When people think of Squamish, many imagine Howe Sound vistas, soaring cliffs, and windswept whitecaps.
But outdoor recreation is only a part of the heart of this town. Arts and culture have a long, deep history in these parts, which may be surprising to some. For decades, thespians, musicians and other performers have been interpreting their visions for audiences.
Veronica McPhee is at the heart of two of the oldest cultural groups in town. She is a board member of the Howe Sound Performing Arts Association and music director of Sea to Sky Singers.
Howe Sound Performing Arts Association brings world-class musicians and performers to the area, while developing local talent, especially among young people.
“This year will be our 30th year,” said McPhee. “Right now, we’re going through strategic planning and rediscovering and reframing what we offer the community.”
The group hosts and produces the Howe Sound Music Festival, which features piano, voice and choral experiences. They also hire professional teachers to offer master classes to aspiring locals.
The association runs the gamut both in showcasing seasoned performers and developing new talent and in the variety of genres they include.
“We’ve had quite a strong tradition of classical music performances,” said McPhee. “But, as well, we’ve hosted jazz, we’ve hosted some comedians, a little bit of dance. We try to offer all of that. We do also really like to focus on locals, so we often will have a multi-performer show every year that includes locals performing. That will take on different themes. Sometimes it’s more classically based; sometimes, it’s more folksy-based or jazz-influenced. Primarily, we are producers, so we try to focus on presenting other people’s work.”
While the performing arts association as an organization is completely distinct from the Sea to Sky Singers, there is some crossover in the membership, just because the size of the community, McPhee explained.
While the organizations have both been busy for decades, the town has changed around them, growing and changing, with people leaving and new folks arriving.
“There’s been a lot of change within Squamish, so we’re really proud of the fact that we been able to adapt,” she said. “It’s very grassroots in both of the organizations. The energy comes from the people that are involved every particular year. That’s kind of how we take our direction and our forward movement.”
Typically around 30 to 40 members sing with the choir in two formal concerts a year. One is generally around the winter holidays, the other in spring.
“Usually in those shows, we have some other guest or other multimedia interaction with the show,” said McPhee. In one recent iteration, the music was about art and colour, and there were three artists painting during the performance. In the end, the art was auctioned off.
The Howe Sound Performing Arts Association focuses on producing events, while the Sea to Sky Singers draws locals who make a major time commitment — about two hours a week usually — as they develop their offerings for the public.
“One thing I really love about Sea to Sky Singers is we are an unauditioned adult choir,” she said, “so people from lots of different walks of life, lots of different experiences musically, can come together and create something that’s very high quality and very meaningful.”
One message McPhee wants to get out into the community is that both the groups are always on the lookout for new faces.
“Both of those organizations are very open and welcome to meeting new people,” she said. “Sometimes we take for granted that everybody knows who we are because we’ve been here this long, but there are so many people that are new to this town who haven’t found us yet, so we’d like people to find us.” Both groups are easy to contact online.
Another longstanding arts institution is Between Shifts Theatre. Begun as Howe Sound Players more than 30 years ago, the original mastermind, Kathryn Daniels, is still on the board and remains an artistic influence.
While focused on an ambitious series of offerings this season, the troupe is also very much committed to rebuilding its base, said Amy Reid, of Between Shifts Theatre Society.
Reid is on the board of directors and is a regular actor, director and producer with the society.
“Many people have sort of been priced out of the community and moved away and we’ve lost quite a few members,” she said. “One of our big goals of the year is recruitment because, with all the people who have left Squamish, there’s dozens more who have arrived, so we’re looking for new ways to be able to connect with those potential members.”
This year, the stage performances included Dead Man’s Cell Phone,”by Sarah Ruhl, which Reid describes as a “quirky look at how we communicate.”
The winter feature is Blustery Ever After, a sequel of sorts to last year’s Once Upon a Cold Snap, both written by Katherine Fawcett.
Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women runs in spring, and the final offering is five one-act plays being staged at the end of May.
Sewn in between these mainstage productions is the Chair Series, three events spread across the calendar featuring eight monologues by different performers, all written by North Vancouver writer John McGie.
Reid acknowledges that these series of soliloquies may be hard to wrap one’s head around before sitting down in the theatre but promises audiences will never forget the experiences.
“Some of them are so hilarious and some of them are so heartbreaking,” said Reid. “The tagline for that is ‘Theatre for the short attention span,’ because if you don’t like it you’re five minutes around to another story.”
The all-volunteer troupe is on the lookout for people with a diversity of interests.
“If somebody wants to be on the stage, if somebody is interested in sitting on the board, if somebody is interested in creating props or painting sets, you name it, we would love to meet them and have them as part of our group,” she said. “It’s a really, really great group of welcoming people of all levels of experience, from professionals to people who have never had anything to do with the theatre before. I think what makes it so magical is how welcoming they are, no matter what people’s background is.”
It’s a great family activity, she added, because there is something for every age. Reid’s own daughter got dragged along to rehearsals at a young age and now is herself deeply involved in Between Shifts.
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in Discover Squamish magazine. Find the magazine around town starting this week (Nov. 9).