THE MUSKOKAN - Frustration levels are rising amongst members of the non-profit Muskoka Theatre Project, as they feel they are getting the runaround from Gravenhurst council over their proposal to take over management of the Gravenhurst Opera House.
Playwright/producer Vince Grittani, who founded the original Muskoka Theatre Project in Rosseau in 2001, said after six months of back and forth with the town, he is tired.
“We put a business plan together. We basically showed how we could turn (the Opera House) around and make it self-sufficient and at the same time still keep everything intact that’s there,” said Grittani. “Then we kept going back and forth and back and forth and I don’t think anybody got it.”
Grittani believes the town council is concerned they could be left with a big debt or that with third-party management, the community could lose access to the landmark facility. The recent changes in CAOs and director of economic development haven’t helped either.
Neither Gravenhurst mayor Paisley Donaldson nor Geoff Carleton, director of infrastructure for the town, would comment about the reasons for the delay, though Carleton did offer to speak following the next council meeting on Oct. 16, when the matter is scheduled to come up once again.
“As a resident, I’m very frustrated because we’ve all been hearing all the same stuff: we need to revitalize uptown,” said Muskoka Theatre Project president and Gravenhurst resident Mary Gair. “We’ve come up with a really great opportunity… I think they’re fearful, which I understand, but at some point you have got to make the smart decision.”
Most recently performing outdoor theatre in a tent at Red Leaves in Minett, the Muskoka Theatre Project has not put on a performance since 2010, after the Rosseau, the hotel at Red Leaves, went into receivership.
“It always comes down to us not having a home,” said Grittani.
The group had big plans for the opera house venue, including a possible school of performing arts. However, the idea was to start gradually, beginning next year with an eight-week run of a one-woman play starring Loretta Swit.
“Quiet I’m Talking” is an award-winning play, written by Grittani, that tells the story of a 99-year-old American woman who has cottaged in Muskoka her whole life, from her perspective.
“She loves the script and she really wanted to put her twist on it,” said Grittani, who has since had to cancel discussions with Swit’s agent. “We were just starting to negotiate price… it would have packed. What they’re giving up on is millions of dollars in revenue that would have come in.”
That revenue includes spin-off dollars in the community.
“There’s a proven formula that every dollar spent on a ticket in the theatre, $5 to $7 will be spent in your community,” said Gair, on items such as food, retail and accommodations.
With uncertainty surrounding the Gravenhurst Opera House, the Muskoka Theatre Project board has been looking at other possible venues in Gravenhurst. The group is currently in discussions with a corporate sponsor with a vacant building in town.
“We’re doing a study right now about the cost to convert and create our own theatre,” said Grittani. “It would become not just a theatre, but a cultural centre focused on art and culture as it pertains to the lifestyle of cottage living.”
Whether they are at the Opera House or competing with the Opera House, Grittani believes the key to a successful business plan is corporate sponsorship in the form of a name on the venue.
“That’s what I wanted to do with the Opera House… Put a name above it, sell the name, that will bring millions,” said Grittani, but added town council was against that. “They don’t understand what sponsorship means. People don’t want to give money away for free, they want to know what’s in it… I know it sounds commercial and crass, but that’s the new reality.”
As the group awaits a decision expected in the next couple of weeks from their potential corporate partner on the use of the vacant building in town, the Muskoka Theatre Project board has just learned this week that they have been added to another Gravenhurst council agenda on Oct. 16 to again discuss use of the Opera House. If a confirmed venue is not located soon, next year’s season will be in jeopardy for the Muskoka Theatre Project.
“It’s never too late,” said Grittani. “But people are booking for next summer, when it comes to tour companies, and we’re going to miss out on that and it’s really a shame because we could have really put together something super.”