When they launched their independent theatre operation in 2001, Justin and Stefanie Webster were seeking a way to make the dramatic arts a larger part of their lives.
“During the day we were acting and doing whatever we could at night,” recalls Stefanie, who was working as a waitress in Toronto, where husband Justin also worked other jobs while pursing their acting dreams.
Since they both had formal theatrical training, Stefanie from Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Justin through drama studies in New York, the couple imagined a world in which they could call their own theatrical shots – then they made it happen.
After exhausting most of the other practical options around Stefanie’s hometown of Listowel (Justin is originally from Florence, Ontario), the couple settled on purchasing the local Baptist Church building. The congregation was planning a move, but continued to hold services in the church while the Websters renovated the building to become a theatre.
Theatre Three-Eleven was launched on June 13, 2001, with a production of A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters a two-person show with Justin and Stefanie playing the leads.
While a multitude of actors and actresses have graced the stage in the 45 shows produced by the theatre in the intervening decade, the Websters continue to make up the bulk of the behind-the-scenes crew for any given show. From directing and stage managing, to lighting, sound and even bartending, the couple take on more roles off-stage than on in most productions. All that, while holding down full time jobs as teachers at local schools, Justin at Eastdale Public School and Stefanie at Listowel District Secondary School.
As an independent, semi-professional operation (actors receive an honorarium and behind the scenes workers are paid as well), Theatre Three-Eleven is unique in this region.
“As far as anyone doing exactly what we’re doing, I can’t think of anyone,” said Justin.
The theatre was named for the street address. While the audience it draws is mostly local, the occasional involvement of an actor or actress from a given area has drawn crowds from surrounding cities, Toronto and even further afield. One group from New York, attending a production in the second year of operation, seemed surprised at the choice of a name for the venue, Justin recalls.
“Apparently 3/11 is code for the KKK (Ku Klux Klan),” in some regions, he explains.
While surprised to learn of that connection, the Websters haven’t shied away from presenting controversial subjects on stage. Theatre Three-Eleven has staged such productions as David Marnet’s Oleana and William Mastersimone’s Extremities, plays which went over well with audiences despite difficult subject matter, including sexual harassment and exploitation.
Of course, as in most theatres, comedy and classics are always popular.
“Farces go over well,” says Stefanie.
A production of Streetcar Named Desire also played well to local audiences, notes Justin, adding that the couple had been cautioned that staging Tennessee Williams’ well-known drama might prove daunting for a smaller group.
“People told us we were foolish to try it, but we did and, I guess we just got a good cast,” he recalls.
As unique as the operational format, is the theatre itself. An intimate, yet comfortable setting for theatrical and musical performances, the theatre provides seating for about 130, on two levels and features a relatively spacious lobby and a bar area downstairs. For some productions, the theatre offers groups a catered meal in the theatre prior to the show.
While they continue to do much of the work themselves, the Websters have had a number of dedicated helpers over the years, often coming from the ranks of the local high school. More recently, their daughters Lucy, 7, and Jill, 6, have become old enough to pitch in with small backstage tasks, and have even found themselves onstage on occasion, making Theatre Three-Eleven a full-fledged family operation.
The theatre’s next offering will be Office Hours, a comedy by popular Canadian playwright Norm Foster. The show revolves around events in six different offices, on six different afternoons.
“It’s a comedy about the workplace,” says Justin, noting the play is “very cleverly scripted.”
The cast for Office Hours, which runs Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. between December 1 and 17, is pulled from a wide area. It includes Paul Stafford of Toronto, Trevor Elmslie of Guelph, Connie McGirr of Atwood and, perhaps not surprisingly, Justin and Stefanie Webster of Listowel.
For tickets to Theatre Three-Eleven productions call 519 291-2033 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information go to www.theatre311.com.