TORONTO — A nearly 75-year-old Canadian youth theatre festival where Rachel McAdams, Margot Kidder and David Cronenberg got their start has secured a much-needed new sponsor.
The Montreal-based National Theatre School of Canada has announced a new deal with TD Bank Group as the presenting partner of the annual event, which was known as the Sears Drama Festival until 2017, when the struggling retailer withdrew its long-standing sponsorship and the future of the storied stage showcase was in question.
The National Theatre School, with the help of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, took on responsibility and costs for the festival's 2017/2018 season.
With the new agreement and sponsorship with TD, which begins this year, organizers plan to eventually expand what's now called the National Theatre School Festival beyond its current events in Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces.
Gideon Arthurs, CEO of the National Theatre School of Canada, said he hopes the new sponsorhip will allow the festival to expand across the country and — his "dream of dreams" — establish a national final in Montreal.
"We're developing new regions that we want to launch soon. Quebec would be a priority. We want to be in Alberta."
Founded in Ontario in 1946 by the late Ken Watts, the festival is said to be Canada's oldest theatre event of its kind.
It sees students from hundreds of high schools presenting theatre productions from September to May.
The productions are typically staged at district, regional and provincial levels in front of adjudicators.
Attendees can also participate in workshops, classes and social events with professional artists.
McAdams, Kidder and Cronenberg are among the festival alumni.
The festival brings together communities and serves as a gateway for teens to discover theatre while also learning how to communicate, organize and practise their creativity, said Arthurs.
"I think almost anybody who did Sears also says that it was a way for people to find their tribe," he added.
"If you weren't into athletics and you weren't into the debate club, you were probably an artsy kid — and Sears was this huge network of other artsy kids that you could very quickly see that you weren't alone."
Sears used to cover all of the costs but had to pull out when it declared bankruptcy, leaving festival organizers worried "the whole thing would collapse," said Arthurs.
The National Theatre School jumped in to save it, working with IATSE to raise about $37,000 to put on the '17/'18 edition.
TD will cover the cost of the '18/'19 season and seems to be "in it for the long haul," Arthurs said.
"I have a philosophical view that right now, and especially for young people, we need the chance to tell each other our stories, to look at each other in the eye, to feel something together," he said.
"That's the only way we're going to figure our way through these fractured times that we're living in, and young people are going to be the key to that. So the more we can put them in a room where they can talk about their feelings and laugh together and tell stories together, the better off we're going to be as a society."
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press