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A tip of the HAT, 10 years on

Former church turned downtown Sydney performance venue keeps on thriving, giving


SYDNEY — Even Wesley J. Colford finds it astonishing that, 10 years on, the Highland Arts Theatre has found — and maintained — an audience in Cape Breton seeking a solid live theatre experience.

“It is very strange and, at times, overwhelming. I remember having interviews like this in 2014 about the fact that this was happening at all and the fact that everyone, including us, thought that it was pretty outrageous and potentially foolhardy,” says Colford, the artistic and executive director who has been a big part of the affectionately dubbed HAT since May 2014.

“Yet, we did it. And we continue to do it.”

After the former St. Andrew’s Church was decommissioned and desanctified the year before, Wesley’s father, Kevin Colford, stepped in to turn the century-plusold building into an arts and culture facility — something that seemed missing within the downtown Sydney core, Wesley said.

“It was all my father’s planning,” they said. “I was living in Toronto in 2014 and I had been there for about eight years. And he saw an opportunity — he had the vision of a performance venue downtown.”


The venue officially reopened in June 2014 with an original musical comedy: “The Wakowski Brothers — A Cape Breton Vaudeville,” based on a book, music, lyrics and direction from Wesley himself.

“I was brought in really just to direct one show and I thought after that I’d be going back to Toronto,” said Colford, who will turn 33 later this week. “Little did I know the response would be so incredible. The community rose to the occasion and had a such a vociferous response and support. We knew that something was going right.

“The original plan ended up being changed completely.”

On top of that, converting the former church also meant upgrading the sound systems, lighting grid and control console, stadiumstyle theatre seating, a flexible stage curtaining system, projection screen and video projectors, as well as renovations to the dressing and green rooms.

The intention, Colford said, was to go beyond just live theatre and display a reliable theatrical presence, producing quality productions with a particular emphasis on Cape Breton songs and stories.


But more importantly for Colford was making their mark in what’s become “an anomaly” for the Cape Breton entertainment scene.

“I thought, well, I could continue working in Toronto with some really great people and great experiences in that environment — and ultimately be one of hundreds of people doing that,” they said. “Or I could come here and invest my energy into something that’s going to make an impact on people’s lives here in Cape Breton.”

Fast forward 10 years, and Colford said they couldn’t be happier with their decision.

“This is my full-time employment,” they said. “We have a small but mighty staff here, almost all of them from Cape Breton. It’s pretty incredible.”


However, Colford isn’t hesitant to say the past 10 years of HAT operations have also endured its fair share of challenges.

Colford has been vocal in their calls for more public funding for the arts, specifically for the HAT. For instance, in October 2018, the HAT had received $40,000 through the province’s Summer Theatre Festival Expansion Program. That came on the heels of an earlier $25,000 culture innovation grant it received toward a summer student program.

Locally, however, they wondered whether the Cape Breton Regional Municipality council of the day had their support regarding a $50,000 operating grant request, or six per cent of the municipal budget, which CBRM reportedly claimed they could not accommodate — this despite being the second-largest theatre in the province (behind Halifax’s Neptune Theatre).

“There’s always funding challenges,” they said with a chuckle.

“The big news of this year is that the provincial government was finally opening up operating funding, which we were so excited after nine years, to be eligible for. We did receive it — but it’s three per cent of our operating budget … which as you can imagine is not super helpful.

“But hopefully that will change.”


The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March 2020 threw a further proverbial wrench in operations.

Provincial public health protocols restricted indoor venues from operating. And only when it was considered safe to open, the HAT had to limit how many patrons could enter its small theatre, so long as they wore masks and distanced two metres (or six feet) from each other.

Mandates, however, fluctuated depending on COVID case counts — and as a result, the theatre was struggling to stay afloat financially.

“We really thought we were at the end of the tunnel,” Colford said in a December 2021 interview with the Cape Breton Post. “But we’ve now done over $30,000 of refunds of tickets. And now we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses — again — and this is after two difficult years in which we were just scraping through.”

The Houston government introduced a provincial Sector Impact Support Program that year, a short-term solution to aid small businesses amid the recent round of COVID19 restrictions. The program would provide up to $7,500 in one-time grants, by way of a tiered amount based on payroll.

“To put things in context of the $7,500 they’re proposing, one of the shows we were able to have happen with limited capacity, but with no bar or concession sales, we in previous years made more in one night with concessions than that whole grant,” Colford said at the time.

Looking back on that tumultuous period, Colford said how they endured was nothing short of miraculous.

“I recognize that there are unique challenges in a small community like this, especially over the past five years with all of the things that have happened. That’s not been the most fun,” they said. “But we have survived.”


And as the oft-quoted entertainment paraphrase goes, the shows must go on.

The Post recently revealed the venue is set to bring out for its winter-spring 2024 lineup its five-plays-overfive-months roster, “Cheers to 10 Years! — A HAT-Stravanagza” (Jan. 9-14), “Overdue” (Feb, 6-11), “Mimikej (Butterfly)” (March 5-10); “Punch Up” (April 16-21), and the first-ever Cape Breton production of “Funny Girl” (May 14-19).

As part of the festivities, the HAT is also offering a ticket package deal including all five shows for $50 plus HST to match the theatre’s first ticket package prices all the way back in 2015. Ticket packages will be offered until Dec. 24. The theatre is also bringing back the “Same Day, Same Seat” ticket package upgrade, guaranteeing their favourite tickets are reserved for them for every main-stage show.

All of the aforementioned shows will continue to be part of the Radical Access program, including a Pay-WhatYou-Choose performance of each show, free tickets to every performance provided in limited quantity, and an online livestream provided for those unable to attend.

More information and other ticket pricing can be found at highlandartstheatre. com.

“It really does feel like we’re getting back to a golden era in a way,” Colford said. “There are things that we haven’t been able to do, or things that we didn’t know if we’ll be able to do so it was impossible to plan.

“Now, it’s like this is what we should be doing, so we want to be doing this. And there’s so much excitement.”





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