Documentary hopes to put tiny theatre town back on the map, and in the black

Michele Jarvie, National Post / Calgary Herald / Edmonton Journal / Londoner
May 27, 2020

It’s a blip on the map with only 87 residents, but Rosebud, Alta., attracts an estimated 35,000 visitors a year.

It’s not the bucolic prairie landscape that draws these people to the hamlet 100 kilometres northeast of Calgary – although that was the very reason A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven spent a summer painting there in 1944.

These days, it’s art of another kind that helps keeps the community afloat. Rosebud School of the Arts and the Rosebud Theatre created a tourism boom for the rural area that otherwise relies on agriculture and oil and gas production. The post-secondary professional theatre school draws students from all over and the theatre has a dedicated audience from Calgary and Drumheller.

“We’re kind of a little ecosystem here. Like the old-fashioned coal mining towns, we’re a little theatre industry town,” said Morris Ertman, artistic director of the Rosebud Theatre.

The village of Rosebud, Alberta; home of the Rosebud Theatre and the Rosebud School Of The Arts. Ted Rhodes / Calgary Herald

It’s doubtful anyone had that in mind when a group of young adults from Calgary brought out 40 teenagers in Easter 1973 as a pilot project. The town had almost emptied out a year earlier when the local school was shut down by the Alberta government and students were bused to Standard or Drumheller, 25 km away. Many local businesses closed and the population dropped precipitously, to less than a dozen.

That first camping trip evolved into a summer camp supported by a Calgary church and, in 1977, a high school focused on visual, music and performing arts was founded. Seeing a way to provide opportunities for those students, the school opened a theatre in the 1980s. The high school eventually transitioned to post-secondary education and the Rosebud Theatre is now a professional, year-round company in its 37th season. Along with family musicals and comedy, over the years Rosebud Theatre has tackled some sensitive subjects: South African apartheid, Christianity, Shakespeare, racism and ageism.

The Opera House is the home for Rosebud Theatre plays. Ted Rhodes / Calgary Herald

The theatre’s success has drawn other businesses to the area: retail shops, a gallery, a museum, artists and B&Bs. It’s an understatement to say the arts industry is vital to the hamlet, so the spring and summer closure of Rosebud Theatre due to the COVID-19 pandemic is worrisome.

“This has been catastrophic to not only the theatre but the town as a whole, as most of them are employed in some way or another by the theatre and school,” said Heather Little, marketing manager for Rosebud Theatre, which derives 80 per cent of its budget from ticket sales.

Some of the interconnections include a theatre scenic artist who also runs a local B&B; two actors who also teach at the school; another actor rents out a suite to students, and theatre students who normally work at the Mercantile, feeding theatre patrons. No school, no theatre, no business.

“It’s horrible. All of these people have had their incomes slashed,” said Ertman. “By losing our spring and summer shows, that’s a $2 million loss in a budget that’s north of $3 million for the whole operation, including the mercantile. The loss of these three shows constitutes 60 per cent of our revenue. If we lose the fall, that will be 80 per cent.”

It could be months before theatre companies are allowed to operate again in Alberta and many are now looking ahead to the spring or even the fall 2021 season. Ertman said, like all theatre companies, they’re taking it a week at a time and have Plan A, B and C depending on when they can re-open.

“We don’t want to pull the plug on something prematurely. It’s like there’s a really pragmatic chess game going on and your opponent is COVID… The worst-case scenario is can we survive?”

To that end, two Canadian filmmakers are hoping to shine a small spotlight on Rosebud to raise funds for the theatre.

Poster for a documentary, Rosebud, Alberta, making the rounds at Canadian film festivals. jpg

Eric Pauls and Michael Janke created Rosebud, Alberta, a day-in-the-life documentary after visiting in 2018. The short film won awards at film festivals across Canada and was to show in Palm Springs just after the pandemic hit. So the filmmakers offered to air the film to raise funds for the hamlet and the theatre that inspired it.

“With a lot of short films, you do festivals and that’s great. But then they tend to come and go and die. It’s nice that the film can be used for something good rather than just a vanity project,” said Pauls.

He and Janke spent a week filming in Rosebud to create the day in the life documentary and he said it’s easy to see what’s special about Rosebud. When he visited on an earlier trip, he said he probably met and chatted with half the town between parking his car and walking into a recording studio.

“Everyone on the crew said it was the best filming experience ever.”

Ertman said the film does justice to Rosebud.

“The documentary really captured the full feel… It captured the peace, the stillness and the absolute crazy energy of the place,” said Ertman. “The anomaly of it drew them here and they really got it.”

While any funds raised through the streaming is obviously crucial, Ertman hopes it raises more than just cash.

“I’m hoping it primes the pump for a whole bunch of people to go, when this whole thing is over, they say, let’s get out there.”

Rosebud, Alberta will stream May 28 at 7 p.m. at on where viewers can also donate. All donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar by two benefactors up to a total of $50,000.

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National Post | Calgary Herald | Edmonton Journal | Londoner

Documentary hopes to put tiny theatre town back on the map, and in the black

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Michele Jarvie, National Post / Calgary Herald / Edmonton Journal / Londoner