The two sides of Peggie Hopkins (one does theatre...)
She has lived in Point St. Charles (The Point) for twenty-six years, though she considers herself a relative newcomer...
by Barbara Ford
(photos by Rick Robert and Joe Adona)
Community: a welcoming, feel-good, warm & fuzzy kind of word. It can’t be denied that our local theatre community is tight, especially with the bulk of it crammed into a few square miles of the Plateau and Mile End districts. When mobilized, it can accomplish some pretty amazing things: case in point is the ever growing annual Fringe Fest and its incumbent spirit of mutual support and camaraderie. How about the fundraiser for CKUT Radio host and theatre supporter Estelle Rosen after her serious car accident or the memorial for Centaur’s long-time Wardrobe Mistress Mary Thomas this past winter? We’re a cozy bunch and this week I discovered an amazing woman who is living proof of the Capra-esque belief that each life has a ripple-effect on countless others.
Peggie Hopkins has lived in Point St. Charles (The Point) for twenty-six years, though she considers herself a relative newcomer compared to most of her neighbours. She is a well-established real estate agent in Westmount, which is where she caught the highly contagious acting bug. Friends approached her to get involved with an amateur production. At first, she had all kinds of excuses: “I go to theatre … I don’t act in it. I don’t have time.” However, showing properties evenings and weekends didn’t conflict with the rehearsal schedule, so without a reason to stand on, she agreed.
“My goal is to bring people out and make sure they have fun together.”
Hopkins loved her first experience admitting “it was fun to discover a new passion” and the freshly turned theatre junkie wanted more. Her innate drive to give back led to her founding the Point St. Charles Community Theatre (PSC) in June 2006. Her aim was to create a group that put up what she calls “user-friendly crowd-pleasing theatre.” She wasn’t concerned with provocative or cutting edge plays, preferring comedies and mysteries where she didn’t have to worry whether audiences were getting the message. “My goal is to bring people out and make sure they have fun together.”
|Acting Out: Annie|
Without a clue as to how to get her grand venture off the ground, she relied on her friends for guidance. Most of her support came from caring yet, for the most part, inexperienced people, so the expert direction of Pavla Uppal was welcome. Uppal, a theatre artist, facilitator and educator trained in the Czech Republic and now working in Toronto, directed the first production: Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. Six months later, the company followed up with Bedroom Farce by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and in June of 2007, Louise Fletcher’s Night Watch, a thriller set in Point St. Charles.
"I'm not sure if people come out for the plays or the food."
After every performance, free refreshments are served, courtesy of Hopkins’ mom Margaret (renowned for her home-baked squares) and other gifted chefs. (A little birdie told me that the egg and salmon sandwiches are also to die for.) he first load of squares was being delivered as I spoke with Hopkins, who laughingly admitted that she’s “not sure if people come out for the plays or the food”, but either way, it’s a fun evening and all for the modest suggested donation of only seven bucks!
|Acting Out: The Wizard of Oz|
Getting the community out to theatre wasn’t Hopkins’ ultimate goal. The money the plays generated was to start a youth program at the local YMCA. Acting Out is a free program that began in 2007, funded entirely by PSC Community Theatre, for kids living anywhere in the city between the ages of eight and eighteen. They receive training from professional acting teachers, such as Fabienne Le Panse who really got the initiative going in 2008, and put on their own shows under the PSC umbrella. Not only does the program offer a new career option to kids, it’s also a creative outlet for them, a more positive use of their spare time, and has an added and valuable by-product of enhanced self-esteem.
“The kids are shy at first, but working together they become very close and have a good time. By the end of a show, they sound like us adults; helping each other remember their lines and pointing out their mistakes … they’re amazing.”
|Bank of Montreal Building|
The YMCA on Ash Street donates a room for rehearsals, which is a substantial cut in PSC overhead costs. The first shows were presented in a building associated with the Y called the Paradox, but the rental costs were too high. Determined to keep the shows in The Point, Hopkins explored an alternative space she had heard about in a former Bank of Montreal building. The owner, who incidentally lived on the premises with his two sons, wasn’t at home when Hopkins came a-callin’, so she left her business card.
|The Bank as movie set|
Dutch ex-pat and McGill architecture professor, Pieter Sijpkes, was no stranger to sales agents dropping out of nowhere, as the bank and large plot of land that it sits on is prime real estate for condo developers, but he contacted Hopkins despite his misgivings. And what a lucky break that was! Since March 2007, all of the PSC Community Theatre productions have been presented in what is basically Sijpkes' living room, otherwise known as l'Espace des neuf soeursvernissages, etc. which was a popular movie set during Montreal’s short-lived film boom.
Sijpkes owning the building and being able to offer it to a community-minded group is a perfect example of what goes around comes around. In 1971 Sijpkes was a student of architecture working on the first housing co-op in Quebec, which just happened to be in Point St. Charles. He loved the area, moved there and has been a resident for more than thirty years. He said that the “old social worker in me” is pleased that the bank continues to give back to the community, one that he put his energy into as a student. To this day he uses the structure as a theoretical work project for his own architecture students.
|Acting Out: A Little Holiday Magic|
Use of his “vessel” is not completely free. As Sijpkes puts it, “she’s an attractive woman but it costs a lot to keep her,” (like colossal heating bills though plans to go geothermal are in the works) but the reasonable rate allows more of the donated funds to be funnelled into the youth program. Hopkins couldn’t say enough good things about the PSC benefactor: “Not many people would do what he does” which is essentially share his home with a bunch of crazed actors of all ages for five or six weeks at least twice a year. The newly built philosopher’s cabin on the roof is a welcome haven for Sijpkes during the height of activity. Both he and Hopkins confessed that when the company isn’t on site, Sijpkes pines away for them but by the end of a run, he’s had his fix…at least until the next time.
|Hopkins in Hay Fever|
In the past five years PSC has produced more than a dozen plays from the likes of Ayn Rand, David French, Agatha Christie and Neil Simon while the Acting Out youth program has presented such favourites as Annie and The Wizard of Oz. Violetta Vasiliauskas, who now directs most of the shows, started out simply, first painting sets, then acting, gradually taking on more responsibilities, including volunteering with the kids on weekends. This spring, PSC actor John Thomas assists her in the direction of the upcoming Noel Coward farce, Hayfever.
To augment the monies raised through the performances, the company holds a silent auction during each run. Recently a private foundation has been donating to the cause but the group receives no other outside support. Only the Acting Out program teachers receive a salary; everyone else is a volunteer for this local labour of love, a committed team numbering one hundred or so, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from baking and sewing costumes to securing auction items and ushering.
These days the PSC productions are a major social event. Both the adult and youth shows sell out, a total of six hundred tickets per production, with groups of sometimes fifteen or more reserving weeks in advance for the modest sixty-seat house. Unfortunately they sometimes have to turn people away. “If this keeps up, we’ll have to find a larger space” says Hopkins but for now, the charming Beaux-Arts structure is their performance home.
The PSC Community Theatre has recently become involved with another local project to foster community pride by partnering with the Historic Society to create the annual Joe Beef Market every summer. The one-day event held in Joe Beef Park commemorates a Point personality who has made a significant difference and features live music, dance and theatre performances, as well as crafts and antiques for sale with plenty of food and drink on hand. This year PSC and the Historical Society will be honouring visual artist Emily Coonan, who exhibited widely during the 1920’s and 30‘s and was a member of the Beaver Hall Group of women painters.
With so much on her plate, Hopkins, who wasn’t sure she had enough free time to devote to that first, life-changing play said “I don’t even want to think about all the time this takes. I just keep moving, doing whatever needs to be done.” Evidently not one to stand still, she has now set her sights on producing more shows per year to increase the number of kids they can subsidize in the youth program and to do that, she needs more designers, directors and technical people. It takes as little as a few hours a week, that is, until you’re hooked and then who knows what altruistic feats you will accomplish? Just ask Peggie.
Hay Fever runs from April 29th to May 15th at the “Old Bank” situated at 1900 Wellington. For tickets and info call (514) 935 – 3769. If you can’t make the play but would like to make a donation to PSC Community Theatre, you can send your cheques to Peggie Hopkins, c/o Grace Church, 523 Charon, Montreal, Qc, H3K 2P4. For more information about the PSC Youth Program, call (514) 935 – 7950 or visit the PSC Community Theatre web site.