The sun seems to be rising on the Sunset Theatre.
The longtime performing arts space is prominent in downtown Wells. It has a colourful and twisty history that makes for a prime connection to the next door living history facility of Barkerville.
Now the Sunset is going to burn even more brightly. The operation has received a Strategic Initiative Grant from the BC Arts Council that will allow for the hiring or two new administrative positions.
It will take the organizational pressure off of Karen Jeffery who, with her husband Dave, owns the building and operates the programming inside. Programming has been ramping up year over year since she and Dave bought the place in 1999, embarked first on a major renovation of the structure, and then started to use it as an important tool for music, film, oration and drama.
Two of the Cariboo region's best box office names, Julia Mackey and Dirk Van Stralen, will take up professional residence there. It's helpful that they already live and work in Wells and had a tight preexisting bond with the Sunset Theatre.
Mackey will become the director of presentations, while Van Stralen will be the director of production, while Jeffery remains artistic director.
"This is a dream come true" said Jeffery. "I couldn't ask for two better people to help move the next phase of the company's growth forward. Julia and Dirk have been stalwart volunteers, exceptional ambassadors of the theatre from the beginning and respected professional theatre artists across the country."
Mackey and Van Stralen are best known as the creative team behind the internationally successful play Jake's Gift, which got much of its developmental start at the Sunset. The pair also helped Jeffery operate the facility on an interim basis a few years ago.
"When Dirk and I ran the theatre for Karen back in 2011, it was that experience that solidified our desire to move to Wells and become part of the community, and we realized how much we loved being part of the everyday operations of the Sunset," said Mackey. "We are so grateful to the B.C. Arts Council for supporting this next phase of development for the Sunset, and we are thrilled to jump on board and help move this beautiful theatre into its next chapter."
Van Stralen said Jake's Gift was part of the inaugural re-opening of the Sunset Theatre, and was a member of the Sunset's Exploration Series development program in 2006, before they lived in the Cariboo. Their play got its first public reading on that stage.
"As a result of the success of Jake's Gift, we've had the privilege of working in dozens and dozens of spectacular venues from coast to coast to coast in this country," he said. "The Sunset, however, remains my favourite, in no small part because of its unique setting in historic Wells, B.C., an astonishing pool of local professional talent to draw from, and its intimacy as a venue that allows room for great ideas to run wild."
According to the Sunset Theatre Society, one of its operational agencies, "the building in which the theatre operates is itself a marvelous piece of Wells' history. First built in 1934, it served originally as a movie house. It went through several more transformations over the decades, functioning as a dance hall, a gambling house and even a morgue. In the late '70s the Wells Historical Society operated it as a movie house, but it eventually fell into disrepair. (Karen and Dave) restored the 100-seat historic theatre beyond its former glory. This little gem of a theatre offers two full dressing rooms, green room, concession, box office, an impressive costume and prop inventory and a technical infrastructure that rivals most regional theatres."
Becoming one of those regional professional theatres is the looming goal before Jeffery, Mackey and Van Stralen. The next phase on the drawing board, now that a complement of staff is in place, is, said Jeffery, "growing into a year round professional theatre and performance space for the community of Wells. Our goal is to nurture the creative endeavours of the many talented local artists and artists across BC and beyond."
In addition to Jake's Gift, other notable productions have gotten off the ground at The Sunset like Danette Boucher's and James Douglas's play The Fred Wells Show, Morag Northey's 17, Marcel Gagnon's the Drum Is Calling You Home, Kym Gouchie's Her Blood Runs Through My Braids, among many others.
It is also home for the Sunset Cabaret, now in its 12th year, along with the Sunset's concert and film series.