates Ten Years of Weird

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
and
July 17, 2023
"Just Say Yes": The Theatre on King Celebrates Ten Years of Weird
Kate Story and Ryan Kerr of the Theatre On King during the Theatre's 10th Anniversary Party on July 14th 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay

Just a few months ago, if you had asked Kate Story and Ryan Kerr if The Theatre on King (TTOK) would have been operating past June 2023, they wouldn’t have been sure. 

When I spoke to them back in March for a piece which appeared in kawarthaNOW shortly after they had learned that Peterborough’s City Council had voted against funding the unsuccessful candidates for 2023 Community Investment Grants, Kerr was seriously looking at the possibility of closing the theatre after programming ran out at the end of June.  

The Community Investment Grant debacle saw the theatre go from receiving the maximum $15,000 in 2022 to nothing in 2023. Despite efforts by some councillors to come to a middle-ground compromise, ultimately no money was granted to TTOK through the grant system. 

Since April, however, the community has spoken loudly and decisively that they do not want TTOK to shut down anytime soon. Through a series of successful grassroots fundraising campaigns and local patron and business dollar-matching programs and donations, TTOK has survived. In early June the theatre announced that they had re-signed a two-year lease with their current landlords Chearney Properties at the same rates they were paying in 2018.

With the bitter taste of those weeks and months still lingering, TTOK persists; and on July 14th it invited community members to come out and celebrate its 10th birthday with a party held in the venue’s back parking lot.  

Featuring an eclectic lineup of performances including bands, poets, and sketch-comedy, the evening felt like a proverbial middle finger to the establishment. It would seem that was the point, at least to some extent.

I arrived as a band fronted by Sarah DeCarlo and including local luminaries Charlie Glasspool, Chris Culgin, Diamond Dave, and Wyatt Burton whipped through a set. It wasn’t long before I was being embraced by a man in sunglasses, who proved to be Monaghan Ward Councillor Matt Crowley.

Sarah DeCarlo heads up a band during TTOK's 10th Anniversary Party on July 14th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

Fittingly, Crowley was behind the failed motion to allocate funds to TTOK and the Artisans Centre Peterborough. He, alongside Town Ward Councillors Joy Lachica (also in attendance) and Alex Bierk, supported the granting of $9,500 to both recipients. At the same meeting, he also passed a successful motion to review the grant funding application and approval process. 

But this was no time to talk politics. It was a birthday party, after all.

After I repented for my lack of moustache (Crowley is a fan) and explained that his glasses rendered him completely anonymous in a crowd, I went to go check out the promised merchandise alongside fellow Arthurians Isla and Abby. 

All of the TTOK branded mugs, pins, and shirts for sale featured the curious phrase #DRAMACLUB which I later confirmed during a conversation Ryan Kerr is a throwback to Lesley Parnell’s infamous citation of her extensive experience in her middle school and highschool drama clubs as her reason for caring deeply for professional arts organizations in the city.

The pointed merchandise by Renegade Apparel on sale at The Theatre On King. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay

The subtle yet direct nature of this jab was perfect, I thought. One attendee, who shall remain anonymous due to their line of work and esteemed position in the community, sardonically asked where Parnell was. This was met with raucous approving laughter by those in the immediate vicinity.

The 10th anniversary of the theatre was a perfect occasion for Story and Kerr to also reach out and offer up the chance for supporters to come out enjoy themselves    

“We knew that we wanted to do something to thank people for the incredible outpouring of support,” Story said in a phone interview following the event, outlining how difficult, yet uplifting, the previous months had been. “This whole year has just been very uncomfortable and frightening and bewildering, and also incredibly heartening and incredibly moving.”

The bitterness and exhaustion around what transpired earlier this year is ever present, but it is tinged by a newfound hopefulness in TTOK’s future, spurred on by the outpouring of support for the theatre from across the community. 

“It seems to me that the thing that people love about the Theatre on King is that it's a space where we just say ‘yes.’ That seems to be such a rare thing in our society. That it generates this level of commitment and support from people and it makes me happy that it is a space where people feel that they can hear that word—‘Yes’—But it makes me really sad and kind of angry that that is so rare in our society.”

This dichotomy was reflected in the performances throughout the night. The sketch comedy group Hermit Club made up of Adam Martignetti, Lindsay Unterlander, Luke Foster and Daniel Smith, performed a series of poignant and uproarious skits set in the future nakedly pointing fun at the precarity of the arts, performativety of Land Acknowledge and making thinly veiled references to a future wherein downtown Peterborough is inhospitable due to impending ecological collapse and the rise to power of a mayor whose name is striking similar to a stand-out drama student.

Hermit Club takes centre stage with an uproarious improve set on July 14th, 2023 for The Theatre On King's 10 Anniversary Party. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

“We didn't tell anybody what to do,” Story would later tell me. “We just asked people to do stuff. We just went ‘Would you do something?’”

The event was emceed by actor, writer, and performer Naomi Duvall, which was apparently a very last minute decision by Story and Kerr. 

“We just asked her to perform, and then suddenly we were like, ‘Oh Christ!’ I think like three days before. ‘Somebody should emcee!’ Because Ryan and I are terrible at that,” Story said with a laugh.

Local poets performed a series of poems created out of an event which saw Million and Elisha Rubacha engage in a 24 hour poetry writing and chapbook making session. With “impossible” themes like “best day ever” and “foisted” (the personal favourite word of Jackson Creek Press’s Jeff Macklin), the Million swilled Pabst Blue Ribbon as he entertained those assembled. 

Poet Justin Million works the crowd with a series of poems for The Theatre on King's 10th Anniversary on July 14th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay

The evening also saw Jessica Scott perform a powerful and deeply autobiographical poem about her experience living with a disability caused during her birth.

“I haven't heard her speak so directly about her own disability before and so I was moved and honored,” Story said.

Jessica Scott reads a poem at The Theatre On King on July 14th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

At one point, I spied a nascent smoking section marked by a singular coffee tin on the pavement. When I got there, I was greeted by none other than Jeff Macklin who was in his words the “smoking pit attendant” despite the fact he was not smoking anything. 

Macklin’s company, of course, was welcome as he and I are similarly disposed to tragic gallows humour. We proceeded to discuss the dark fact that should an act of God transpire and target the confines of this parking lot, which by this point was full of every lefty freak and major anti-establishment artist in Peterborough, it would effectively shift the entire political will of the City sharply to the right. The notion that City Council would arrange for designated survivors proved funnier than it should have been, perhaps. 

Macklin is also the man behind TTOK’s new donor wall, which was unveiled over the course of the evening’s festivities.

When asked about the donor wall, Story talked about the ways in which it evokes the theatre’s proximity to Jackson Creek. Included in the donor wall, which depicts a map of Peterborough, is reference to many of the major plays and events which have taken place at TTOK since its founding. 

“I liked the idea of having a landscape there because when Jackson Creek flooded, you know, back in 2004 and it burst its banks it was such a great physical image,” Story said. “You have this colonial grid stamped over the landscape and this Creek that runs obliquely through it and then there was enough rain that it just like kind of fucked up all the whole colonial grid.”

The new donor wall designed by Jack Creek Press's Jeff Macklin which was unveiled during the 10th Anniversary Party on July 14th, 2023. Photo: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

When I met up with Kerr at the theatre the Monday following the anniversary event, he echoed many of Story’s sentiments regarding just how moved he was by the outpouring of support TTOK has received since March by a wide cross section of the community.  

The event was sponsored in part by the DBIA and supported through a special events fund from the City which was used to pay all the performers and Macklin for his work on the donor wall. Another project arising from the 10th anniversary of TTOK is the renovation of the theatre’s website and archive by Karol Orzechowski and Laura Thompson. 

When asked about his role in this, Orzechowski was typically humble but characterized Thompson’s task of building the online archive as “gargantuan” noting that a whole five of the 10 years (2018-2022) are completed thus far.

Thompson noted how interesting and nostalgic the project has been, especially given the number of performers and actors who have graced TTOK's stage over the past decade.

"

I’m a big supporter of online archives — I’ve volunteered with the internet archive, and have an interest in file management and architecture. I think these archives are important for our community memory," Thompson said in an Instagram message. "I hope that the documentation on the website will allow for people to view, sort, and hold this history in their own way. 

I have to mention Andy Carroll’s photography of many of the events at TTOK; it has made the documentation much more rich."

The evening ended with a set by local DJ Ryan Purdon in the main theatre space following brief remarks from Story. 

“Somehow, for some reason you all decided that you didn’t want this one theatre to close just yet, anyway,” Story exclaimed to the crowd stating how miraculous it is that TTOK is still running after 10 years. “It’s an extraordinary act.”

If the past ten years have proven anything, it would seem that they are a testament to the enduring love of TTOK within the community and just how fucking weird Peterborough is.

I think Story put it best later on the phone when talking about people’s strange habits of sending along articles about the death of theatre in North America: “In this weird town, this really weird town we live in, a huge number of people said, ‘We don't want The Theatre on King, this weird little theatre in this weird town, to die right now. We want it to keep going.’ And that's against every trend, frankly, across North America.”

TTOK’s community-based resilience in the face of bureaucratic indifference is an inspiring story about the role of art in a community like Peterborough. It shows that when a group of people want to accomplish something, they’re just as capable of doing good as they are to destroy. The beauty of TTOK rests in its capacity to thrive through optimism and belief in what’s possible, and to never take “No” as an end point to a conversation. 

TTOK and the Peterborough community has, in effect, been improvising over the past three months. “Yes, and…” is their motto and, while one might imagine Lesley Parnell would be more familiar with this concept, TTOK isn’t waiting around to find out with the theatre currently booked straight through to March 2024

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