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Playgoers of Lethbridge, one of the oldest amateur theatre groups in Canada, celebrates its centennial

Ashley Thomson is one of the actors in the group's current production, The Play That Goes Wrong. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)
Ashley Thomson is one of the actors in the group's current production, The Play That Goes Wrong. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)

Playgoers of Lethbridge has a special place in Ashley Thomson's heart.

Her mother also took part in the amateur theatre group years ago, and with the community's continued dedication to the arts, it's lasted long enough for her to follow in her mother's footsteps.

She's one of the actors in the group's centennial production running Feb. 7 to 11, The Play That Goes Wrong.

"It connects me to my roots, to my mom and to my grandma who were all involved in music and the arts here in Lethbridge," she said.

"It also gives me hope that there's always going to be something really cool and exciting ... younger generations can come out and see live theatre and develop sort of an appreciation for the arts."

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

Playgoers of Lethbridge celebrates its 100th anniversary Friday, a century since the group's founders held their first meeting at the St. Augustine's Anglican Church Parish Hall.

The amateur theatre group is one of the oldest in Canada, says president of the board and director of the upcoming production, Elaine Jagielski. They put on shows, offer classes and provide scholarships to those interested in theatrical arts.

"Whether they have an interest, whether they're already skilled … a person can come and gain some experience," Jagielski said.

E.G. Sterndale-Bennett started the group in 1923. He took out an advertisement in the Lethbridge Herald searching for other residents interested in theatre.

His eloquently written letter received one response. But in the end, it was enough to get the group going.

Within a few years, Playgoers of Lethbridge had about 800 members, Jagielski said, a large chunk of the city's residents. According to provincial data, in 1930, the population of Lethbridge sat at about 14,000.

"Theatre was an important part of the community," she said. "It was a source of entertainment where there weren't as many options as there were today."

Submitted by Allen Gibson
Submitted by Allen Gibson

Some of Sterndale-Bennett's original ideas have helped get the group to where it is today, Jagielski said.

His original "manifesto" touched on trying to reach large audiences, uplifting amateurs and focusing on low-cost productions — all tenets the group has followed.

'We're this hub'

Core to the group's success, though, is the community's dedication to producing and witnessing theatre.

It's not something many people associate with Lethbridge, Jagielski said, but the community is rich with entertainment options.

"There's actually quite a few groups that are offering various plays, musical, reviews," she said.

David Gabert has worked with Playgoers of Lethbridge since 2007. He says the group provides the community with a space to make connections and have fun.

"One of the things that's so special about Lethbridge is we're this hub for so many people in southern Alberta, and theatre is a great way to express ourselves, to explore new ideas, to be creative," he said.

"To pass it on to people beyond this, I think that's one of the most inspiring things, is that it's been 100 years and what does the future hold?"

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

The group is hosting a social gathering where it all started, the local parish hall, from 3 to 4 p.m. Friday in honour of their centennial. They also plan to hold a larger celebration in April with other arts organizations in the city.

For those considering getting involved, Thomson says their current production is a great icebreaker. Along with a good laugh, you may just find out why the group has persisted for so long.

"There's a lot of hard stuff going on in the world. It's kind of nice to have that little bit of escapism and to just go to the theatre," she said.

Talking with CBC Lethbridge

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