Ann Skelhorne and Susan and Kim MacMillan are busy preparing to bring a stage adaptation of The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, to the Shuswap Theatre stage. (Barb Brouwer photo)

Ann Skelhorne and Susan and Kim MacMillan are busy preparing to bring a stage adaptation of The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, to the Shuswap Theatre stage. (Barb Brouwer photo)

‘It started right from there:’ Susan and Kim MacMillan reflect on 45 years of Shuswap Theatre

Work underway to bring The Secret Garden to Salmon Arm theatre’s stage

By Barb Brouwer,

Special to the Observer

Comedy, drama, mystery and romance!

In its 45-year history, Shuswap Theatre has seen it all; and not only on the stage.

A group calling themselves the Shuswap Players was active in the 1960s but disappeared from the local art scene.

In 1977, Jack Alouf, recreation director for the District of Salmon Arm, and James Bowlby, a drama teacher at J.L. Jackson Junior secondary, held a meeting to gauge community interest in theatre arts.

Susan MacMillan was at that first meeting and said to everyone’s surprise, 24 people showed up.

“It started right from there; we did three one-act plays just for friends and family in the log building that was a youth centre at the time,” she says.

In January 1978, the group moved into the old Jackson School gym where they performed two productions – Beware of the Dog, followed by Fiddler on the Roof in 1979.

“It was a huge cast for Fiddler, and because it was in a school gym, we had to dismantle the set after every rehearsal and performance,” Susan recalled.

“When I arrived in late August 1978, everyone in town was talking about it,” said Kim, “It was a community coming together to do this for itself, and that sucked me right in.”

Years later people were still talking about it and calling it the best production ever, Susan added.

The production convinced members of the Shuswap Theatre Society that they needed their own space, which they found in the former Tappen Women’s Institute and a supper club then located at Tappen Co-op.

The society rented the space for two years, putting on six productions each year.

“It was a step up from the school gym, but with low ceilings and no off-stage space, it was not best place for a theatre,” said Kim.

A search for a building the society could buy led to the present site on Hudson Avenue.

“It was an old radiator and auto body shop and we renovated it extensively with mostly volunteer work,” said Kim.

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In 1980, he got a role in Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn, the first play the group performed in Tappen.

“I was astounded to get a leading role and being exposed to high-calibre directing,” he said, noting the theatre became his primary social group. “Susan was the producer and it was a real blast!”

The couple’s romance also took off and they married a year later.

“There were a couple of marriages in the troupe over the years, but a few that might have ended because of it,” laughed Susan of the passion and long hours cast and crew contribute to every production.

Family life and Kim’s travel for work became a priority but both remained committed to the theatre.

“I always knew as soon as I retired I’d be involved again, and I always seemed to drag Susan back in too,” he chuckled. “I started directing and Susan was producing, taking care of all the details and making sure I don’t forget anything, so I can focus on creating art.”

Since the first production in the theatre in 1981, members of the society have continued to improve the building to the extent that it is possible. While it is structurally sound, contaminated soil from the building’s years as an auto body shop mean only above-ground renovations are permitted.

“We work around all these things and we are the envy of other groups in the Okanagan Zone,” she said. “Other than Powerhouse in Vernon, we’re the only ones with our own building.”

“We know eventually we’ll have to find a way to replace it, but there’s a few good years left and we’re happy there,” Kim added.

Celebrating wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the society settled on The Secret Garden as this year’s first main stage production.

Five years ago, professional director and University of Alberta professor Liz Hobbs directed the Shuswap Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet and will return to direct The Secret Garden, which opens Nov. 18.

A large undertaking, The Secret Garden opens on Nov. 18, with Kim acting and singing, Susan producing and Ann Skelhorne acting as technical producer.

“You need four or five crew members for every one person on stage,” said Kim, noting there’s inspiring collaboration and a high acceptance for the quirks in personalities. “So people who sometimes feel they can’t fit in anywhere else, feel they have found a home in the theatre, and that’s across the ages.”

Newcomers are always welcome and can find out more about the theatre by going online to
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