It’s no secret that Muskoka has a thriving arts community. The region is full of professional painters, potters, carvers and jewellers producing and selling work and making a living from their craft.
The performing arts, on the other hand, have lagged behind. For years most performances in Muskoka tended to feature either visiting professionals or talented amateurs. The idea of making a living as a performer in Muskoka was far-fetched, if not downright preposterous.
But slowly that is changing. The community of professional performers remains tiny, but it’s growing. One by one, actors, musicians, directors, and more are finding creative ways to carve out a niche and do just what their visual arts cousins have done for years: work as full-time artists.
The troubador’s way: say ‘Yes’ and be flexible
In some ways, Sean Cotton is the kind of person who probably comes to mind when you think “professional performer in Muskoka.” In fact, if you’ve spent any time at all in spots where live music is played, chances are you’ve seen him work. “I might play ten gigs a week in the summer,” he says. A typical day can include a couple of singer-songwriter sets on a restaurant patio in the afternoon, background acoustic at a fine dining restaurant over the dinner hour, and a rocking club gig in the evening.
That kind of flexibility has kept Sean working as a musician his entire adult life. After high school he deferred going to York University in order to tour with his band. The band didn’t last, but his career did. He played clubs, worked as a session musician, and toured as part of a folk duo for around 20 years before deciding that it was time to get off the road. He settled in Muskoka nearly 12 years ago so he could be near his children. Then he began looking for a local career path. “It took me a good two years to see how I could make a living as a musician here,” Sean says.
He played a circuit of pubs and bars, but back then live local music was in a slump. In Gravenhurst, for example, there was not a single venue where a local musician could perform regularly. “There was this idea that ‘local sucks,’ and if you want good music, you’d better get somebody from the city,” he says.
That attitude created a downward spiral: promising local performers had few opportunities to hone their skills, refine their stagecraft, and attain the kind of mastery that comes with playing again and again for live audiences.
But then something shifted. As Sean travelled to gigs around the region, he met other musicians, talented players who were working full-time day jobs and gigging on weekends. “It seemed there was the potential for a real music scene to exist here.”
He formed Tree Ring Records, a production company and cooperative that would help musicians connect, collaborate, and just get to know each other.
He also began working with local tourism organizations and business groups that had begun to realize that performance art was a key element that was missing from Muskoka’s tourism offerings. “The BIAs and the Chambers of Commerce were looking at studies that pointed out that one ingredient was needed: we’ve got food, visual arts, outdoor recreation, but we don’t have music.”
Things began to happen. Hunter’s Bay Radio – a community station that had been operating online for several years – got an FM license, and suddenly local musicians had a place that would air their original tunes. Restaurants and bars began hiring local musicians. Audiences came out and heard original songs that were being played on local radio. By the time the pandemic struck, Gravenhurst had five venues with regular live music; other towns saw a similar growth.
Small recording studios began to pop up – including one that Sean built. Amateur performers began to aspire to be semi-professionals and hold each other to higher standards. Some of the weekend performers began playing on weeknights as well, cutting back on their day jobs as their music income crept up.
There are still only a handful of professional musicians working full-time in Muskoka, and all of them have to be flexible – singing in a country bar one night, playing reggae on a patio the next, writing a commercial jingle and performing at a funeral in between.
“You say yes to everything, and look at it as an opportunity to grow,” says Sean. In many ways, that’s exactly the same as it was when he was working as a city-based musician. “Being a tradesperson in the arts keeps you employable.”
The director’s way: hold everyone to a high standard
“The city tends to look down on the small towns, as if we’re all putting on high school shows here,” says Ian Crowley. “What they don’t realize is that we all came here from Toronto. It’s the same thing as New Yorkers going to Long Island and saying, ‘my God, it’s the same actors we saw on Broadway doing dinner theatre out here.’ Muskoka’s just a bit behind that.”
Like many other artists in Muskoka, Ian had a long career in Toronto before moving here. He produced dinner theatre and other shows and directed a number of choirs. He launched New Choir, the city’s first rock choir, and grew it to 130 people; he led a world-champion barbershop chorus and other choral groups.
Eventually he tired of city life, though, and he and his partner decided to move to their cottage outside Huntsville. “We thought we’d get jobs in Huntsville, but there weren’t any. So we made our own jobs.”
There were no choirs singing contemporary music here, so Ian decided to launch the Muskoka Rock Choir. “We started with 13 people in Huntsville,” he says. By the time the pandemic brought things to a halt, the choir consisted of 180 people in two choruses, Bracebridge and Huntsville. When the entire group comes together, it is one of the largest choirs in the country.
He also created Mad Raven Dinner Theatre, a professional company that has done 18 shows in the past five years.
Most large choirs consist primarily of amateur singers, and Muskoka Rock Choir is no exception. The secret, Ian says, is to hold people to high standards. “I had a recipe, a formula that I developed in the city. I knew that for a choir to work, it needs to be a bit like an army camp with one person in charge!” he says.
Singers are expected to attend every rehearsal, memorize their parts, and commit to at least one day-long “retreat.” It doesn’t matter that they’re paying to sing – they’re treated as if they’re being paid to sing. The band that accompanies the choir is professionals; so too are some soloists.
The other important element is patience. Bringing a new form of art to any community has to start with education, he says. “If you’re a troubadour with a guitar playing in bars, people get that. They know that’s what musicians do,” he says. “But people would come out to the Muskoka Rock Choir and say, ‘this isn’t like my other choir at all.’ You need to educate them.”
The actor’s way: take your show to the audience
Bill Colgate and Joan Bendon had been coming to Muskoka for years before they thought of producing theatre here. Busy performers and producers in Toronto, they enjoyed unwinding at a modest cottage on Lake of Bays.
Joan was a ballet dancer originally, but quickly switched to theatre (“I wanted to talk,” she says with a laugh.) She has since carved out a successful career as a performer, director, and corporate events producer. Bill started out singing in a rock band, then took up acting. His 45-year acting career includes principal roles in film and television – ranging from Robocop to Street Legal – cartoon voice work for the likes of Nelvana and Alliance-Atlantis, and plays at seemingly half the professional theatres in Ontario. He’s also continued to write and record music, and tour with his band.
In fact, it was the band that opened the door to acting in Muskoka. At a gig in Huntsville, they met producer Jan Jacklin who planted the seed of touring a one-man show around Muskoka.
“Bill had always wanted to do Billy Bishop Goes to War, and I wanted to direct it, so away we went,” says Joan.
For two seasons, they toured the show all over Muskoka and as far afield as Midland and Parry Sound, playing in churches, golf clubs, and anywhere else that could accommodate a simple stage and a small audience.
The approach was a success, so they decided to do the same again. This time the show was On A First Name Basis, a two-person show that, like Billy Bishop, offers a mix of thought-provoking drama amid the laughs. Joan directed again, but this time wound up performing in it as well. They followed that up with Shakespeare: A Most Rare Vision, a one-man show Bill wrote “to address people who say ‘I can’t stand Shakespeare.’”
Inspired by the success of these tours, they launched a new company, Muskoka Players. They began bringing theatre to even smaller venues, offering plays and staged readings in private homes and cottages. “It’s modelled after the idea of house concerts for music,” says Bill.
These ventures were doing well before the pandemic struck, and they’re hopeful they will be successful when all is over. However, living in Muskoka and working as an actor inevitably means travelling to the city, where most theatre, film and tv work takes place. “There’s no way to make a living in theatre up here,” says Bill.
However, he adds, the pandemic may have opened some doors that were closed. “It used to be that your agent would call you up and say ‘you’ve got an audition’ and you’d drive to Toronto. Now, I get an email from my agent saying ‘you have an audition, and you need to send a self-tape.’”
Casting agents have become more comfortable selecting talent without being in the same room with the performer, a development that may open the doors for more actors to live in rural areas like this, travelling to the city only when they have work.
The artist’s way: never stop creating For every performer who is working as a professional, there are dozens of others who have decided to give up the professional path in order to live in Muskoka. They were professional dancers, jazz singers, and theatre directors in the city; now they own shops, manage hotels, and run restaurants. “They’re no longer working as full-time performers, but they haven’t stopped being artists,” says Gayle Dempsey. Gayle and her partner Gary Froude have spent years promoting artists – performers, visual artists, writers and more – in Muskoka. They launched and ran the Muskoka Music Festival, and now head up Muskoka Chautauqua. “These performers, their artistry is still part of who they are, and they bring that to everything they do,” says Gary. Some performers continue to work – doing part-time or occasional gigs in Muskoka, or travelling to the city from time to time to get up on stage and scratch the itch. Others happily embrace the role of extremely talented amateur, performing in community productions or playing with and for friends. But their experience and creative drive never goes away, Gayle and Gary say. No matter what they do to put food on the table and pay the mortgage now, it took years of dedication and focus to bring their artistry to the point where they could work at it full time. Once someone has gone through that process, it never goes away. The art work may be over, but the artist goes on.
TEXT Andrew Wagner-Chazalon