Spotlight on the Nurse Myra Bennett Centre for the Performing Arts

A rendering of the new performance centre in Cow Head.

For four decades, Theatre Newfoundland Labrador (TNL) has been producing and promoting professional theatre on the island’s west coast, sharing stories for and about our province’s people. TNL’s Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cow Head is one of the ways in which the non-profit organization strives to develop a growing creative community, while providing thought-provoking theatre that reflects our culture and heritage back to us. 

Consisting of a 16-week summer repertory season (beginning in June) that includes six to eight plays, a visiting artist series and workshop development week, putting off an event this size is no small feat. The Warehouse Theatre and Shallow Bay Motel in Cow Head has hosted the festival over the years, but due to increasing popularity and a need for upgraded facilities, it has outgrown its home. Enter the Nurse Myra Bennett Centre for the Performing Arts.  (Jeremy Bryant and Jessica Stanford of Lat49 Architecture Inc. are the architects behind the stunning design.)

Named for a legendary Newfoundland nurse who worked along the Northern Peninsula (and who had a keen interest in the arts), the new centre, which TNL hopes to have up and running by June 2020, will consist of a theatre and rehearsal hall, intermission area, and workshop and office spaces. There will also be set, costume and prop building and storage spaces, along with dressing rooms, washrooms and a fully functional kitchen to supply the dinner theatre. The new theatre will be twice as large as the Warehouse Theatre (which will see continued use) with 178 seats, increasing the nightly seating capacity by 45 per cent – meaning that patrons will be turned away no more. 

So far, the Set the Stage capital campaign has raised $3.2 million for the new centre from the private sector says Gaylene Buckle, General Manager of TNL. This includes $1 million for naming rights from the Basil Dobbin Family Foundation; $500,000 from Fortis Inc.; $250,000 each from BMO Financial Group, North Atlantic Refinery, Scotiabank and Kruger Inc.; $100,000 from AON Insurance, Clearwater, Aecon Group Inc., and New Flyer Industries; as well as numerous donations ranging from $25 to $50,000 says Buckle. In addition, the federal government has provided a total of $5,096,000 through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, while the provincial government has granted a total of $1 million so far. 

Gudie Hutchings, MP for Long Range Mountains, was one of the people on hand during a March press conference announcing the name of the new centre. With its “remarkable theatre festival” and sold-out shows, TNL, she said, is a success story.

“I myself have had many, many opportunities to enjoy the productions of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, and I am always amazed by the work they do. When you can do all that, in a small community like Cow Head, reinventing its economic future as a ‘Theatre Town’ in the very heart of our tourist country…well that’s just a remarkable demonstration of ingenuity and determination,” Hutchings said. 

Construction gets underway.

Jeff Pitcher, TNL’s Artistic Director, says the new centre will be a “game changer” not only for the organization, but for the west coast and the province as a whole. Beyond allowing TNL to create and explore new work beyond their current capabilities, he adds, it also gives respect to the hard-working artists in Newfoundland and Labrador. The new theatre, Pitcher says, is also being designed with the audience in mind.

“At TNL we always aim at selling not only our plays, but the entire theatre going experience. We want the audience to feel a part of it and welcome from the moment they purchase their ticket – that means being in beautiful Cow Head on the shores of the Shallow Bay in the magnificent Gros Morne National Park. The building itself will be beautiful with a backdrop of the Long Range Mountains, and from our porch and deck you’ll be able to view the amazing Cow Head sunsets and sky,” he says.

“The lobby space is windowed, allowing in natural light where you can enjoy a cup of tea or glass of wine pre-show and the theatre itself will have more comfortable seating, making the entire theatre going experience a more enjoyable one.”

Buckle says the new performance centre means economic spinoffs not only for Cow Head and the Gros Morne region, but the entire province. 

“The Gros Morne Theatre Festival fits nicely under the umbrella of Cultural Tourism and we couldn’t be happier to have such a positive economic impact on our beloved rural Newfoundland and Labrador,” she says. 

With this new space, Pitcher adds, “the future is wide open.”

“We would love to see the space become a regional space that will house Newfoundland and Labrador created visual art; host visiting local, national and international arts groups; and possibly become a centre for artists all over the world to come and work with Theatre Newfoundland Labrador,” he says.

“The more the space is utilized, the more audiences will come, which means more people visiting Cow Head and this entire area of the coast. This will mean more accommodations, more restaurants, more arts and crafts offerings, and more industry. Cow Head is indeed, now, a theatre town – a destination for great theatre, wonderful art and the Newfoundland and Labrador experience.”