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'Most spectacular setting:' King’s Wharf Theatre turns 25 next year

Building now housing Penetanguishene theatre was originally built in the 19th century. After a renovation or two over the years, it is now home to some of Ontario’s favourite theatrical productions

Next year will mark 25 years since Drayton Entertainment took over operations at the King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, and they’ve left crowds of theatre-goers laughing, singing, dancing and participating in their shows ever since.

You might be wondering, how does the audience participate? Through call and response, and joining the performers on stage.

Some of the youngest audience members in attendance at Peter Pan the Panto performed in a sing-along complete with hand-jive style actions that had them chomping with their arms like the crocodile does on Captain Hook.

The audience was also encouraged to say, ‘Hello, Peter Pan’ every time the actor took the stage, and to ‘Boo’ as much as possible at every sighting of Captain Hook.

The fourth wall was broken many times throughout the show by various characters including a Mrs.-Doubtfire-inspired cook that does not feature in the literature, but kept the audience laughing with both adult and kid-appropriate jokes.

Putting up the pantos as a pre-holiday offering has complimented Drayton Entertainment’s mandate of music and laughter.

“We provide moments of escape, human connection, and enjoyment for people,” says Steven Karcher, executive director at Drayton Entertainment.

Keeping the audience engaged beyond the riveting performance makes the theatre come to life for young people and helps them settle into their roles as audience members, theatre supporters, and maybe even future thespians.

Karcher says educating the audience and focusing on young people by providing an outlet for them to be performers is part of what propels both the actors and Drayton Entertainment to keep going.

“With a show like Peter Pan, involving the youth ensemble in a supporting capacity is great, because it allows us to nurture the next generation of talent,” explains Karcher.

“We can reach out to the community on a much broader level,” he notes, stating that people will come to see their colleague’s child in a play, and then learn about the excellent theatre on offer in their own backyard.

When Drayton Entertainment premiered Me and My Girl in 1999, they already had the success of operating two other venues — one in Drayton since 1991, and one in St. Jacob’s since 1997.

As the Drayton Festival Theatre continued to run at capacity, the company expanded to St. Jacob’s Country Playhouse, and then looked to replicate their success in Penetanguishene at the King’s Wharf Theatre.

“The theatre was an immediate success,” recalls the executive director, who has been with the company since 1999.

While the number of shows on offer has stayed the same, the calibre of the programming has increased over the years.

“Any artist you see on the stage at King’s Wharf, you could see at Stratford, Shaw, in Toronto, or on Broadway,” says Karcher.

When they worked with the Ontario Government to run the King’s Wharf Theatre, it was the company’s third stage, and now they have seven different venues across Ontario.

With that growth, Karcher explains, comes an established reputation in the industry.

With that well-earned reputation, the company has accessed rights to larger productions like Mama Mia, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and Jersey Boys.

Jersey Boys is a jukebox style musical built around the real-life events of the formation and break-up of the Four Seasons, and the performance will be their flagship show for the summer season of 2024.

“We all live and breathe by the last review,” says Karcher, “but how do you keep topping yourselves? The show is one thing, but how are we meeting the needs of community? That’s by working with youth in shows.”

Encouraging youth to pursue theatre is something Drayton has been doing for more than 20 years.

Karcher says Drayton Entertainment looks beyond the performance, because we’re not all performers. They have developed programs for summer camps, March break, and more that foster skills in different components of the arts like script writing, technical aspects, musical performance and site direction.

“Working with the youth is just one way to engage people beyond what they see on stage,” says Karcher.

When it comes to theatre, the location is often immaterial, because all the magic is created on stage by the actors, stage hands, set designers, painters, and lighting and sound technicians.

However, at Discovery Harbour, you get a theatre with a view.

“While every theatre is unique, [King’s Wharf Theatre] is the most spectacular setting in all of live theatre in Ontario,” says Karcher, proudly, “There is not a more picturesque setting.”

This theatre is located on the shores of Georgian Bay in the historic Discovery Harbour, a naval outpost dating back to the War of 1812. The historic building was originally a warehouse used by the garrison.

Since then it has gone through various iterations until it became the theatre it is today. Drayton Entertainment took over running the theatre in 1999. In 2011, the company worked with the Ontario Government to renovate and expand the stage and adjust the raking, or the gradual slope of theatre seats.

Those seats are often full, and have found fans from all generations with performances for all audiences.

In 2005, a Drayton original premiered with Twist and Shout, all about the British music invasion. Karcher says the production conceived by Alex Mustakas the Artistic Director and CEO was ahead of the curve of the jukebox musical.

Twist and Shout paid tribute to all of the great music of the 60s, and it was one of the most successful productions Drayton has ever mounted.

Putting up The Buddy Holly Story in 2007 was such a marker of good fortune for the theatre that they brought it back again this summer and immediately sold out.

The upcoming season at the King’s Wharf Theatre features Rocks of Ages, Steel Magnolias, Jersey Boys and A Christmas Carol: The Panto.

“This community is not lacking in arts and culture. There’s a plethora of offerings at a professional level and there’s so much to do in our own backyard.”