The co-founder of a youth theatre troupe in Old Ottawa South, at the heart of a dispute over his backyard stage claims to have been mischaracterized by City of Ottawa Bylaw but, without a suitable venue, the play could see its final act.
Last week, Paul Keen and the "Company of Adventurers" were told they could not perform Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors" in Keen's yard because it violates zoning rules in the area. City Bylaw and Regulatory Services said they were acting on a complaint when they visited the home on Aug. 26 and issued a verbal warning.
The show was allowed to go on this past Sunday, in a performance for family members, but Bylaw said the remaining shows, if they were to continue, would have to take place somewhere else, and the City offered up Windsor Park.
On Aug. 31, Bylaw visited Keen's home, at which point they issued a notice of violation.
"The [notice of violation] was issued as a direct result of an on-site meeting with the property owner Monday morning, where it became apparent the owner did not intend to adhere to a verbal agreement which would have seen the play proceed at nearby Windsor Park," a statement to CTV News from Director of Bylaw and Regulatory Services Roger Chapman said.
"Investigations revealed that not only was the theatre still in operation, but a week-long day camp was also being operated on the premise. This is also a non-permitted use of an R3 residential property. Investigations also revealed that a $500 membership fee was being paid by the participants of the theatrical performances."
Speaking on Newstalk 580 CFRA's "Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron", Keen said he had been mischaracterized.
"We had what we thought was a really good meeting with the head of Bylaw on the property yesterday morning," Keen said. "He raised these concerns and we explained why we felt they were misinformed and we explained what the situation was."
Keen called the accusation he was running an unauthorized day camp incorrect and told CFRA the troupe agreed to rehearse during the day for one week this summer.
"The rehearsals are two evenings a week, 5:30 to 8:30," he said. "So we said, for that week, since we've got everyone here, we won't have evening rehearsals, we'll have it in the day from 10 o'clock to 4 o'clock. It was a change of hours, it's not a day camp and it was not for money."
Keen admits he was charging $500 per child to appear in the performances, however.
"When we started doing this, we didn't ask for any money from the families, and it was costing us a lot," he said. "We give hundreds of hours as volunteers doing this—and that's great, we love doing it—but it wasn't going to be sustainable if we kept paying for it as well. So we do ask the actors to chip in 500 dollars."
Keen says $500 may "sound like a lot" but the money is used for the production.
The plays are intended to raise money for charity—this recent one intended to raise funds for the Ottawa Food Bank—but the money from the families of the children who appear in the shows does not go to charity, he said.
"Theatre is really expensive, from the costumes, the set—which is very elaborate—we have tons of props, we print programs, we print scripts for them, it may sound like a lot but we spend it all," he said. "Also, we serve refreshments at the intermissions because we know almost everyone who comes so, for the adults we have a glass of sangria, for kids it's juice, and we make popcorn."
He adds that the families who were asked to chip in all felt it was fine.
"We wanted to do something that we could be really proud of and the kids could be really proud of. Unfortunately, it's a little expensive. We talked to the parents and asked if they're comfortable pooling money and they all said 'absolutely', so I don't see the problem with it if they don't see the problem with it," he said.
Bylaw said Keen had been verbally warned in 2019 about the back yard theatre, which Keen admitted was true, but he also claimed Bylaw said it was in a "grey zone" and that the shows in 2019 could go ahead. He says he heard nothing from anyone else all summer until last week.
He's now been given until Sept. 4 to cease productions under Bylaw's notice of violation. The group can still use Windsor Park, but Keen says it does not have adequate restroom services or proper places for costume changes.
Keen insists he's not in the wrong but doesn't know how he will proceed.
"We really hoped after the conversation yesterday that they could go back to the complainants and find a compromise and everybody could be happy," he said. "I'm still hopeful that will happen, but we'll wait and see."