A chance to perform on stage changed Karen Smith’s life.
It was 2001 and then-director Colleen Whidden was putting on Guys and Dolls. At the urging of a friend, Smith auditioned for a role and has been involved, in some capacity, in every show since then. She is also the historian of the 100 Mile Performing Arts Society, keeping photo albums of its 35 productions.
“One of my friends, for Guys and Dolls, said ‘why don’t you come and audition’ and that was the start,” Smith, 69, said. “Of course, I was really very shy but that audition totally changed my life.”
In those days, the shows were purely passion projects, with people like Whidden – along with the Tupmans, Smith and her husband Gord and other members of the 100 Mile House United Church – putting their own money into the sets, costumes and buying the stage rights for their productions. They would only get that money back if ticket sales were good, which wasn’t always a guarantee.
The 100 Mile Performing Arts Society was incorporated in 2007 after Whidden and her husband moved to Alberta. Smith said they wanted to fundraise and receive grants so the budget for their shows no longer came directly from their own pockets.
The first show not directed by Whidden was 2006’s Once Upon a Mattress and that remains one of Smith’s favourites. She played the jester in the satirical retelling of The Princess and the Pea and enjoyed prancing across the stage in bright livery. The confidence she gained from being on stage is something she’s keen to share with other shy people and is part of her pitch whenever she goes to schools to recruit students for performances.
In 2011, Smith’s friend Margot Shaw, 58, joined the society after her son auditioned for a part in Annie. Unlike Smith, Shaw found herself drawn to the technical side of theatre, serving as stage manager and the lights and sound person in the tech booth. Shaw said she realized after Annie, where she was a member of the chorus, that teaching at the same time was too demanding on her time.
“There have literally been hundreds of people involved over the years in all the different productions in the town,” Shaw said. “There’s an amazing group of talented people here. When you start digging into it there’s an amazing wealth of talent here for an itty bitty little town in the middle of nowhere. We are amazing.”
Both Shaw and Smith have seen children grow up through the theatre. Shaw’s son Ben Pilger is now a drama teacher, much to her pride.
Up until their most recent show, 2020’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Shaw said the society had largely stuck to smaller-scale productions. Big musicals and ensemble pieces like 2012’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and 2010’s The Sound of Music were fun to put on but a little overwhelming, especially for such a small group. Instead, they staged shows like 2015’s Art of Murder and The Melville Boys, moving away from their musical roots.
The art society hasn’t been able to put on a performance in recent years due to COVID-19 and flooding at Martin Exeter Hall, which is their usual venue.
However, they hope to put on a musical-focused pantomime in December this year, likely a classic fairy tale to adapt that would be family-friendly and fun to watch. A pantomime, Shaw added, also tends to be cheaper so that if it doesn’t go ahead, the society won’t be out thousands of dollars.
“We have lots of people who really desperately want to put something on again but between Martin Exter Hall being flooded and the pandemic (we’ve been stuck),” Shaw said. “We would very much like to go back to big shows in the near future.”