Row I Theatre Company looking to expand local performance options

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer
kkellar@fortfrances.com

There’s a new home for musical theatre lovers in the district, with distinct hopes that performers too old for high school shows will be able to put on an annual spectacle.

Trevor Barker is the musical director and founder of Row I Theatre in Fort Frances, a new theatre company that is aiming to expand musical and performing options for those who live in the district at a time when such similar offerings are often relegated only to elementary or high school productions. After time spent in southern Ontario, and having been back in Fort Frances for a number of years, Barker said it was his long-time love of musical theatre, and his knowledge of local talent, that prompted his decision to start up a theatre company for the area.

“I have a genuine love for musicals and I noticed there were a number of talented musical theatre performers in Fort Frances, some who studied musical theatre in college or university, and some who have performed in other cities,” Barker said.

“They are rarely given the opportunity to shine on stage in our hometown. When was the last time a full-length musical was produced for adults in our community? It’s probably been 10 years, if not more.”

From that, the company was born. Barker explained that the name comes from the old theatre tradition of omitting the lettered row I to avoid theatregoers from confusing it for the front row, something that Barker said was similarly representative of the area.

“In most theatres, including on Broadway, there is no ‘row I,’” he said.

“This is because people used to confuse ‘I’ for the front row. Therefore the ‘I’ is invisible; it is non-existent. That is much like musical theatre for our small community. We artists are here but are never given the opportunity to be featured. So the name is very much in line with why I started the theatre company.”

The idea was also given a boost by Barker’s participation in last year’s musical fundraiser at Fort Frances High School. Taking part in the “All Together Now!” show to benefit local theatre encouraged Barker to act on a long-held goal of creating a theatre company. Still, Barker notes there is a lot of work that goes into running a company that makes it a significant investment of time and energy, regardless of enthusiasm.

“I wanted to start a theatre company more than 10 years ago, and it was never the ‘right time,’” he explained.

“I have close friends like Catherine Bruyere and Renée Martin-Brown to thank for pulling me out of a bit of a funk. They produced a show last November with their production of All Together Now. They’re both super women and rockstars in our community. So for me, it’s been important to get enthusiastic people around me who also want to see theatre in the community succeed, or want to be involved in productions. Aside from the business part, you have to pick the show, set dates, book rehearsal spaces, hold auditions, rehearse for two to three months and then boom we’re on stage! That makes it sound simple, but I’ll be working on our first full length show probably every day until November now.”

The inaugural Row I Theatre show will be a production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a 1998 Tony-award winning parody of classic 1920s musicals and style. Barker said the show, a no-holds-barred comedy, was a clear choice to put on following years of COVID-19 induced lockdowns and frustrations. And as much as a comedy show can provide an outlet for audiences, it’s also as beneficial for those on stage who have likewise felt the absence of performances during the pandemic.

“I believe in the power of art and performance,” Barker said.

“Theatre connects us. It makes us laugh, it makes us cry. It allows us to see something from another’s perspective. Audiences gather to experience one universal feeling, whether they know it or not. A show on a Thursday evening will likely be different than the show on a Friday evening. It’s so electric, and there’s nothing like it. Our first full-length musical ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ is just pure fun! So light-hearted and so many laughs. After the past couple years we’ve had, I think it’s important for us to gather and laugh and feel connected in that way. And for the performers in Fort Frances, it’s important for actors to act, and for artists to create. It’s necessary for their soul.”

In order to help get that first show off the ground, Barker has also put together a musical revue styled fundraiser show, scheduled for this Friday, August 12, at the Rainy Lake Square at 7:00 p.m. The show, called “Summer Lovin’: A Musical Revue and Fundraiser” will be free to attend (bring your own lawn chairs), but donations will be accepted by way of cash, e-transfer and cheque, and some local snack vendors will also be on hand during the performance. Featuring plenty of well-known local singers showcasing their skills and favourite musical numbers, the fundraiser will hopefully give Row I Theatre a solid base to start from and help to ensure Barker can continue to put on large-scale shows in the future, along with additional smaller performances.

“I’d like to bring semi-consistent theatrical joy to Fort Frances,” Barker said.

“For the actors and for the audiences. My goal for Row I Theatre is to be able to produce at least one adult musical each year. I’d also like to sprinkle in a kids production every once in a while. There are so many shows I already have in mind.”

To keep an eye on Row I Theatre, and to stay up-to-date on all of the upcoming shows and performances, follow the theatre company’s Facebook page “Row i Theatre.”