Little theatre, big history

François Bregha


Sandy Hill residents who enjoy live theatre are well-served, living near the National Arts Centre and La Nouvelle Scène. In the summer, Odyssey Theatre stages comedia dell’arte in Strathcona Park. All three offer exciting professional theatre within easy walking distance. But just as close is the Ottawa Little Theatre (OLT), at the corner of King Edward Avenue and Besserer Street since 1928. Originally housed in a former church, it built the current facilities after a destructive fire in 1970 and recently renovated.

Eastern Methodist Church at the corner of King Edward Ave. and Besserer St. became Ottawa Little Theatre after church union in 1925. It was eventually destroyed by a fire that started in the green room on July 1, 1970.

The theatre’s roots go back to 1913 when the University Women’s Club formed a Drama League to encourage amateur theatre in Ottawa. The purpose then was to ensure good attendance at deserving plays while ignoring “unworthy” ones. Under the leadership of Duncan Campbell Scott, the celebrated poet, the League raised enough funds to buy the Eastern Methodist Church, whose congregation had recently moved after merging with St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church at Daly Avenue and Cumberland Street.

When the Governor General, Lord Willingdon, officially opened the theatre in 1928, it was described as the largest and best equipped of its kind in Canada. There was no local professional theatre in Ottawa and, after the Russell Theatre closed, it was the only show in town. In the 1930s, an anonymous patron wrote, “The Drama League is entitled to public thanks for its continued good work in providing civilized plays in a veritable dramatic desert.”

Under the Governor General’s patronage – Lord Bessborough not only attended plays but designed sets, and his son played several roles – the theatre thrived and became an important social gathering place, attracting diplomats and members of high society. The theatre’s importance was further enhanced by hosting the newly formed Dominion Drama Festival for its first five years in the 1930s.

Several well-known Canadian actors and comedians played at the OLT, including Rich Little, Dan Ackroyd, and William Shatner. Yusuf Karsh, the famous photographer, volunteered backstage at the OLT and credits his experimentation with stage lighting for helping him light portraits. He not only met influential people there, such as Lord Bessborough whose portrait he took, but also his future wife, Solange Gauthier.

The OLT has staged over 1000 plays in its first century and is one of North America’s oldest, continuously producing, community theatre companies. All directors, designers, actors and stage crew are volunteers and the theatre earns most of its income through ticket sales, making the OLT truly a community-based organization. Today, the OLT specializes in popular dramas and comedies, offering nine plays a year.

The OLT season extends deep into the summer, so why not take advantage of it and go see a play at Sandy Hill’s very own venue?

Anthony and Anna by St. John Ervine was the first play at the Drama League’s own theatre. It opened on January 4, 1928.
Photos from Staging a Legend, by Iris Winston