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A Dramatic 60 Years

Formative and transformative experiences from the Sears Festival

by Kate Lushington  

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A Dramatic 60 Years

David Cronenberg, Michele Landsberg and Judith Thompson are a few of the well-known names among Sears Festival alumnae. Just mention Sears to theatre professionals in this province – both artists and craftspeople – and chances are you will find someone whose career choice was settled because of their early festival experience.

There are also thousands of teachers on the alumnae list – including hundreds who are now passing on to their students an experience they remember as transformative.

by Kate Lushington


The 2005–06 Sears Drama Festival season involved more than 10,000 students from more than 300 schools across the province. Participants tell us that the formative impact of this 60-year tradition extends well beyond future theatre professionals and dedicated teachers.

Providing a future of fame or potential career experience for student participants is not a festival goal. Those are side effects of simpler goals: to provide a showcase for drama students and to foster understanding, excitement and improved standards for theatre in our schools. In the process, students learn a wide range of lessons – lessons of applied math as they build sets and measure lumber, of physics and chemistry as they design and hang lights. They also acquire essential experience in team building, entrepreneurship and problem solving – vital skills in any successful venture.

“It's one of the few places where students participate in an enterprise requiring collective creativity,” says Sue Daniel, a Sears veteran and organizer of the Toronto regional showcase. “When the actors stand on that stage they know they could not be there without the crew, director and stage manager, or without the lighting people or the costume and set designers and builders. They are part of something that's bigger than they are.”

What's the buzz?

The provincial showcase, this year in Toronto's Hart House Theatre, was five hectic days of performances – three each night of the 15 productions chosen from regional finalists across Ontario.

Students and their teacher-advisors travelled from as far north as Sudbury to join their counterparts from Toronto and the East, Southwest and Northwest regions. During the day, participants honed their skills in workshops on stage combat, voice production, makeup and other areas of importance to aspiring theatre aficionados. In the evening, they presented an array of excellent high school theatre productions.


Colby Mifflin in dress rehearsal for John McGregor Secondary School performance of Can You Hear Them Crying? in Chatham

For all the buzz surrounding the provincial showcase in May, the excitement is over by April for many thousands of participants across Ontario. The plays they rehearsed for months to the point of exhaustion – expending after-school energy, pools of tears and gales of laughter – have been put to rest. They are busy again with assignments and exams, trying out for summer sports, looking for part-time jobs. They may also be reminiscing and planning their next Sears attempt.

What makes these students keep coming back, year after year? What keeps their teachers going through countless extracurricular hours of research, preparation and practice – the midnight-madness rehearsals, cajoling, hounding and embracing their students through the worst of times and the best of times?

Commitment and exchange

“We keep doing this because we are constantly amazed by how wonderful the students' productions are,” writes Bev McChesney-Rumble from Kirkland Lake Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Timiskaming. “It is impossible not to be touched by how much they grow in talent and skill, in their sense of responsibility, in their friendships within their troupe and in their love of theatre.”

For veteran drama teachers the Sears Festival is a way of life, a calendar item as perennial as the seasons. But it does not only involve drama specialists. Geoffrey Mason, a guidance counsellor, provides technical expertise on productions at Perth and District Collegiate. He works with his wife Carolee Sturgeon Mason on Sears Festival productions each year and volunteers as district co-ordinator for Kingston St. Lawrence in the festival's East region. His school has hosted the district finals every year for the last 20. For teachers like Mason, this extracurricular activity is a huge commitment of time on top of their official jobs.

“Students participate in an enterprise requiring collective creativity.”

“Extracurricular activities are the real education as far as I'm concerned,” says Mason. “An awful lot of what you learn in class is not necessarily useful in life. Theatre teaches you to be a multi-tasker and to work in a group to meet a predetermined goal. These students come out of high school with skills they can use.”

On the phone at close to midnight after rehearsal one night, Mason outlines the schedule for the next few days. Tomorrow at 3 PM they'll load up the bus and, with him at the wheel, head up to Pembroke for the regional finals. They'll check into a hotel and see shows on Wednesday night. Thursday night the students will perform, and they'll see more shows on Friday night. Saturday they'll check out of the hotel in the morning, but they'll stay for the last night of the festival and the awards ceremony. Then they'll drive back to unload the sets around 2:30 AM.

The teachers involved seem to agree on the importance of students viewing each other's work, whether at district or regional levels.


Mifflin with Kent Schultz and Nicole Franklin (sitting) and Brittany DeJoseph (standing) in Can You Hear Them Crying?

“A huge part of the festival experience is getting the chance to connect with other students from different places, and to see theatre in so many styles. They see the power in what they're doing,” says Wendy McNaughton, head of drama at St. Mary's District Collegiate and Vocational Institute in the Avon Maitland DSB.

McNaughton was the Southwest region's district festival co-ordinator this year. “There was a big learning curve,” she laughs. “Unexpected snowstorms had an impact on the audience, though luckily kids got there before the roads were closed! We had 65 students billeted in the community for two nights.”

Students in McNaughton's region have more opportunities to see live theatre than most, nestled as they are close to Stratford and not far from the Shaw Festival. Not all entrants in the Sears Festival have easy access to so many professional theatres or to technical resources in their schools, especially up north. Many students rely on the power of acting and their own imaginations, and the determined support of teachers like Gail Sajo.

Bridging distances

Sajo first participated in Sears as a student in St. Catharine's in 1969. When, as a teacher, she moved to Kenora, she wanted to participate in the festival, but first she had to find local competitors.

“In the early years local meant everything within a 500 kilometre radius – Sioux Lookout, Rainy River, Fort Francis, Dryden, Thunder Bay. Weather and distances made things very difficult,” recalls Sajo. “But we did get it going and for four years in a row we travelled to regionals in Blind River, North Bay, Sudbury and Kirkland Lake. There were 15- to 18-hour drives with two staff, eight to 16 kids and all the sets and costumes packed into the bus.”

“A huge part of the festival experience is getting the chance to connect with other students.”

For students and teachers in outlying communities, the importance of the festival in fostering exchange and overcoming isolation is immeasurable. Sajo and her former students credit the Sears experience directly for the confidence they have in pursuing careers and life's possibilities. At least one has become a professional actor, one a designer and one a writer. Sajo recently received an e-mail from a former student, now teaching in Taiwan. This young woman wrote that her ability to consider living abroad came from the confidence she had gained from her festival experience.

Winds of change

Sajo moved south in the 90s and now heads the English Department at Pierre Elliott Trudeau High School in Markham. This year, her production, Dragon of the Winds, based on a Japanese folk tale, won three awards of excellence at the regional showcase, two for acting and one for the live musicians who accompanied the show.

Dragon is only one of many shows reflecting a notable change in the Sears Festival over the past 10 years, especially in the Toronto region: a massive shift in the class and ethnicity of participating students, as young teachers work with communities that have not participated in the past. Another trend, evident mainly but not entirely in Toronto, is the growing number of excellent shows that are written and directed by a student or students, or through a collaboration of students and teachers.

The third observable change is experienced throughout the province: almost 75 per cent of veteran teacher participants have retired in the last four or five years and are passing the mantle to younger teachers – many of whom are former student participants.


Vanaja Sivakumar, who plays a Geisha-in-training, and Tajana Smith, the Samurai, prepare to perform in Dragon of the Winds.

Marguerite Vermey and Carmela Arangio are two young teachers who first led the students of Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School – a girls' school in east Toronto – to the festival stage three years ago. They have taken the festival by storm each year since with three entirely different and highly theatrical collective creations – each more breathtakingly inventive than the last.

In 2004, their first year as colleagues in the drama department at Notre Dame, Vermey and Arangio presented Old Turtle, an adaptation of a contemporary American children's story by Douglas Wood.

“In the story, people are arguing about what is sacred, about whose god is right – almost destroying each other and the earth in the process,” Vermey explains, adding: “when what is sacred is what pulls us together.”

Working with a strongly multicultural community of 30 girls from Grades 9 and 10, who spoke 26 languages amongst them, Vermey and Arangio framed the story by adding two Ojibway characters – a grandmother passing her teachings on to her granddaughter as she is about to die – and alluding to indigenous peoples across the globe through costumes and music. The turtle itself was a huge puppet manipulated by six girls. Since this was at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, Vermey felt “the message was timely.”

Old Turtle went from the provincial showcase in May 2004 to the IDEA (International Drama Educators Association) conference in Ottawa in June of that year. In 2005, Notre Dame's second production, Enter My Goddess, also went to the provincials and was then performed in Toronto's Summerworks, a professional theatre festival, in August. The 24 girls in the cast received an Outstanding Ensemble Award from Toronto's NOW Magazine.

While this looks like a leap to professional theatre, Vermey – fresh from the excitement of having their current production again selected for the provincial showcase – remains passionate about the educational value of her work.

“We encourage girls who are probably fence-sitting about whether they even want to be in school,” she contends. “They take a challenge like this and see it through. There's not much that's going to spook you after going through the performance wheel at Sears.”

“They take a challenge like this and see it through.”

In North Bay, far from Toronto's cosmopolitan mix of new-Canadian voices, another young teacher is building other bridges – this time between linguistic communities. Francophone entries to the Sears Festival have a long and glowing reputation. Tasha Marleau, of École secondaire catholique Algonquin, while typical of an energetic new wave of teachers, also brings a sense of continuity with the Sears Festival tradition. She teaches at the same high school she attended as a student, where they have been doing theatre since 1968. Primarily a teacher of French, Marleau took up drama as an extracurricular activity only four years ago. Her school's production of L'Hypocrite, by Sudbury writer Michael Gauthier, and two other French-language shows went to their regional finals at the end of April.

“Of course, the adjudicators are bilingual. But the beauty of theatre is that you have more than language at your disposal,” says Gauthier. “Even anglophone students understand the play, because of the emotions of the characters.”

Set in a high school, there are three main characters, but Marleau added 10 non-speaking roles for the cliques – the rebels, the geeks, the ditzes – creating a whole world through movement, body language and costume.

“Teenagers long to be understood in their complexities and to see their world on stage. Some kids are so close to the edge they don't do well in the classroom, but they do on stage. They admire their peers. And they gain the discipline to be at rehearsals every night, no matter what.”

Sears-involved teachers all over the province witness this acquisition of self-discipline, but the content and style of the plays is as varied as the taste and imagination of the participants.

“The festival is a real crash course in theatre.” Kimberley Lewis from John McGregor Secondary School in Chatham is a co-convenor for the Southwest regional finals. Her school's show, Can You Hear Them Crying?, is a historical drama with additional material recovered from the children of the Terezin ghetto. The students did a lot of research and shared their discoveries with the whole school, as well as with the festival audience.

Celebration of community

Like Marleau, Lewis didn't train in drama, but she's been hooked on the Sears Festival for 22 years. “I learned by going. We all learn, kids and teachers. You get a sense of accomplishment and pride in your own production. It's a sense of celebration and community. It sounds corny but it's the truth.”

This sense of community seems to sustain both students and teachers through the long hours of fundraising, organizing and seemingly endless rehearsals. It helps them face the inevitable disappointments. Not everyone rides all the way through to provincials and beyond for three years running, like those indomitable young women from Notre Dame in Toronto.


Matthieu Hurtubise, Danielle Clarke and Sarah Janveaux (foreground) with Yves Dubé, Rachel Daigle and Tyler Gagné (background)

And what about the competitive side of the Sears Festival? Rob McCubbin, host of this year's regional finals in North Bay, sees this as another recent change.

“In the past, it was more competitive, more cutthroat,” says McCubbin. “People are more generous now.”

“Someone has to lose, but no one really does,” says Lewis. “Adjudication stresses the positive, and so do the teachers. We all leave feeling successful.”

Lewis and McCubbin still think that competition and rewards are important. McCubbin's students have told him, “We've got thick skins. We want to hear what the adjudicators really think.”

Rewarding future

Certainly, for some students, their competitive nature spurs them to take greater risks in search of higher rewards. This is evident in the current proliferation of student writing and directing – clearly stimulated by the introduction of new play awards at district, regional and provincial levels. The provincial award was added by Wayne Fairhead, the festival's executive director.

“Competition allows the kids to raise their own bar,” says Lewis.

In fact, every significant theatre in Ontario has at least one Sears alumnus, and they are beginning to give back. The Stratford Festival has recently got in on the act, presenting readings of two winning plays as part of their workshop series in September. In Toronto, Soul Pepper Theatre offers passes to students who make it to the Toronto regional showcase.

Each spring, as the tens of thousands of participants return to their everyday lives, some will start dreaming of the stories to come – as the Sears Festival moves into its next 60 years.

A brief history

The Sears Drama Festival was founded in 1946 by Ken Watts – an actor and children's radio personality.

Watts had been hired to help with youth promotions by Simpson's, where he met and subsequently married Ann Abbott. Abbott became business manager for the Simpsons-sponsored festival. Sears inherited the festival when it bought the store chain in 1980.

The festival began with three Toronto schools and expanded rapidly. It had tripled in size by 1954 and by 1956 it included 12 of Toronto DSB's 17 high schools plus 14 from what is now the GTA. By its 50th anniversary in 1996, participants numbered 7,000. Today, over 10,000 students compete annually from nearly 400 schools from accross the province.


Quaintly, Burlington is in the Northwest and Hamilton in the Southwest region. The original demarcations referred perhaps to their respective geographical relationship to Lake Ontario.

The actual North did not participate until the 1970s and is by far the largest geographic region.

Three students from Sudbury acted together in 1970 – the first year that included the North. Two – Richard Rose and John Krizanc – later went on to create the multi-award-winning audience-participation show, Tamara. Rose is now the artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, home to excellent Canadian plays. The third player was committed Sears veteran and teacher Geoffrey Mason, in his only acting role.

Festival structure

The Sears Ontario Drama Festival divides the province into five geographic regions – Toronto, East, Southwest, Northwest and North – of vastly varying geographic distances and population bases. Regions are further divided into districts. In the East and Southwest regions there are six districts. Toronto and the North have four districts each.

The Toronto region, extending from Peel in the west to Dufferin in the east and Simcoe in the north, hosted 115 plays from 100 schools (out of a possible 600). By contrast, the four districts in the North region had 15 participating schools this year. Nine shows from these 15 attended the regional finals in North Bay.

Three finalists from each region attend the provincial showcase in early May – held this year at Hart House, University of Toronto.


Recognition of participants is central to the festival. Local adjudicators select winners for various district awards of merit and excellence – for acting, directing, writing, sound and lighting, set design, music – and they select the plays that will move on to each regional showcase. Each regional adjudicator then selects winners of regional awards and the plays that will move on to the provincial showcase. Both district and regional awards are presented on the final night of each regional showcase.

At the provincial showcase, awards – including the Wayne Fairhead New Play Award and the Ken and Ann Watts Foundation scholarships and bursaries are also presented.