The story of Drayton Entertainment is one that unfolds like a fairytale. It’s the story of a theatre company that began in the tiny town of Drayton in 1991, and grew to become one of Canada’s largest and most successful professional theatre companies (more than 250,000 people annually take in the shows at its 7 different venues). And it’s a story best told by a man who has been there from the beginning – current President of the Board of Directors of Drayton Entertainment, Neil Aitchison.
“I’ve known (Artistic Director & CEO) Alex Mustakas since we were both members of KW Musical Productions and the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society,” Neil begins. “Alex graduated with a business degree from Wilfrid Laurier University, and decided to go to England to study Theatre Arts Administration. While he was there, he called me and asked if I had ever heard of a place called “Drayton”; he’d heard there was a theatre available there, and he was interested in finding out more.”
Neil, who was raised in nearby Harriston, not only knew where Drayton was, he took Alex there himself to see what would eventually become the first theatre location for Drayton Entertainment.
“Alex worked hard to create a theatre experience that made everyone feel welcome,” Neil says. “His mandate of providing Music and Laughter for audiences was popular, and people quickly discovered Drayton offered professional theatre that was every bit as good as what was being presented on more renowned stages.”
The Drayton formula proved so successful, it wasn’t long before opportunity came knocking.
“One day Milo Shantz came to us and said ‘Why don’t you come to St. Jacobs?’ “ Neil said. “The Schoolhouse Theatre was available, and he wanted Alex to expand Drayton there.” So in 1997 the St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre opened with a successful production of Forever Plaid.
More opportunities followed: King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, Huron Country Playhouse and later the Playhouse II in Grand Bend were added to the fold. Another call from Milo Shantz led to the acquisition of the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse in 2005. And, in 2013 Drayton raised the curtain on its newest venue, the Hamilton Family Theatre (originally the Dunfield Theatre) in Cambridge.
Neil stresses an important aspect to Drayton’s success is the way each theatre is so indigenous to the community where it’s located. “People are proud to say ‘This is our theatre’,” he says. “It’s these relationships we’ve built that are so important.”
For all its local success, Drayton Entertainment is also very much an international success story. “Drayton is a model of sustainability in Canadian Theatre,” Aitchison proudly notes. “We have never received government funding for our operating expenses. And we continue to grow.”
Part of that growth has taken the company on the road. Most recently, Toronto’s Mirvish Productions picked up Drayton’s production of Million Dollar Quartet for a 4-week run, after it sold out at 4 of Drayton’s venues.
Drayton has also been granted the Canadian premiere to several shows, including Mary Poppins in 2013, and this season’s Irving Berlin musical, Holiday Inn. All of this is possible because of the solid reputation Drayton Entertainment has garnered through the years.
And its story continues.
“This year we’re extending the season at 3 of our venues. And we’re debuting a brand new show, featuring some Mountie,” Neil says with a grin. The “Mountie” is a character Neil brought to life on the Drayton stage. This year’s show – his 8th as Constable Archibald F. Inkster – is called Canada 151: Better Late than Sorry. “I actually just received the script from Alex to look over. I told him we’d better get this thing written – it’s already selling!”
The story of Drayton Entertainment is a tale Neil is happy to tell over and over again.
“It’s a great success story,” Neil says. “It’s an ongoing, wonderful story.”