The phone rang one evening in mid-February and I recognized the name on the display. It was Kendall Mills, the director of The Church Mouse Players, a popular, long-running community dinner theatre group in Oxford, NS.
I knew why he was calling.
“It’s a small part,” Kendall told me. “Just 29 lines but I think it’s perfect for you.”
When I said yes, I became a part of history. The April 2019 production was Kendall’s 30th. The volunteer-run dinner theatre group began in 1995, reorganized in 2003, then moved to the local Legion in 2013 after outgrowing the church basement.
Fifteen years, thirty plays, dozens of actors, thousands of plates of roast beef, and Kendall’s devotion to this zany theatre group is stronger than ever.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, I know I don’t have to hold on tight,” he says, holding up a clenched fist. “If I just let go, “ he releases his fist and holds his palm open, “some things trickle through like sand but I’ve learned it all works out.”
The greatest challenge can be finding the right mix of characters. “We’ve done enough plays so we have the process figured out,” Kendall says. “I just want it to always be as fun as it has been so we can continue to keep doing it.”
This reminds me of the evening rehearsal in mid-March that was so off-script, half the cast was bent over laughing.
“It seems like chaos but it all comes together by opening night,” Kendall assured me, one of four newbies in that production.
Laughter is the big draw for both actors and audience. The play is always a comedy, explains Kendall’s wife, Tania Thompson, who creates sets and costumes, and also acts. “People have enough crap in their lives; they need some fun and good food at a reasonable price.”
This may explain why the performances, offered in November and April, sell out the same day the $25 tickets go on sale.
Ten weeks of rehearsals, four performances, twice a year is quite a commitment for volunteers in a rural area. Yet it proves that living in the country doesn’t have to mean there’s nothing to do. The Church Mouse Players began when a small group of people wanted to try something different, and dozens of people have appeared on the stage since then.
“We’ve always tried to include younger actors,” says Kendall. “Watching those talents grow, you know they’re just looking for that kind of venue to explore. You never know where their talents will end up, whether it’s on stage or doing lights and sound or even set design. You plant the seeds and water them and let them see what they want to be. That’s one of the best feelings. And some day we’ll be passing the torch on.”
This volunteer effort is all about community. The Church Mouse Players (CMP) is a non-profit group so their ticket sales support the Legion, and cover the cost of scripts, costumes, props and the food. The money raised through the sale of pop at each performance is donated to a kids’ program or charity. Last spring, pop sales allowed CMP to support twelve school breakfast programs in Cumberland County.
With the arrival of fall, Kendall and Tania have chosen their play for this November so already they’re thinking of who they want in the cast of their latest production. Will it be the funniest one yet?
“I love it when we see the audience laughing, and as they’re leaving, someone still tells me, ‘That’s one of your best ones yet’,” Kendall says. “If I can hear that after 30 productions, that tells me we’re doing the right kind of stuff. When you do this as a labour of love, you don’t expect someone to pat you on the back and say good job but it’s nice to hear in that way.”