A series of Polaroid photos from the early 1980s shows the renovations that transformed two former army huts into the community theatre the Guild Hall is today, pictured on the phone (on left) of artistic director Brian Fidler. On the right is a photo showing the cast - including Fidler on the left) - of El Crocodor when it was first performed at the Guild 20 years ago. The play is set to be the first performed for the 40th anniversary this year. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)

40 years of theatre at the Guild

“It’s just a big family,” says artistic director

A mid-July afternoon and the stage is being set — well, painted on this day — as the Guild Hall in Porter Creek readies for its 40th season.

It has artistic director Brian Fidler looking back, celebrating the theatre’s past while contemplating its future, all as he gets set to deliver a season which does the same.

Sitting inside the Guild, Fidler recalls its history as co-founder Chris Dray has shared with him.

The building everyone knows now as the Guild was originally two army huts. Prior to the Guild, it was in the hands of the Porter Creek Citizens Association. Neighbourhood dances, celebrations, association board meetings and community happenings were commonplace for many years.

That is until road improvements made it easier for residents to drive between neighbourhoods. The buildings were then used less and less.

In 1979, a theatre group was making the rounds in Whitehorse performing in “any space they could find”, as Fidler put it.

They were eventually gifted the 14th Avenue property and the Guild was born.

The first event marking the creation of the new theatre company was the Founders Festival, which featured a variety of performances, Fidler said.

Meanwhile, the first play at the Guild is among those details “a little shrouded in the mists of time”, Fidler said.

It was either Ken Mitchell’s Cruel Tears or Dray’s own Raven Boy, one of many locally written plays the Guild has brought to the stage over the years.

As more performances continued so has work on the aging buildings. Windows and roofing have been replaced and in 1983 a connection was built between the two structures, making it one.

That connection is better known now as the lobby, featuring comfy couches, the theatre’s box office and washrooms. Lining the walls are posters from the seemingly endless list of productions.

Looking at the lobby walls, it doesn’t take long for Fidler to point to the poster for El Crocodor, the performance that got him started with the Guild 20 years ago.

He moved to Whitehorse and was living off funds he saved working summers in the Liard Hot Springs area. That gave him time to become very involved with the local theatre scene.

He auditioned for El Crocodor, got the part as sidekick Michael and he “was hooked.”

“It’s just a big family,” Fidler said. “People feel at home here.”

In fact, the Guild could be seen as directly responsible for bringing at least one family together.

Don Watt, who’s been designing Guild sets since the early 1980s, said it was one afternoon “34, 35 years ago” when he was at the theatre, his kids in tow, getting the stage ready he opened the door to Evi, who was on the Guild’s board and had come by to do some work.

Seeing she had a cold, he made her a hot rum and the rest, as they say, is history. The two would eventually get married.

“She says she didn’t fall for me, she fell for my kids,” Watt said with a laugh as he looked over the many posters advertising the plays he’s designed sets for.

The Threepenny Opera was his first. Among others that followed: Dracula, The Art of War, The Fire Bugs… the list goes on.

Watt keeps returning to help set the stage, averaging about two productions each year.

The extent of the work always depends on the show. Evil Dead the Musical involved digging beneath the stage to make sure actors had enough room to make their way through the trap door on stage, underneath, and come up behind the stage.

For Watt, the stage is “just a great space to play.”

“It’s like building a big sculpture people play around on,” he said.

While Watt’s work is always focused on stage design, Fidler has taken on many roles with the Guild over the years — both volunteer and paid.

It’s common for those involved with the Guild to take on a variety of roles. At one show they may be on stage performing to the audience, in another they might be behind the bar serving drinks during intermission.

As the years pass new faces become part of the Guild scene adding to the community while long-time volunteers may eventually opt for a seat in the audience.

Many long-time residents have remarked to Fidler the theatre still has the same spirit it’s had since it started.

Part of his work is finding productions that appeal to long-time theatre buffs and well gets newcomers in the door.

For 2019 that’s also meant finding productions celebrating the Guild’s history and future. Each show will be directed by a local director (including Fidler on the final play of the season) with two additional events scheduled — Stories and Songs From 40 Years on Sept. 13 and 14 and A Yukon Famous Christmas Carole in December.

Anyone who’s been involved in the Guild over the years is invited to submit photos and be part of the September event.

El Crocodor seemed an obvious choice for the season’s first play as a past production audiences clearly enjoyed.

“It’s wild and hilarious — it hooked me on the Guild way back then and I know it will hook audiences today,” Fidler said.

Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, written by Tom Stoppard the same year the Guild started will follow by The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine.

Fidler explained that play celebrates the wider Whitehorse theatre community in Whitehorse as it was staged at the Guild by Nakai Theatre 30 years ago.

“The Guild has always been a place other groups can put on their shows,” he said.

The season will wrap up with Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.

The dark future in the play is a rather stark contrast to the Guild’s brighter future that Fidler sees.

He envisions more year-round events happening there to complement the lineup of shows, improv and comedy nights that have found a home at the Guild.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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