Curtain ready to rise on new Sydney performance space

Elizabeth Patterson, The Cape Breton Post
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Highland Arts Centre opening next week in renovated former church

SYDNEY — These are exciting days for Wesley J. Colford.

Wesley J. Colford stands in front of the former St. Andrew Church, now the area's newest theatre, the Highland Arts Theatre, which will open to the public Tuesday.

He has a new job, is about to see his award-winning musical comedy performed in front of his hometown audience and he's been a major force behind the transformation of the area's newest entertainment venue.

On Tuesday, the building housing the former St. Andrew's United Church will reopen its doors as the Highland Arts Centre. In less than a year, the venerable 104 year-old brick building in downtown Sydney has gone from being decommissioned as a United Church and in danger of being torn down, to being sold to Wesley's father, Sydney businessman Kevin Colford, who has turned it into a newly renovated, state-of-the-art theatre. Kevin Colford purchased the building in September and since then, sound and lighting have been upgraded and the pews have been replaced with 650 stadium-style theatre seats.

As Wesley leads a tour through the building, still in the chaos of renovation, it becomes apparent that there's still lots to be done before next Tuesday.

"There's about four teams in at the moment doing lighting, plumbing, putting down tiles, finishing little touches with the seats, so if you come back tomorrow it will look completely different again," Wesley said. "We'll have the setup by then so the stage will have a completely different look and basically every day for the next few days, it will be completely different again until Tuesday when we're finally open."

Before its rebirth as an arts centre, the building had a distinguished background as a performance space. Classical musicians regularly held recitals and concerts there over the years because of the building's outstanding acoustical properties and its Casavant Freres organ. Purists will be glad to know that the instrument remains fully intact in case of possible future organ performances and the acoustics remain as good as ever.

Wesley's original musical comedy, the "Wakowski Brothers - A Cape Breton Vaudeville" will be the opening performance when the centre opens its doors Tuesday afternoon. The work was originally workshopped in Cape Breton but it had a sold-out run at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2012, winning multiple awards and touring Ontario for two years. Featured actors include George MacKenzie, Ron Newcombe and Lisa Ferguson-Penny, and musicians Ian Aker, (Red) Mike MacDonald, Ronnie Leadbeater and Breagh MacKinnon will accompany the performers. The musical will run Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as  June 10 and June 11 for matinees at 2 p.m., and then officially opens June 18 for a five-day evening run. Tickets will be available at the door and online.

If successful, the musical is expected to pave the way for future theatrical productions, including a Christmas show and a new Cape Breton-based show next summer.

The venue will also be available for rental for local musicians, dancers and choirs for their own shows.

For Wesley, the Highland Arts Centre has given him the opportunity to move back home from Toronto to do the work he loves as the first artistic director of the centre — and he couldn't be happier.

"It's really a dream come true for me and I think for downtown Sydney to have a facility like this," said Wesley.

Organizations: United Church, Highland Arts Centre, Casavant Freres

Geographic location: Sydney, Cape Breton, Toronto Ontario

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