The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the February 16, 2011 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Theatre Wakefield waits in the wings for new venue

by Philip Cohen and Louise Schwartz

Theatre lovers in the Gatineau Valley have only a few more months to wait. Then, the Grand Hall in the new Wakefield-La Peche Community Centre will open, providing the decade-old Theatre Wakefield with its first permanent and fully-equipped performance space. Plans for Theatre Wakefield's inaugural 2011 season in the Grand Hall already include one or more new plays written by local playwrights.

Few know that the first theatre in Wakefield still stands less than a kilometre down the road, at the corner of Valley Drive and Riverside, in what is now known as Place 1870.

Called Earle's Hall, it occupied the second floor above a Massey-Harris farm implement store owned by Arthur Earle, whose family at one time lived across the street in the current home of Cafe Molo.

The Way We Were
Now known as Place 1870, the first theatre space in Wakefield was on the second floor of this building, at the corner of James Street (now Valley Drive) and Riverside. (1930). Photo courtesy Gatineau Volley Historical Society.

In a building built around the 1870s, Earle's Hall was a popular venue - not only for town council meetings, but for early lantern slide shows put on by visiting missionaries. Later it functioned as a movie theatre and concert hall. For a while from the late 1940s, Western cowboy movies and epics such as "Gone with the Wind" were screened there on Friday nights during the summer. The hard wooden seats in the hall were no comparison to the plush seats found in Ottawa cinemas. There was no air conditioning for those hot summer nights, and even the movie projector reportedly failed every now and then.

In the mid-1980s, a theatre troupe called Theatre Caleche was the last to entertain crowds at Earle's Hall, before fire safety concerns ended its stage life. Some footlights and an elaborately-painted curtain of a Greco-Roman scene with grandiose pillars, although in very fragile condition, still remain in the old hall.

The present Theatre Wakefield, one of the founding partners of the new community centre co-operative, emerged only in late 2001. It promotes the development of arts and culture in the Lower Gatineau Valley.

However, its vision is not limited to simply mounting stage productions. Rather, the movers behind Theatre Wakefield believe in using theatre for broader goals such as community building and change, animating local history to increase awareness, and engaging area youth, partly through networking with local schools and libraries.

At times, Theatre Wakefield seems to be everywhere. Its productions often sell out and the profits are ploughed back into community causes. Since its inception, this all-volunteer organization has produced more than 10 main-stage productions, 14 dramatic readings, two community heritage animation projects, two seasons of Summer Film Camp for youth, and three seasons of the Piggyback Fringe Festival. The second year of the popular Wakefield International Film Festival (WIFF) is currently underway. Area residents, many ofthem youth, have benefited from over 450 hours of training for performance skills, improvisation, set and lighting design, and stage management.

The current Theatre Wakefield chair, Brenda Rooney, has called the planned Grand Hall a highly-prized space. Up until now, Theatre Wakefield members have found performance space through close collaboration with local organizations, including the Wakefield United Church, the Wakefield School, Ski Vorlage, the Black Sheep Inn, and Cafe Molo.

Soon though, they'll have a fine home for their $20,000 worth of lighting and a new sound board, both donated by the National Arts Centre.


A focal point for villagers for years, the old Wakefield Recreation Centre will make way for the construction of the new Wakefield La Peche Community Centre which will open its doors this year.

The Community Centre Co-operative has established the Legacy Fund Programme, a donor movement that recognizes legacy donations in a family name - the money to be used for furniture, equipment and landscaping - none of which is covered by government grants, as well as to help offset winter construction costs. Anyone interested in learning more about the program may contact Mike Mulhall at 613-230-7295, or visit www.wakefield-centre.ca for furtherinformation.

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