Gary Bryant & Julie Wheeler Bryant
Actors, Theatrical Directors
ecently the Elora Community Theatre (ECT) changed its home to take up residence in the Elora Centre for the Arts. Performances take place on stage in the municipally owned Fergus Grand Theatre. ECT has grown steadily stronger over the years since the days when it had neither rehearsal space nor permanent stage facilities. Gary and Julie Bryant have been two of the mainstays of ECT throughout the 32 years of its development, finding their own introduction to acting and directing through ECT productions, and contributing to its progress and stability.
Gary and Julie were strongly in favour of the move to the new Centre for the Arts, believing that this would further integrate the ECT into the community, and increase group and individual access to it. Recent lowering of rents at the Fergus Grand Theatre are also spurring a wave of local theatre presentations at present, including those by Wellington-Waterloo Productions of Alan Argue, Rob Goodale Productions, Not So Grand Players, and the three yearly plays of ECT. A rich choice for a rural community!
Gary’s initiation into theatre came in the second production of the fledgling Elora Community Theatre back in ‘73, with “Come Blow Your Horn”. I fell into the clutches of Pat Chataway,” Gary laughs. “Pat would pick people off the street, accost them in a store; if she saw a likely person for a role, it didn’t matter that you were a stranger!” Many people were lured into the Theatre by its intrepid founder, Pat Chataway. Suddenly Gary discovered in himself a passion for the stage, which has never left him.
After Gary met Julie in 1982, he quickly introduced her to theatre as well. “I was hauled off to auditions really fast,” Julie says.
In May ‘83, they acted together in “Not Now Darling”. ECT’s practice space was in the old stone building at Salem, now upgraded as Joel Masewich’s Studio. The Bryants remember the cold rehearsal hall with the intransigent centre post, the thunderbox, the diesel smells emanating from Nichol Township snowploughs in the garage below.
Julie was a natural on the stage. Her warmth flowed over the footlights to the audience. Like Gary, she found a second life and friendships in amateur theatre. She played roles in “The Importance of Being Earnest”, “Another Season’s Promise”, “You Can’t take it With You”, and most recently in “Twelve Angry Jurors”, directed by Gary. Gradually, while preparing a part, Julie thought what it might be like to be the person making decisions about staging the play. Her first attempt at directing was a Oneact staged at Melville Church, while the Grand Theatre was being renovated.
The cast seemed plagued by sickness and the black cardboard that shut out the light kept peeling from the windows. It was a baptism of fire! Julie came to direct plays frequently for ECT, among them “The Dining Room”, “Another Season’s Promise”, “The Cocktail Hour”, as well as summer performances at Theatre On The Grand (as the present theatre was then named), in the ‘80s.
In February 1990, Gary and Julie collaborated on “He won’t Come In From The Barn”, by Ted Jones, with Julie as Producer, and Gary the Director. This play rocked not only the town, but all the countryside. Every one of the nine performances was sold out by Christmas, with the audience even sitting on steps backstage. The box office was in crisis! It ran two extra performances and the play became a legend in local theatre.
The cast was a big draw, as was the fiddle music, but the greatest attraction was the Cow onstage. The show outside was about as good as the show inside, as people lined up to watch the unloading of the Cow from a van each night. The Cow was led down the aisle of the theatre and up a ramp into a pen, where her slightest move upstaged everyone. Joan McCauley made an entrance, the Cow stood up, and the audience roared!
Would Gary or Julie direct again? If they found material they were excited about, they would. The time element is important. After the play is chosen, it takes a year to absorb its potential and conceptualize the production. “You have to live a play, whether Directing or Acting, so it’s important to choose a play you love”, Julie says. Each production demands a complete immersion and a good support system.
Gary and Julie have alternated on the Board of ECT almost continuously. There have been about 100 productions. Over the years, Gary collected programs and memorabilia of local theatre. He realised their value as an historic trace of one aspect of the life of the community, and arranged for them to be kept safely at the Wellington County Archives. He continues to add to this documentation, including the playbills of other local theatre groups as well. Even programs from the original Elora Players, a group which performed in the Elora Drill Hall in the 30s, are archived.
In their professional lives, Gary and Julie were both teachers. Early retirement to part time teaching allowed Gary to expand his acting skills through courses at U of Guelph throughout the ‘80s, working with world calibre Artists in Residence. This gave him a different perspective on acting, attempting difficult, sometimes outrageous parts. He became a member of Actors Equity. He now prefers characters which are closer to his true self. “Give him a good character part,” says Julie, “and he’ll be happy”. He will soon appear as Charles Dickens in ‘Humbug’ (hence the beard!).
Gary has also contributed significantly to the community through Tours of Elora. These are bus tours, where Gary is the step-on guide, giving a history of the area to visitors, as well as entertaining them and encouraging them to visit shops and to return.
Since retirement, Julie has taken several new paths. She became an actor with ‘Puppets Elora’, a once-a-week commitment. “It is amazing how you get involved with your character”, Julie says. “I love puppets because they allow me to play fantasy roles like a frog, a wizard or king, which I could never play onstage”. She enjoys watching the actors grow in the characterization and animation of the beautiful puppets! Julie and her dog, Gus, also take part in the Pet Therapy program of the St. John’s Ambulance, visiting patients weekly at Wellington Terrace nursing home.
by Beverley Cairns, Autumn 2003
UPDATE – 2005
The ECT no longer makes its home at the Elora Centre for the Arts. However, the theatre group continues to perform at the Fergus Grand Theatre. Gary keeps a web page for ECT, which documents the long history of this community theatre.