Early Days – Kenerik
The Chester Playhouse, built by Ken Corkum and Eric Redden in 1938, operated as a movie theatre for over thirty years under the name Kenerik. The first live performances were given in 1963, when Dick and Teka Burwell directed the Chester Jesters in the first of five annual summer productions.
Leading Wind – Puppet Theatre
In 1975, Leo and Dora Velleman purchased the building, renovated it and renamed it the Leading Wind Theatre, after a clipper ship that counted Chester among its ports of call. The Velleman’s company, Canadian Puppet Festivals, operated from the theatre until merging with Mermaid Theatre in 1983.
Renamed Chester Playhouse
The building lay idle until 1987 when the Chester Theatre Council leased it to present its first Chester Summer Festival. That fall the building was purchased by Sir Christopher Ondaatje and family through the South East Asia Plantation Company. The theatre was renamed the Chester Playhouse. For the 1988 season, permanent seats were added to the balcony, bringing the capacity of the house to 170.
Playhouse donated to CTC
In 1992, Mr. Ondaatje donated the Playhouse to the Chester Theatre Council and, in 1993, the theatre portion of the building was renovated and the capacity rose to the present 176. In the following years, however, performers and staff were often hampered by the building’s nonexistent backstage and the location of dressing rooms at the front of the building, far from the stage. It gradually became clear to the board of directors that they should address these limitations; their only obstacle was the familiar one — lack of sufficient funding.
In September 1999, Mr. Ondaatje offered to match all funds raised by the CTC, up to a maximum of $250,000. The fundraising campaign was dubbed Renovation 2000 and, although a sizeable sum was raised, the campaign fell short of the targeted $250,000. Nevertheless, plans were drawn up for Phase I – including an two-story addition to the back of the building which incorporates dressing rooms and a Green Room, as well as a workshop in which to create props and sets.
A further infusion of donations, and an additional gift from Mr. Ondaatje, allowed work to begin at the front of the building (Phase II) including a new upper lobby and re-established office space under a new (raised) roof. A complete overhaul of the electrical system has brought the building up to code. The project was completed in 2005 with the replacement of the original Box Office, an upgraded entry lobby, new washrooms, carpeting and a small art gallery.
Over the history of the Playhouse, there have been major changes in the physical and operational structure; however, the Chester Playhouse remains one of the most charming and well-known small theatres in Atlantic Canada.