Artistic Director Spotlight: Sam Varteniuk, The Registry Theatre

From its humble beginning in 2000 to a range of diverse programming fourteen years later, The Registry Theatre has been an integral part of the community. We had a chance to chat with the theatre’s General Manager and JM Drama Alumni Artistic Director, Sam Varteniuk to learn more about what’s in store.

Q: Tell me a little bit about The Registry Theatre.

A: The Registry Theatre is run by a charitable non-profit group, JM Drama. JM stands for Jerome and Mary – St Jerome and St. Mary were two Catholic high schools where the teachers got together in the summer to put on a show and get their drama fix.

The Registry Theatre is about providing an affordable, accessible rental space and operating on behalf of the City of Kitchener. Over the years, JM Drama has started to present more of its own fare such as the  One Night Only music series. We work with different parts of the community – I just give them the keys and let them run wild. They’ve impressed me with what they produce for a live event and we continue to work with them until they outgrow The Registry and happily watch them fly away to bigger venues and greener pastures.

Q: How has your journey to The Registry Theatre been?

A: I grew up in Kitchener and have been involved with JM Drama as an actor. My interest in theatre took me to Edmonton, where I spent 10 years earning my Master’s Degree in Drama and I was involved with the Edmonton Fringe Theatre scene. I had only planned on staying in Alberta for about five years, and after having a kid, I wanted to move back. I asked my friends here if there was something I could do in Kitchener, and got a part time Theatre Manager gig, moving on to what I am now.

I love being all these different roles and wearing many hats. The one thing I’ve learned about myself is I’m not happy if I don’t get to switch between doing things. Some days it’s wonderful being in the rehearsal hall and being very creative, while on other days I actually enjoy sitting in my little office at the bottom corner of the building doing administration tasks. As soon as I get tired of one thing, I can move on to the next task.

Q: What’s in the horizon for The Registry?

A: The same way Edmonton is a theatre town, Kitchener-Waterloo is very much a music community. People here are hungry for music in an intimate setting that isn’t a bar, and where real connoisseurs of music can really focus and listen to music.

With the emergence of tech jobs in the community, large companies are sending their employees to Toronto for entertainment. People may go to Toronto for the weekend, but they want to do something with their kids and we want to provide them with something local to do. That was part of the genesis for producing the Theatre for Young Audiences series, like Betty and the Beast.

Q: What influences your choices as a programmer or an artistic director?

A: I’d like to say that I pick things based on the artistic merit I see. Certainly, everything I present is strong artistically. But I’m also thinking about the size of my venue – you’re functionally working with a small space with no catwalk or rafters.

We also run on volunteer power. Running a theatre is more than just selling tickets to an audience – the transaction occurs well before the curtain rises. My point of view is that the quality of what goes on the stage is important to a point. But first and foremost, the theatre has to be a place where people want to come, see people that you know and hang out in the lobby that’s familiar and inviting. When you sit in a cozy, familiar environment, you’ve already had 60-70% of the fun you’re going to have. The show itself is the icing on the cake.

Building on that, I look forward to the time when we make serious, incisive decisions and building plans from season to season based on themes. To a certain extent, that is already emerging with the three dance shows we’re doing this year that involve a Canadian artist working with an artist from abroad, or an artist who was born abroad and became Canadian. Except I didn’t do it on purpose, I just booked the three people that I liked and were small enough productions to fit in the space. It was a happy accident that the theme emerged from it.

Q: Where do you see The Registry going from here?

A: After you rent to a lot of people, you really get a sense of who’s got their act together. I want to do more of getting people who know what they’re doing, as well as creating partnerships with community organizations who get the mechanics and the business of cultural presenting and who have a small – and I do mean small –  army of people who check out what you do. We can work with that.