[In the Hood]

Pushing Boundaries with Rob Kempson

Rob Kempson imagines a bold new future for Port Hope’s famous theatrical landmark.

Rob Kempson, artistic director of the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre in Port Hope, greeted me under the marquee, a welcome energy shining in his eyes over his mask. He still wears a mask out of consideration for his staff and performers, knowing there’s a robust theatre season in the wings.

Rob joined the historic Capitol Theatre in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic – hardly a time when people were thinking about attending the theatre. However, Rob saw an opportunity to bring high-level, professional programming to the community with productions that promoted the social connections we lost after sheltering in our homes.

The 2024 Come Together season celebrates community and “the spark when people come together to make something better.” Rob’s vision for the theatre is to preserve the public cultural trust, and he takes it seriously. He explains that today in our complicated world, “the idea of sharing something on stage allows the audience to respond and react, each in their own way. That interchange brings people together…”

Each of the shows in the upcoming season follows this theme: levels of familiarity and unfamiliarity, of diversity and relatability. The season will showcase some drama mixed in with family productions, musical theatre and comedy. Rob wants to achieve a balance of joy and entertainment while pushing the audience just a little bit beyond their boundaries. According to Rob, producing dark dramas isn’t the only way to provoke thought. Musical theatre and comedies, while joyful, can also stimulate questions.

For Rob, settling in Port Hope was an easy choice – the perfect merger of personal and professional, big city and small town. While his career in theatre has taken him from Toronto to the East Coast and New York, his roots are in smaller communities. He was born in Kingston and educated at Queen’s University. Rob’s parents took him and his brother to either Stratford or the Shaw Festival every year. Rob was always creative, drawn to music and storytelling. He was the first person in his family to play an instrument and show an interest in theatre as a profession. His parents’ support has provided the foundation for his work ethic and his commitment to what he does.

The history of the Capitol Theatre belongs to the Port Hope community. In 1930, Stuart Smart was set on establishing a new theatre after the Royal Opera he managed on Walton Street was condemned the previous year. He put $500 toward a lot on Queen Street behind the fire hall and lobbied town council to allow Famous Players to build a new movie theatre. Local architect Murray Brown was hired along with a construction crew, and the Capitol Theatre, a theatre for “talkies,” was built.

The Capitol was designed as an “atmospheric theatre.” It provided a true escape for movie-goers during the Depression, immersing them in a Norman castle theme, complete with diamond-paned windows, iron balconies, not to mention frescoed skies, forested landscapes and crenellated castle walls. There was even a special projector used to display moving clouds so that movie-goers would feel they were watching in the open air!

Stuart Smart remained the director of the theatre for decades. The Capitol Theatre went into a period of decline and closed in 1987 but was resurrected by the Capitol Theatre Heritage Foundation, a community group formed to refurbish and restore the theatre to its former splendour. Rob toured me through the main theatre with its cerulean blue ceiling and stuccoed castle walls. Backstage, the lighting is carefully installed for every show so as not to disturb the historic motif. The Capitol is only one of three atmospheric theatres left in Canada and was designated a National Historic Site in 2016.

Rob’s passion for the future of the theatre is clearly visible, and his decisions about the season’s productions are informed by his community. “Every show is exciting, it’s new and part of our re-invention of the theatre.” Collaboration is a theme in Rob’s work. It’s his job to attract top level creative talent from both inside and outside the community. Together with his team and managing director Erin Peirce, he is breathing life and new energy into the Capitol, while ensuring each production is financially viable.

He talks to students about careers in the theatre, explaining that you follow the path when it’s working for you. “Maybe it’s directing, writing, producing, singing, working front of house or backstage; there may be more than one path, but follow them.” His own diverse paths inform his leadership today. He sees everything from the actor on the stage to the costumes, the sets, the design, the whole play and how it all connects artistically. He is developing the production not just for today or tomorrow but for what it will look like five years from now.

“Working and collaborating with incredible artists and leaders has guided and shaped me to where I am now and allowed me to show stories and pictures that unite my work. I am in the right place at the right time of my life, and I am ready to make big artistic choices and move things forward.”

Story by:
Danielle French

Photography by:
Andrew Rowat

[Spring 2024 departments]