The roots of Lethbridge Community Theatre group Playgoers of Lethbridge, lie in the story of Ernest Gaskell Sterndale Bennett.
Bennett set the wheels in motion to form the prominent Lethbridge amateur theatre group 90 years ago to the month when he wrote a letter to the editor in January 1913 for the Lethbridge Herald trying to drum up interest in forming a theatre group.
“He was a mechanical engineer by training, related Playgoers of Lethbridge archivist George Mann, who has written a book on Bennett’s life as well as a thorough history of theatre in Lethbridge.
Like many English immigrants, Bennett grew up with a love for theatre which he brought with him when he moved to Canada due to poor job prospects in London, moving first to Montreal, then to Moose Jaw and finally to Lethbridge where he got a job with Lethbridge Ironworks.
His letter spawned enough interest to have regular meetings which resulting in the formal formation of the group with an elected executive on Feb. 15, 1923.
“ Their first big production was the musical “Going Up,” Mann continued.
At the time the musical had just enjoyed a successful run in New York, and had the same response here, attracting 1,000 people to the Majestic Theatre for the group’s first production. Bennett and his wife Belle, for whom the Sterndale -Bennett Theatre is named, made an impressive impression and contribution to the Lethbridge theatre scene as directors and actors and getting the group involved with provincial drama festivals, including the Dominion Drama Festival, which Playgoers participated in right up to 1970.
While interest waned a little during the beginning of the Second World War, he noted that soon changed.
“During the Second World War we had an influx of British War brides who had acting experience in England at the time. Most of them didn’t work outside the home at the time, so they devoted a lot of time and energy to the organization, which is quite different from today,” he said adding while there are a lot of people involved with the group who teach drama at numerous area schools during the day, members come from all walks of life.
“We have a really nice melting pot,” he said.
Everybody from students to retirees are involved with Playgoers of Lethbridge today. Most of the members have day jobs which they must work around for rehearsals and performances.
Mann noted the group has lasted 90 years for several reasons. They are a completely democratic group who elect their board members who decide everything from what production to do as well as the day to day operations of the group to supporting up and coming actors and directors in drama festivals.
“Playgoers concentrates on developing talent. The board and executive are elected by the members, so when one individual left, the organization was able to continue on. He set up the organization so it doesn’t just surround one person,” Mann summarized.
“ A lot of people will set up a theatre group and it will fall apart when they leave town,” he continued.
“The most important aspect of playgoers is it is a democratic organization. We encourage people to get involved in all aspects of the organization. So if you want to act, but don’t fit in for a production, maybe you can be used in another role like front of house, props, promotions or costumes,” he continued.
Bennett eventually left Lethbridge for a lucrative job with the Toronto Masquers, a theatre company in Toronto in 1932, but left behind an organization which not only encouraged new directors and performers, but encouraged them to get involved in all aspects of the group from set design and decoration to performing and helped Lethbridge make its mark on the provincial and national stage by participating in drama festival like the one act and later three act drama festivals.
Mann has been involved with Playgoers of Lethbridge since 1963.
“In the late ’50s I was a drama teacher at Wilson Junior high school. In the winter of 1963, my wife saw an ad in the paper casting a play called Rebecca and thought I would be interested in being part of it. And she was right,” Mann continued adding he soon took on the role of archivist after discovering thorough scrapbooks of the group which Bennett kept.