In October, 1932, the Governor General of Canada, Viscount Vere Brabazon Ponsonby, 9th Earl of Bessborough, announced to a gathering of theatre representatives in Rideau Hall that he was inaugurating a new initiative to encourage amateur theatre groups in Canada. The project was the Dominion Drama Festival, which ran from 1932 to 1978, with a break during World War II. The national Festival took place annually, with winners of regional amateur festivals being awarded prizes in acting, design, direction, original writing, and production.
Inspired by the Dominion Drama project, a group of Kemptville residents organised their own Drama Festival Association in 1937, “to encourage dramatics primarily and principally by the organization and operation of periodic drama festivals. The Association was further encouraged by local political powerhouse, G. Howard Ferguson, who had served as Ontario Premier between 1923 and 1930, and as Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom until 1935. As someone rather well versed in theatrics and dramatics on the political stage, Ferguson served as patron of the Drama Festival Association. He strongly supported the development of amateur theatrics in his hometown and provided a silver trophy to present to the winners of the annual festival held in Kemptville.
In the first year of the festival, 1937, The Honourable G. Howard Ferguson Challenge Trophy was won by the Kemptville Agricultural School’s Literary Society in the face of strong competition from a wide variety of amateur groups, including the St. James’ Anglican Young People’s Association [A.Y.P.A.], the Holy Cross Parish Players, St. John’s Young Peoples’ Union [ Y.P.U.], Kemptville High School Literary Society, Oxford Mills Y.P.U., and the South Mountain Players. Clearly, amateur dramatics was a very popular pastime in the area, particularly among church youth groups.
The following year saw even more drama groups taking part in the festival, including some from Oxford Mills, Spencerville, Burritt’s Rapids, and Merrickville, as well as those from the 1937 event. But the onset of the Second World War brought an end to the festival, and it was not until 1946 that amateur theatrics returned to Kemptville. It was the Women’s Institute in the village (as it was then) who established the Drama League, to “stimulate public interest in drama and in the study and advancement of literature generally, to encourage the art of acting, and to entertain the members and the public by dramatic, terpsichorean and choral performances”, quite a lofty ambition for an amateur enterprise.
In the event, it proved too ambitious. Although membership reached a high of 220, and Ferguson continued as patron, the League lasted just three years, and it was not until 1950 that the next attempt to bring theatre to Kemptville was made. This resulted in the “Play for Fun” Group, which presented its first production of two one-act plays in the Kemptville High School on November 30, 1952, directed by Jim Morton and K. Purvis. Over the next few years, the Play for Fun Group mounted plays at festivals around Ontario, working at times with the Ottawa Little Theatre, and many of the plays were directed by Miss Laura Winford and Mrs. M. Barr.
Kemptville High School was home to the Play for Fun Group during the 1950’s, but it, too, ceased operations by the end of the decade.
After a 10-year hiatus, Vida Hopson revived the group in April, 1967, naming it the St. James Players. Its first production was Noel Coward’s “I’ll Leave It To You,” put on at St. James’ Leslie Hall. By 1974, the group had changed its name to the Kemptville Players to reflect the community. The name was incorporated in 1980 and the group became Kemptville Players Inc. (KPI). The late lamented Leslie Hall became the rehearsal and production location for the KPI, where actors and production staff contended with a rather unreliable electrics and a sloped stage. Eventually, the wiring became too dangerous to use, and the Players lost a valuable space, and the community an irreplaceable venue when the Hall was demolished in 2019.
In 2021 the Players changed their brand, becoming the North Grenville Community Theatre (NGCT), although for legal reasons they continue to be the Kemptville Players Inc doing business as North Grenville Community Theatre. Most of the company’s plays are now presented at Urbandale Arts Centre at the Municipal Centre.
After so many false starts, amateur dramatics seem to be here to stay in North Grenville, and an exciting branch of the NGCT has been launched with the creation of the North Grenville Youth Community Theatre (Kemptville Players Inc Kids), which started in 2019 and aims to provide “an opportunity for youth, grades 3 and up, to experience the excitement and fun of theatre”.
Thanks very much for this article. Among other things I was pleased to see mention of Laura Winfred. She directed a public speaking event that included my own first public performance. The participants were all young and I remember her wise advice, such as not giving the impression of people with ants in their pants.
Laura Winford is her correct name, as you have in your article.