Jo Phenix – Century Church Theatre

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Jo Phenix – Century Church Theatre
Photo: ©Simon Burn

Inside the red brick church sitting grand along the main street of Hillsburgh a vaulted ceiling and muted lights hold in the hushed chatter among the pews. We’re about to see Century Church Theatre’s production of “Nobody’s Perfect,” a comedy involving a single father who gets himself into a mess after posing as a woman and winning a writing contest held by a feminist magazine; and whose situation is just further complicated by his teenage daughter and mischievous father.

The play takes on gender issues that are progressive for a small theatre, and which under Jo Phenix’s direction are explored with charm and wit. Jo helped establish Century Church Theatre with her husband and the help of the Erin Arts Foundation 13 years ago, one year after having moved to the area from Georgetown. Originally based out of Centre 2000 in Erin before the community centre was converted to a cinema, the company will have spent eight seasons at their new location in Hillsburgh this year.

Jo and her husband, Neville, have done an incredible job building a theatre company from the ground up. “There was no theatre tradition here, before us,” says Jo. “One challenge for us was to establish a theatre habit.”

A habit that seems to be coming along quite well. The theatre has put on around 100 plays since they started, with the professional group involved in three productions over the summer and the community company putting on three during the fall and winter. Selling tickets alone doesn’t raise enough money to keep the theatre afloat, says Jo, but the support from the community has been generous. “We love the area, we love the village,” she says. And the relationship is mutually beneficial; “Businesses in town can tell when there’s a show.”

Youth are also an important focus for them; today’s kids will be tomorrow’s theatre-goers, says Jo. Many of their plays involve young performers, and every year the theatre puts on a pantomime open to families and children in the community. “There seems to be a desire among the youngsters to be involved in theatre, to perform,” she says. “We’re very glad to provide them with the opportunity right here.”

After 25 years working in theatre together, Jo and Neville know well how the arts can change a community. “It’s not hockey. It’s not baseball or soccer,” says Neville. “It’s culture. It’s not TV, it’s not movies. It’s live – and that’s the magic.”