Celebrating its landmark 20th anniversary in 2017, Spirit of Newfoundland has fully cemented itself as a cultural institution and universal fan favourite
A lot has happened here in Newfoundland and Labrador across two decades. Governments, politicians popular and putrid have risen and fell, stars have bloomed and busted, we’ve went from have not to have and back again.
Across those 20 years, amidst uncertainties, changing of the guard and enough flips of script to make a screenwriter dizzy, Spirit of Newfoundland has emerged as a cultural institution, a mix of the old guard of our artistic tapestry and innovative thinkers whose ability to morph and adapt on the fly have earned them mainstay status amidst one of the more artistically inclined cities in North America.
A Household Name
Sitting among history on a sultry summer day at the iconic Masonic Theatre in Downtown St. John’s, those who have lived and breathed Spirit for 20 years delve into the history of a little-engine-that-could production that became a household name.
“As far as I can remember I said I wanted to be one of these ‘show business people,’ where my job would be going to my show,” shared Peter Halley, founding member of Spirit of Newfoundland as well as President and Artistic Director. “I wanted to do that regularly.”
Halley met then journalist Kathie Hicks in 1997. The pair entered a fruitful friendship, one in which the seeds of Spirit would be sewn in a year where Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador celebrated the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s landing on our island.
Summer of 1997
The original production that started it all, Hard Tickets and High Society, ran in that fateful summer of 1997 and was largely intended to be a one-off.
Recruited were fellow thespians and school-mates of Halley Shelley Neville and Sheila Williams, alongside the likes of Michelle Doyle and Steve Gosse. If you had told any of them then that 20 years later these conversations of a lineage that began with innocent intentions of artistic expression would be had, we’d imagine they’d laugh in disbelief.
“We didn’t know how that was going to go, the first summer that it opened,” shared Hicks, the Chief Operating Officer of Spirit of Newfoundland. “I knew because I was a journalist and knew about dinner theatres in PEI and I thought these guys were phenomenal, but I don’t think they knew how good they were yet. There was no way that people would not respond to them.”
The summer engagement turned to a fall showcase, then to a winter High Society spectacular. Word of mouth spread and lineups for engagements stretched down the block. Spirit of Newfoundland was off and running.
A Personal Level
This rise to prominence can be attributed to several things. A keen attentional to detail is one, an ability to adapt on the fly and connect on a personal one-on-one level with their clientele are others. Challenges would be laid down between performers and members of the Spirit staff. Ambitions ran high, as they do-so today.
“We made a challenge to each other that we would remember all of the names of the people who were serving that night,” Halley explained. “We’d say ‘Dillon, how’s the show tonight?’ ‘Paul, how’s that drink?’ and people would think wow that’s really impressive. We’d challenge ourselves every night.”
In those early days annunciation was key. There were no mics, so performers relied on skill and their God-given talents to carry the room.
“I remember when we got the mics. That was so easy,” shared Williams with a laugh, who has since become a household name in her own right. “And then we didn’t have to serve, easy again. It was so simple – put on a little frock or blouse, show up.”
General Manager Paul Bugge recalls his early days amidst the Spirit family. There are jokes across the table that the new G.M. would scarcely survive his first week of employment.
“It was December and on my first week of work there was a snowstorm,” Bugge recalled. “I was walking trays of salmon down Duckworth Street and then loaded chairs into a truck from Queens Road.”
“I was driving the truck around the corner and I saw Paul coming out with the sweat and I said ‘he’s not going to last a week,” Halley adds with a laugh. “That poor man is going to be gone, he’s going to hate it.”
That was December of 2005 and Bugge has been going strong for some 12 years now.
Of course that is the level of commitment that all members of the Spirit family have given for the sake of the company, personally and professionally. There’s a mentality of all-hands-on-deck, with each and every member of the team expected to carry their weight and then some.
“That’s very much ingrained in all of the staff, if it has anything to do with the guest we all make sure it’s taken care of, it doesn’t matter,” shares Bugge. “In that perspective everyone is very much a team. They could be on the stage sweating and singing their hearts out and they might just get off stage but guess what, there are six people here who need a screech in … Everybody is very committed to the experience. You’ve got to understand that we take very seriously that our guest is paying money to be fed and entertained and that they’ve selected us for their evening out. It’s a big weight that is on everyones shoulders and we want it to be the best that it can be, but there’s always room for improvement.”
The 20 year summer season of Spirit of Newfoundland includes the rotating productions The Young and the Rest of Us, a proverbial trip down memory lane, and the riotous Idol Dies At You, a spoof of talent shows with a Newfoundland twist. While both, as ever, are in high demand, the conversation shifted to the highly anticipated 20th anniversary Reunion Gala on August 24th and 25th at the Holy Heart Theatre, an event which will see over 50 Spirit performers from the past 20 years gather in a night that toasts the history of a provincial hallmark. “We see it as an Academy Awards type evening. We’ll have introductions of characters and reintroductions of characters and we’ll introduce performers from the past,” explains Halley, noting that the likes of The Ennis Sisters and Shallaway Youth Choir are expected to participate in the event.
Come From Away
While the event will serve as an appropriate spotlight on a brand that has only ripened with age, the event also aims to raise necessary funds for the Spirit headquarters, the Masonic Theatre. The building, which has stood since 1885, is in dire need of repair and the Spirit family call on the public and long-time patrons to help breathe new life into a historic structure.
“We’ve been in here now since 2008 and pretty much 99 per cent of the work that you see is done from shows, Spirit of Newfoundland’s money doing what we’ve been able to do with this building,” Bugge shared. “That’s no free handouts from everybody, thats hard work … We’d love for people to come back and help us, because we’ve helped so many. We’d love for people to help us with this cost.”
The incentive to take in what will already be a memorable event is growing by the day, as word spreads that Spirit has upped the ante with a contest that will see one lucky winner spirited away to New York City.
The Lucky Seat Contest will allow any ticket purchaser the chance to win airfare and accommodations for two in New York City, $500 in spending money, and two tickets to Come From Away on Broadway, starring Newfoundlander and Spirit alumnist Petrina Bromley.
‘One big family’
And while the incentives are dazzling, any come from away (pun intended) or honest Newfoundlander or Labradorian who has taken in the Spirit spectacle can attest to the magic that has been honed to near perfection after 20 years.
The official Spirit of Newfoundland anthem, written by Hicks and Halley, perhaps best sums up the Spirit ideology: “It’s our spirit and our culture that keeps us all within One big family together.”
“As a person in the audience it’s very rare to be in front of that kind of friendship and love and comradery,” Hicks says. “When those three are on the stage we all relax because we know they got it. The audience doesn’t know what they’re seeing but they can’t help but feel it, because it’s so rare and it’s magic.”
For all things Spirit of Newfoundland visit spiritofnewfoundland.com