On February 24th, 1935 a number of citizens of Kitchener and Waterloo came together at the YMCA at the corner of Queen St. and Weber St. in downtown Kitchener to discuss the formation of a community theatre group.
The meeting was organized by Fred L. Dreger, a young lawyer and recent graduate of Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, and by the end of the evening he had been elected as the first president of the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre.
The group’s first production was mounted on November 29th of that year, and featured two J. M. Barrie plays: “Shall we joint the ladies?” and “The twelve-pound look”. The venue was the auditorium for the Kitchener Collegiate Institute, which would serve as the principal host for KWLT’s productions for decades to come.
At its beginning KWLT was part of a larger community theatre movement within Ontario; locally we’re of an age with Guelph Little Theatre and a bit younger than Galt Little Theatre (now the Cambridge Community Players). All of these organizations quickly joined the Western Ontario Drama League, an umbrella group founded in 1932 to support the development of amateur theatre in this part of the province. One of their main activities is mounting an annual theatre festival, with entrants chosen from the member groups’ productions; KWLT’s first entry was Eugene O’Neill’s “Ile” and played in the 1937 WODL festival in Galt. The following year saw KWLT’s first award at the WODL festival, with “Elizabeth the Queen” taking the Meredith Thophy for Most Improvement.
The group’s first production was mounted on November 29th of 1935, and featured two J. M. Barrie plays: “Shall We Joint The Ladies?” and “The Twelve-Pound Look”. The venue was the auditorium for the Kitchener Collegiate Institute, which would serve as the principal host for KWLT’s productions for decades to come.
“Shall we joint the ladies?” by J.M. Barrie
The frivolous and gay air at a well-to-do dinner party is shattered rather suddenly when the host announces that all thirteen guests were at Monte Carlo several years ago on the night when his brother was murdered.
"The Twelve-Pound Look" by J.M. Barrie
Harry Sims is about to be knighted. However, the typist he has hired to answer the messages of congratulation turns out to be the wife who left him several years ago without explanation. Unaware of their connection, the new Lady Sims admires the typist’s capability.
1940 marked the first year that KWLT hosted the WODL festival, again using the KCI auditorium as the performance space. Our company saw further success in the festival in 1942, when actor Frederick A. Mann won the Jordan Memorial Award for best acting by a male performer.
Shortly afterwards, of course, was the Second World War. With many of the young men of KW in Europe and rationing at home, KWLT ceased operations for a couple of years, starting up again in 1945. The brief break did nothing to dampen community enthusiasm for the theatre; the 1947-48 season saw the subscribing membership top 1000 for the first time.
With many of the young men on KW in Europe and rationing at home, KWLT ceased operations for a couple of years, starting up again in 1945. The brief break did nothing to dampen community enthusiasm for the theatre; the 1947-48 season saw the subscribing membership top 1000 for the first time.
Another notable first in this decade came in December 1948, when KWLT mounted the first amateur production of Robertson Davies’ play “Fortune, my foe”.
Davies, then editor of the Peterborough Examiner, was a strong proponent of both amateur and professional theatre; he had given a keynote speech praising Canadian community theatre during the 1946 Dominion Drama Festival, and in the 1950s would have a significant hand in getting the Stratford Festival off the ground. Davies was in the audience for the final night of KWLT’s performances of his play as adjudicator.
The growth of the 1940s continued into the 50s, with the 1950 season opener setting a record for total audience. In 1952 the membership tally as 187 active members and another 1603 subscribers (season ticket holders).
The theatre also continued its participation with the larger theatre scene in Canada.
In 1952 KWLT was awarded a trophy in the Goderich one-act play festival, to which they returned in 1954 a mere three days after the opening of the new building. The play that opened the 1954 season was from a community theatre in Hamilton; in the early days it was quite common for groups to tour their productions around to other nearby theatres. Most excitingly, in 1955 KWLT’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All my sons” was selected as the best show at the WODL festival, winning the (21 member) cast and crew the opportunity to perform at the Dominion Drama Festival in Regina. The trip was ultimately funded by the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo as well as by KWLT itself.
The most important development in the 50s was the acquisition of our building at 9 Princess Street East in Waterloo… now simply known as “the theatre”, of course.
The building had started out in the late 1800s or early 1900s as a carriage shed; it was purchased around 1909 by a veterinarian and renovated to become both his home and office space. Over the next forty years the building would serve as a dairy, a private home, a garage, a butcher’s shop, and a welding shop that also repaired motorcycles. Since 1948 it had been owned by the Kuntz family as the home of what became Kuntz Electroplating; the business was successful enough that in 1952 they needed to move to larger quarters in Kitchener.
KWLT bought the then-empty building from the Kuntzes in 1953, following a fundraising drive. A key part of the funding for the building came in the form of $300 loans from individual members (both active and subscribers) that were paid back over the course of the next few years. Donations were also gathered from more than 60 local firms and individuals. On October 7th, 1954 the KWLT building opened its doors as an office, rehearsal studio, and workshop.
By the 60s, the television had become widespread enough to seriously cut into the interest in community theatre; despite KWLT’s continued success commercially and artistically, the theatre’s subscriptions began to fall short of its ambitions.
In 1963, a membership drive with the aim of signing 2000 subscribers ended up netting the theatre around 1500 instead, and the numbers would continue to fall.
Work on the building continued, however. In 1964 a fundraising campaign brought in $10500 for additions and renovations; this paid for the expansion of the building to the rear, building up the workshop area (which is now the theatre space). The building also served as the venue for receptions, workshops, and meetings of the various interest groups within KWLT.
Towards the end of the decade, KWLT’s ambitions grew again. To mark their new artistic direction away from the traditional fare of community theatre, the members changed the company’s name to Tempo Theatre. (They were not alone in this drive; around the same time, Galt Little Theatre became Phoenix Theatre.)
For the first few years of the 70s, Tempo Theatre was much concerned with finding a new home; members had pledged $10,000 (worth over $60,000 in today’s dollars) towards this goal.
One idea that was floated was to build a theatre on the grounds surrounding Kitchener Memorial Auditorium; another was to acquire a suitable building in uptown Waterloo and renovate it to suit. (There was a building under serious consideration at the corner of King and Princess, just up the street from the workshop.) None of the plans came to fruition, and by 1973 KWLT had restored its original name and stopped planning for its own performance space.
At this point, KWLT was well established as an innovator in the realm of community theatre. With 1977’s production of “Godspell”, we became the first amateur theatre in Canada to have produced all of the “Big Three” musicals of the day, having mounted productions of “Hair” in 1974 and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1975.
By the late 70s, most of KWLT’s plays were being mounted at the Pavilion in Victoria Park, a trend that would continue through the 1980s. Tackling modern musicals, broad farces, and serious dramatic works with equal aplomb (and generally good reviews), the company’s membership nonetheless continued to decline.
The story of the 80s is much like that of the late 70s: KWLT continued to put on a broad variety of shows, mixing the ambitious and experimental with the tried-and-true.
Victoria Park Pavilion was the principle venue, but some of the smaller shows began to use the rehearsal studio space at 9 Princess Street East for their performances. A typical season would feature three or sometimes four major productions, one of which was geared towards children.
One notable production of the era was 1984’s “Waiting for the Parade”, written by Canadian dramatist John Murrell. Set in Calgary during 1939-45, the drama focuses on the women waiting at home and supporting the war effort. All five characters are women, and in KWLT’s production so were the director and all of the major members of the production staff. Mounted on the weekends surrounding Remembrance Day, the KWLT production received some of the strongest praise of any of our shows in the local media.
1985-86 marked the 50th anniversary season of KWLT, which was celebrated with an evening of dinner theatre at the Walper. Many of the guests were former presidents of the organization, including founding president Fred Dreger himself who gave the keynote address. While membership in the 80s was nowhere near where it had been in the heyday of the 50s, the overall feeling was that KWLT continued to serve a niche and would become more active as new blood came into the organization.
In the 80s, KWLT had started to mount a few productions in our own space; in the 1990s, this became the norm.
First was the rehearsal area on the second floor of the original building; dubbed “the Studio”, it became the home for smaller productions, including children’s theatre and some edgier experimental works. The current tradition of regular one-act play weekends began with the Studio.
Shortly afterwards, the workshop area (the back part of the building that had previously been used for set construction) was renovated to create a black box theatre space, and “Stage One” was born. For the next decade, essentially all KWLT shows would be mounted in our own spaces.
The development of our performances spaces created significant opportunities for collaborations and partnerships with other local arts and culture groups. Local improv group Theatresports (now Theatre on the Edge) frequently used the Studio both for performances and workshops. Following a CD release concert by local musician Jack Cooper at KWLT, musicians Matt Osborne and Craig Cardiff started the Woodsounds concert series of singer-songwriters presenting their music in an intimate atmosphere.
A typical season in the late 90s would include three or four main-stage productions, two or three one-act play weekends, plus monthly performances of the variety show “Lip Service” and occasional collaborations with other local theatre groups, many of which were offshoots of KWLT itself.
The big story of the Aughts is the one that everyone remembers: on July 19th, 2002, an electrical fire destroyed most of the front half of the building: the Studio, the lobby, and the green room were all lost, and with them much of KWLT’s history.
The damage was largely confined to the original structure, however; the workshop turned Stage One expansion was mostly untouched.
The Board of the time was faced with a difficult choice: rebuild at the Princess Street location, or look to put down stakes elsewhere? The decision came down on the side of rebuilding, and for the next seven years the focus of KWLT was on just that: raising capital through grants and donations, bringing in contractors for some of the work and volunteers for the rest.
In the meantime, there were still shows to run. During the rebuild KWLT returned to the nomadic ways of its earlier days, renting out spaces like the Registry Theatre in downtown Kitchener and the (now former) Church Theatre in St. Jacobs for our productions.
KWLT reopened its doors at 9 Princess Street East in July of 2009 for its production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”; the 2009-10 season was the first since the fire to be housed entirely within our own space.
On July 9th, Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre reopened for the final show of the season, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” directed by Karen B. Grierson.
It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals (and ex-lovers) who use seduction as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their manipulative talents. It has been claimed to depict the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. However, it has also been described as an amoral story.
And so here we are!
Since the rebuild, we’ve settled into a pattern of five main stage productions each season, plus either a one-act plays production or a “popcorn plays” workshop.
Our play selection continues to mix the traditional fare of community theatre with more experimental works one might expect to see in a fringe festival. Our shows have been quite successful for us financially as well; as of 2014 we had paid off the line of credit that was the last remaining debt from the rebuilding effort.
The biggest feature of the old building that we miss is the Studio. The second-story space served many roles: a secondary performance venue, a rehearsal hall, extra storage for our costumes and props, office space… It’s been the dream for us to build a new second story atop the front of the current building, and as we look forward we’re beginning to put the pieces together to start that process.
Our membership and administration continues to skew young for community theatre, as we are fortunate to pick up a great many new volunteers from among the local university students and new graduates.
February 24th is the official birthday of Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre!Read more
Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre celebrates the start of their 80th season with a party at the theatre.
Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was selected as the opening production for the 2015-2016 season.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1962 play by Edward Albee. It examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Late one evening, after a university faculty party, they receive an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests, and draw them into their bitter and frustrated relationship.