Sydney theatre reopens thanks to fundraising support

Theatres across North America have been struggling to survive during COVID-19, but one showplace in Cape Breton is lifting the curtain again, thanks to the remarkable generosity of the community, and an outside-the-box fundraiser in which the theatre’s very future was at stake.

The doors are back open at the Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney, and the story of how that came to be is a drama in itself.

When the Coronavirus crisis came to the Maritimes back in March, the ‘HAT’ had to close and abruptly cancel all productions.

“We lost $200,000 in ticket revenue in the first week,” says Wesley Colford, artistic director of the Highland Arts Theatre. “That’s how desperate we were, and it was really looking like if there wasn’t a miracle, we would be bankrupt and closing our doors before the end of August.”

The people behind the non-for-profit came up with a bond new fundraising plan.

“The world is turned upside down for all of us, none of us were expecting anything of this magnitude. But the thing about unprecedented times, is we get to set the precedent,” said Colford in a video posted to their social media.

Back in June, they announced that if the community could come up with $50,000 in donations, the theatre would reopen and all 12 main stage productions going forward would be free.

“As far as we can tell, we’re the first professional theatre company in Canada to try this model, which is pretty extraordinary.” says Colford. “We said at the beginning that we wanted to make history. Now we have.”

Over the past few months, they inched closer and closer to their ambitious goal.

Now, against the odds, they have reached the $50,000 mark.

“It’s the hat doing what it always does, which is wow you,” says actor Mark Delaney.

Delaney will be on stage for the HAT’s first free production ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’, starting Nov. 3.

“I have friends from all over the country who are not able to do this thing that we love, so we are just incredibly fortunate, but also very clever, because this has been a very clever plot,” says Delaney.

The HAT’s artistic director admits it was risky, but says now everyone will get to reap the reward.

“Thank you so much to all of the people, throughout Cape Breton, but also across the continent, who belived in us,” says Colford. “It’s such a celebration, and we just hope now that everyone will feel welcome, everyone will feel safe, and we’ll see brand new faces that maybe couldn’t afford to come before. Now you can.”

Colford says the funding will be enough to get through until at least July 2021, but he feels if they can make it through this year, they can survive pretty much anything.

Whatever it takes for the show to go on.