April 2018 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
The population of Victoria-by-the-Sea, PEI, increased from 104 to 107 in 2011 when Emily Smith, her husband and young son moved back to the community where she had grown up and where her parents, Pat Stunden Smith and Erskine Smith, founded the Victoria Playhouse.
After graduating from university, Emily moved as far away as possible from the hours (and income) of a seasonal, not-for-profit theatre in a tiny community: “My first job was with a huge multinational insurance company, with benefits, a pension, and 9:00 to 5:00 hours.”
While she admits that growing up, she had “off and on” imagined working at Victoria Playhouse, it took drama to make her seriously consider accepting her current role, as assistant manager.
Five years ago, Emily’s father Erskine died unexpectedly on the eve of the summer season. “My father, of course, was artistic director and in many ways was the Victoria Playhouse,” Emily says.
“The board was stuck on a succession plan,” Emily recalls, and her mother asked if she would be interested in working at the Playhouse. The stability was not promising—the Playhouse has yet to achieve full-year, full-time payroll status, but Emily said yes. “I knew I could be really passionate about it,” she says.
Her passion is “particularly for seeing my father’s vision carry on—for egalitarian theatre. Something he did, maybe differently from others, was pulling in (to the theatre) farmers and fishermen and members of the Women’s Institute with Canadian comedy that was contemporary, light, and fun—accessible to all incomes and education levels.”
Part of maintaining this vision for Victoria Playhouse is choosing the right plays, and after Erskine’s death, the Playhouse board chose not to hire a new artistic director. Instead, they moved to an artistic programming committee.” And, while she admits it felt like a challenge to bring the 2018 season together before everything fell into place, the committee approach “continues to make sense.”
Together, they are “pretty excited” about this year’s two choices, a Canadian premiere of an American play and a play by a new Canadian playwright, fulfilling a commitment to emerging Canadian works. “It’s a challenge because we also do try to stay with comedies,” she notes, and many emerging Canadian writers write heavier stuff. “We’ve found, through trial and error, that they don’t suit our audiences.”
Working full-time with her mother Pat in a tiny office has been wonderful, though Emily says with some surprise, “We have discovered just how different our opinions are.” Their aesthetic is similar when choosing plays with the programming committee, and they have learned to use their complementarity selecting concerts for the summer concert series—but she laughs that they still have unreconcilably different taste in imagery. Their proudest innovation? “We’ve started doing children’s theatre classes at Victoria Playhouse. I am convinced introducing kids to theatre is a really good thing.”
Both Emily and Pat do a little bit of everything. By summer, a day could run from “getting in the car and driving around on a brochure run, to being at the performance to open the show”—not to mention, trouble-shooting. Last year, just as a show was to open, an actor got sick. “It was completely unexpected and beyond anyone’s control. It could have been a disaster, the end of the season. We could have been done” as a theatre. But they managed, thanks to an actor willing to fill in “on-book” for a weekend, and the support of audiences.
Emily says beautiful Victoria-by-the-Sea is “different from the Victoria of twenty years ago,” busier in summer and fall, with new residents and new businesses, too. “People have looked at Victoria and seen opportunity,” she says, with pleasure to be part of that renewal.
As April arrives with what passes for spring in PEI, Emily is looking forward to “getting the hall open, breathing life into it. It’s a big, old space that’s hard to heat”—so not much goes on during winter. “We want to open the doors again and get people in the seats. The building is just a building until there are people in the seats—and then it becomes a theatre.”