Thursday, June 22, 2017

Second Season of The Foster Festival set to get underway in St. Catharines

Hard to believe, but the second season of The Foster Festival is now underway at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  Previews are underway now and the new season officially kicks off tomorrow night, so let's take a few moments and look at what's on tap this year and why you should go...

I noted last season, the Festival's first in St. Catharines, things were a little slow getting off the mark in June, due likely to the fact we simply were not accustomed to live theatre downtown, especially during the summer months.  Oh sure, we had Carousel Players and Essential Collective Theatre working out of the theatre space in the old courthouse next to the market during the winter months, but even with all their hard work and quality productions, crowds were often still small and infrequent.

So it was logical to ask if the city would/could support a live theatre festival during the heat of the summer months in downtown St. Catharines, given the right ingredients.  The answer now, of course, is a resounding 'yes'.

The right ingredients include a proper and exceptional theatre space in the Cairns Recital Hall at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and a festival devoted to the plays of arguably Canada's greatest living playwright, Norm Foster.  After all, most if not all Ontario summer theatre festivals feature at least one Norm Foster play per season, simply because they are considered 'guaranteed win' nights for summer theatre.

Norm began his playwriting career with The Melville Boys in 1984 and has not looked back since, producing now an average of one new play per year.  Yet amazingly, no theatre festival has ever been devised to celebrate his large catalogue of works like say, the Shaw Festival has built up around the works of George Bernard Shaw.

Until now.

I remember two summers ago attending the media launch of The Foster Festival downtown, when plans were announced for the new festival the following summer - 2016 - at the new PAC downtown.  Hopes and spirits were high the festival would take off and I think as the summer season wore on last year, the somewhat slow start turned into a gallop towards the end as the festival became one of the most talked-about summer events of the season.

That optimism certainly will spill over into this year as the maiden voyage has proven there is indeed an audience out there ready to come downtown and take in some quality theatre on a summer night or  one of the matinee performances.

Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Executive Director Emily Oriold read the theatrical tea-leaves at the end of the season last year and found some things they could tweak this year, including less early-week performances when audiences were rather thin last year.  Their adjustments should ensure more bums are in the seats for performances that remain and everyone will be happy theatrical campers, one would assume.

So, what's on tap for this season, you ask?  Not one but two world premieres this year sandwiched between a Foster classic.

Previews are already underway for the first new play of the season, Screwball Comedy, which officially opens tomorrow night at 8 and from what I hear is completely sold out.  Set in 1938, the story centres around Mary Hayes, a young wannabe newspaper reporter trying to break into a very male-dominated world.  Given a chance to report on a society wedding pits Mary against veteran reporter Jeff Kincaid, in the editor's bad books for his less than sparkling performances as of late.

The dialogue reflects the time period reminiscent of The Front Page, which filled seats at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  Screwball Comedy will likely be a perfect start to the season.  It runs until July 7th and stars Cosette Derome, Kevin Hare, Darren Keay and Eliza-Jane Scott.

Next up from July 12th to the 28th is Foster's classic Old Love, about a recently divorced Bud meeting newly-widowed Molly.  They meet at her husband's funeral, no less, and the story traces their courtship, rekindled romance and the importance of hope.  Real-life husband & wife team of Janet Laine-Green and Booth Savage star in the second show of the season.

The second world premiere and final offering of the season is Lunenburg, involving an American widow, Iris, who along with good friend Natalie arrive in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to a house Iris has inherited from her recently deceased husband.  This was all news to Iris, but she meets up with neighbour Charlie who happily brings the girls up to speed on what they need to know.  Lunenberg stars Shaw Festival regulars Melanie Janzen, Peter Krantz and Catherine McGregor.

Patricia Vanstone will be busy this summer as she directs all three productions, I'm told.  And yes, Norm Foster himself, who starred in the opening show last year opposite Vanstone, will be attending the season launch tomorrow night.

Want tickets?  Log on to for more information and ordering online, or call the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office at 905-688-0722, or stop by the box office downtown to pick up your tickets in advance.

This promises to be a great festival and a wonderful way to spend some time downtown this summer, perhaps catching dinner and a show right in your own backyard.  What could be better than that?

Have a great week!

June 22nd, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

TD Niagara Jazz Festival set to heat up your summer of 2017

There has been a flurry of activity lately regarding the TD Niagara Jazz Festival, founded just four years ago by local jazz performers and impresarios Peter Shea and Juliet Dunn.  Just last week, in fact, they announced the musical lineup for the main summer festival, scheduled for the last weekend of July, so let's look at some of that activity and why you should consider spending some time cooling off on those hot summer nights with some cool jazz...

One of the nice aspects of the festival that actually runs all year long is the Twilight Jazz series, featuring both local performers and those from further afield at intimate settings in Niagara.  Just over a week ago we attended the performance featuring Guelph-area jazz singer Brenda Lewis, whom I have known for several years now through Facebook and regular email contact, yet we had never met.

This was a chance to finally catch Brenda in action along with her musical partner, guitarist Margaret Stowe, in the cosy confines of the Mahtay Cafe & Lounge downtown.  They didn't disappoint, as the Great American Songbook was well represented through three sets of lovely easy-going jazz.  It's typical of what you can expect throughout the year at the Twilight Jazz series and I was happy to be a part of the audience that night.

Juliet Dunn, the indefatigable Co-Creator and Executive Director of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival was there of course, and invited me to the media launch of the 2017 season a couple of days later at the Hare Winery Company in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  I was more than happy to take her up on the offer!

Part of the announcement included a contribution of $50,000 for the festival from title sponsors TD Canada Trust, presented by District Vice-President Coby Hawkins.  Further funding is provided by the Province of Ontario's Media Development Corporation, Celebrate Ontario, Ontario 150 as well as a number of other supporters both local and provincial.

The TD NJF received the prestigious award of Best New Festival in Ontario for 2017 and considering it is barely four years old now, that is indeed something to celebrate.  It has come from a tremendous amount of work on the part of Juliet, Peter and their legion of volunteers and supporters; the community support shown for the not-for-profit festival is a direct result of this dedication and the quality of the product they are putting out there throughout the season.

One of the highlights of the new season is their Canada 150 initiative:  Live Learn Jazz:  A Canadiana Suite.  This ongoing series saw legendary saxophonist Pat LaBarbera performing at Henry of Pelham Winery last Thursday evening, in fact.  Still to come in the series on July 6th, Vibes in the Vines will be presented at Stratus Vineyards featuring Randy Stirtzinger and Graham Lear.  The event is almost sold-out but if you act fast you should still be able to get tickets to that event.

The main event weekend from July 28th to the 30th will cover a lot of ground and several venues throughout Niagara.  The flagship event will take place at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on the Friday evening beginning at 8, with a concert entitled Jazz and Funk in the City.  Featured artists include the Andrean Farrugia Trio and Chops n' Soul with Joel Parisien.  That same night beginning at 10:30 across the street at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, Jam in the City will present the TD Niagara Jazz Festival House Band led by local legend Randy Stirtzinger.

On the Saturday events run all day long, beginning at 11:30 am with the first of the Jazz on the River cruises aboard the Niagara Belle, featuring Dr. Jazz and the Jazzbugs performing classic Dixieland jazz.  Jazz in the Park, meantime, takes over the stage at Simcoe Park in Niagara on the Lake from 11 am to 7 pm with performances by the likes of the Jazz.FM 91 Youth Big Band, the Jimmy Stahl Big Band and Zach Preston's Latin Ensemble, among others at the Fallsview Fiesta Stage.

There are performances as well on the Henley Honda Stage including the Melissa-Marie Shriner Jazz Trio, the Barbra Lica Quartet and the Robert Fekete Quintet; on the Long and McQuade Live Learn Jazz Stage meantime, several more performances will take place including choral singing with Cinnamon Jones and Choir Nation with Sophia Perlman.  Many of these stage performances are free of charge, by the way.

On the final day, Sunday July 30th, the Jazz on the River cruise is presently sold out, but the free stage events continue in Simcoe Park with more performances by the likes of Turbo Street Funk, the Juliann Kuchocki & Dave Restivo Duo and the Stu MacDonald Quartet, among others.

I'm happy to see a tribute to the celebrated Canadian jazz musician Moe Koffman scheduled for 2 pm on Sunday featuring Bernie Senensky's Moe Koffman Legacy Band with Bill McBirnie.  At 7 pm in the evening a concert celebrating the one and only Oscar Peterson will feature local jazz giant John Sherwood along with Dave Young and Terry Clarke.

As if all that isn't enough, there are Tent Talks events scheduled for Saturday in Simcoe Park, and leading up to the big weekend you can catch a free jazz art exhibit on July 27th from 7 to 9 pm at the Niagara Artists Centre in downtown St. Catharines.  It's a free event, by the way.

If all this gets your senses reeling and you need to be a part of it, weekend passes are available in various forms to catch as much or as little as you want.  Just visit for more details, pricing and availability.

I will be updating my website calendar page shortly with the events as well, at

There is simply no excuse to be bored in Niagara ever, and this summer especially so with events such as the TD Niagara Jazz Festival happening.  Why not get out and enjoy some great jazz right here in Niagara?

Have a great week!

June 15th, 2017.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

An update on my career path

It's been a little while since I updated you on my career path which, as you know, has taken a few detours over the last couple of years since my exit from radio broadcasting after 40 years of service.  So this weekend I'll bring you up to speed on the current situation which includes some positive changes.

As many of you know in the fall of 2015 I began my New Adventure with Canada Post, after a rather rigorous selection process.  At the time I was pleasantly surprised I made it all the way through the various screening processes and had a new career as a casual, on-call letter carrier in St. Catharines.  I was told back then don't count on making this your only job as it is only on-call, but for me at least, I had more than enough work to keep me going most of the year.

There were down times for us casuals in late April/early May and late September/early October, but otherwise I was working almost every day.  So for me, the down time allowed me some much-needed rest and recharge for the next round of busy work schedules.  We knew going in this would be the case, but again for me, I was fine with it.

The goal of the casual worker is to get hired on permanently at Canada Post, although this can often take years to accomplish as older workers retire and positions open up.  The fact others can transfer in to this area and take a position based on seniority can slow the process down as well.  But you always hold out hope this will someday happen, hopefully sooner rather than later.

After another winter walking the routes in all sorts of inclement weather, I debated whether I would continue once I hit the age of 60 marker, which happens later this coming week.  I was getting tired and my back was starting to ache by the end of those long walks.  I was a late starter at this game and although I worked hard to keep up with the 'young bucks' I was usually the last one out of the depot in the morning and the last one back at the end of the shift.

Still and all, it is a great job and you meet a lot of great people on your walks.  The nice days are usually a pleasure; who can resist walking in the sunshine on a nice spring or fall day and getting paid to do it?  Granted, the nasty weather makes the walk less enjoyable but even then, properly protected from the elements you can manage to work through it well enough.

This past winter although snow was not as big an issue around these parts much of the season, the ice we had prior to Christmas and the March break blizzard both presented their challenges to us letter carriers both young and old alike.  But as they say, through snow, rain, hail, etc. the mail must go through and so it is on a daily basis at Canada Post.

While I was pondering my future back in March, slogging through knee-high snowdrifts while delivering the mail, I had a call from my supervisor asking if I would be interested in training for a temporary posting inside in the retail division.  It would involve extensive learning in order to know all the different aspects of the job to properly serve the customers in a timely manner, but after careful consideration I agreed to the opportunity.

So in April I did the required training following my last mail routes the week following Easter weekend.  I knew I would be posted to the main post office on Queen Street in downtown St. Catharines providing sick relief on what was expected to be a long-term basis.  While it was a steep learning curve I managed to get the hang of it and enjoyed meeting a lot of the downtown people I have known for years working in the centre of the city.  It was basically a 9 to 5 full time job inside, so what's not to like?

Then a funny thing happened.

The third week into my posting downtown I caught a very nasty cold and was off work for several days, which for me is unusual and rather ironic as I walked the entire winter outside with little trouble and once I get an inside job I catch a cold.  Go figure.  But as you are dealing with the public face to face and handling cash on a daily basis it is almost inevitable you will catch something.

By the third day of the cold I was particularly frustrated by my slow recovery when the phone rang.  It was the call every casual waits for.  I had been hired permanently at Canada Post!  Yes, I felt a little better after the call for sure!

There are different roles you can apply for at Canada Post, including of course full-time letter carrier. I gave careful thought to my choices but ultimately given my age and the number of years I had left before retirement, I included in my choices a part-time position working inside the depot helping with the morning sort and processing of parcels.  And that is the position I was hired for.

The day starts early, usually at 5.  But after years of getting up early for a 5 am start in radio I was well used to the routine so to me it was just like old times.  Being part time I only work four or five hours a day so I am usually done by either 9 or 10 in the morning depending on the shift and the volume of mail, and then the rest of the day is mine.

After a couple of weeks in my new position I couldn't be happier.  I am an early riser by nature anyway and there is a certain pleasure in getting the work day done very early, I find.  The shift often flies by on busy days and before I know it I am heading out and on my way to the Y to walk the track, shower and head home at noon for lunch.  The afternoon is mine to do whatever I wish.

Oh I will have no trouble filling the time in the afternoon, I can assure you.  Lots of things to do around the house I will now have time for, and on nice days when Sophie is working all day I can sneak out and enjoy an escape in the sunshine, as I did this past Friday afternoon.  What's not to like?

I also plan to do some things I simply have not had time for the last while such as writing more, both in this space and on a book or two I know I have in me.  I want to write about my experiences finding a second career late in life and weathering the tricky employment reality today, for one.  I even have a working title for the book, but that will be a well-kept secret for now.

While this is not a scenario that would suit everyone it is absolutely perfect for me.  I am at the stage in my life where I can work a little less and spend a little more time doing what I like and I have to admit I am ready for that.  For over fifty years now I have been working at one job or another in some capacity, and many years more than one job at once.  For me the time was right to slow down just a little and easy ever so gently into what I am calling semi-retirement.

I am blessed to have the opportunity to essentially end my career with Canada Post, working with a talented team of professionals I have an immense amount of respect for.  Every day brings with it new challenges and every day the team I work with rises to the challenge and shows what they're made of.  I am proud to have this opportunity to work alongside them every day.

So as the big 6-0 looms on the horizon this week, know I am exactly where I want to be at this stage in my life:  working in many ways to make the city a better place to be.  It will be a busy time, but this writer is looking forward to the challenge.

Onwards and upwards we go...join me for the ride of a lifetime!

June 4th, 2017.