Liverpool is proud to have one of the oldest — if not the oldest — performing arts venues in Nova Scotia. But supporters of the historic Astor Theatre recognized recently that if they didn’t spend significant resources to renovate and modernize, their cherished theatre wouldn’t be around for another 100 years.
“This theatre is very significant to our community,” said Andrew Bursey, the theatre’s general manager. “People feel a real ownership of the place.”
The theatre, which was built in 1902 and offers both movies and live theatre productions, has been undergoing major renovations and restorations for about the past six years, thanks to the fundraising efforts of the theatre’s board and the community’s support.
“We’ve changed with the times, but we’ve also kept the historical aspects (of the theatre),” said Kristopher Snarby, chairman of the 11-member board of the Astor Theatre Society, a non-profit, charitable organization.
“Modernizing is important, but we are also very mindful of maintaining the character and original acoustics that the Astor is so famous for.”
Knowing the theatre needed to change over to digital, the society embarked on its first capital campaign and raised $273,000. Not long after that came a new box office area and a bar.
Those renovations were part of a larger project that saw Liverpool’s old town hall transformed into the Town Hall Arts and Cultural Centre. It houses not only the Astor Theatre, but the Sipuke’l Gallery, and the Town Hall Arts and Cultural Centre Gallery and meeting room. The renovation was mostly paid for by the municipality, said Snarby.
"There is always something going on here. There is a lot of community outreach."
“Liverpool has a very thriving arts community,” Bursey, who also serves as the theatre’s co-artistic director with Jon Paterson. “There is a culture that supports young actors and singers,” he added.
While theatres across the country struggle to fill seats with the popularity of Netflix and other on-demand home entertainment, the Astor Theatre remains a vital part of Liverpool.
By offering a mix of events, the theatre doesn’t sit empty for long stretches. When they aren’t offering programming, community groups rent out the space. It is a popular spot for music recitals and music festivals, even weddings.
As possibly the oldest continuously running cinema in the country, movies continue to be an essential part of the Astor Theatre. Silent films were held during the First World War. The first talking movies were shown at the theatre in 1930. Today, the theatre also offers matinee movies, some of which are blockbusters, to accommodate older moviegoers and draw in audiences from Shelburne and Lunenburg.
For a time, there were few live presentations. But interest grew and in 1979 the Astor began presenting local talent through the Winds of Change Dramatic Society.
The theatre relies on revenues from ticket sales as well as government funding and fundraising for renovations and upgrades. The goal every year is to break even, said Snarby.
The theatre is now gearing up to present the 14th Biennial Liverpool International Theatre Festival. The four-day festival, taking place in October, will bring amateur theatre groups from around the world, including China and Iran. On stage in the fall will also be Pink Floyd and Beatles tribute bands. A busy season is good news, not only for those in Liverpool who love live music and theatre, but the town’s economy.
“We can assume that when we bring in 350 people in for the night there are economic spinoffs,” said Bursey