The show must go on

The house lights dim, the curtain goes up and the magic begins. Music, dancing, drama, live theatre. There’s nothing quite like it, is there? And that’s what the Smile Theatre Company is all about. For almost 30 years, this company of players has followed their credo of “taking professional theatre to those, who due to physical, financial or transportation difficulties, cannot attend regular stage performances”.

Every year, the Smile Theatre Company visits over 70 senior facilities in Southern Ontario. These talented, professional performers are ever-prepared for the challenge of performing in the most unlikely spaces. Their sets can work in the foyer of a retirement home or lobby of a hospital, a recreational hall, even a gym. But large or small, fancy or not, the “show must go on”… and it always does, due to the dedicated, indomitable spirit of the Smile Company ensemble.

The company does 10 shows a week over a six-week period each season, and most have a Canadian or “heritage” theme and a central character – stories to which a senior audience can relate. Tom Kneebone has been the group’s artistic director for the past 10 years. As an actor, writer, cabaret perform and winner of numerous awards, Tom brings years of theatre experience – not to mention his unique style and effervescent personality – to every production. The multi-talented Dinah Christie has also contributed words and music to many of the shows.

The stalwart team also includes stage manager Catherine Dice Hiscock and musical director Mark Rutherford. This year’s line-up, as usual, has been a varied one with stories of unique and fascinating characters.

At The Hostess was the story of the Baigries, a couple that ran a restaurant at the C.N.E. in the 40’s. They cooked – and laughed – with all the stars that appeared at the old stadium. People like comics Olsen and Johnson, Hollywood big shots, Russian ballerinas, midgets and impersonators; Come to the Woods told the tale of Ann Langton who emigrated from England to Ontario in 1837. This one-woman show by the talented Barbara Dunn-Prosser gives a vivid picture from Ann’s journal – in words and music – of her life in those pioneer days. Langton’s water colours and sketches are now considered minor masterpieces. Have a Good Doris Day was a fun show solely performed by a truly stunning entertainer, Susan Greenfield. Susan kept the audiences totally absorbed with her singing, dancing and relaying of witty anecdotes about Doris’s life. After the show that I attended, many of the audience members made their way to Susan to express their congratulations and thanks for giving them such a pleasurable evening.

The season ended this year with Mrs. Anna and I, the fascinating story of Anna Harriet Leonowens, the fearless Englishwoman who was governess to the children of the King of Siam. A little known fact is that she lived in Canada for 40 years after leaving Siam.

It’s a hectic schedule, meeting the deadline for every show, but as Tom says “everything we give, we get back ten-fold because of the response of the audiences. And the letters we receive are truly heart-warming.”

From one audience member: “I just wanted you and your wonderfully talented company to know that you have renewed my faith in the human race…and given me the will to hang around a little longer.” And from the manager of a senior facility: “We seldom receive such a high calibre performance”.

The group’s Heritage Shows evoke much nostalgia. Tom says the story ideas come from many sources. One of last year’s productions was called The Light in Winnie’s Window, about English War brides, generated special interest and led to the formation of a war bride’s association in Ontario. Seeing the Smile group in action at one of the seniors’ venues – hearing the laughter, watching the joy and pleasure on the faces, and discovering how much folks look forward to the shows – one can’t help but be moved by the gratitude and response of these audiences. It’s easy to see why Tom Kneebone and his troupe continue with this “labour of love.”

The Smile Theatre Company is a non-profit, charitable organization with a portion of its costs paid for by The Ontario Arts Council and Metro Toronto. However, more than 50 per cent of the funding must be raised by donations. One lady wrote a most eloquent letter: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a fairy godmother for an endowment? Your struggle to keep the company afloat seems a waste of energy which is needed to develop the shows.”

At the time of writing, the Smile Theatre Company has been ousted from its present quarters above the Mirvish facilities in Toronto.

And if indeed there is an “angel” out there (corporate or otherwise), financial assistance would not go unrewarded – it would ensure that the Smile Theatre Company can continue to raise the curtain, bringing smiles and laughter – and a little magic – to seniors and shut-ins.