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Imperial Theatre executive director Brian Austin Jr. considers himself an optimistic person but the pandemic’s arrival in 2020 put that to the test.
“We were on track for our best year yet,” Austin told the Kiwanis Club of Sarnia Golden K Tuesday. “We were heading into sold-out show after sold-out show and then everything shut down.”
The downtown theatre owned by Theatre Sarnia had to close its doors, along with much of the rest of the community when COVID-19 arrived.
Austin said the pandemic “seemed to be tailor-made to test the resolve of members of the performing arts community.”
The Imperial Theatre was in the middle of renovations and about $400,000 in refunds had to be issued, he said.
Austin and theatre staff met each day early on in the pandemic to attempt to figure out when they would be able to reopen but dates for lifting of restrictions were a moving target.
“The goal posts kept moving and the restrictions kept changing,” he said. “I rewrote the opening plan for the Imperial Theatre 13 times.”
The theatre accessed about $350,000 in grant and government funding during the restrictions.
“We also got creative with our fundraising.” Austin said.
That included $50,000 raised during what the theatre called “Our Tiny Little Fundraiser” and a “Be the Change Fundraiser” where donors were asked to contribute $20 and drop off spare change theatre staff rolled and took to the bank.
“That helped us through the first summer of COVID,” Austin said.
“I firmly believe every obstacle is an opportunity waiting to reveal itself. . . . I can see the silver lining in everything.”
He told the club about the history of the venue created by the community theatre group out of the abandoned former Capital movie house in the mid-1990s, and how it paid off its mortgage and played an important role in bringing life back to the city’s downtown.
The pandemic was “just one more challenge for us to overcome,” Austin said.
The theatre launched an online 50-50 draw in October 2020 and faced an immediate setback when the payment processing system didn’t work.
“It felt like a total disaster,” Austin Jr. said.
But they switched to a new provider and got the monthly draw up and running.
With audiences still not allowed in the theatre, the Imperial also moved to digital content and released a Christmas musical for live-streaming.
Following that, Austin said they began to focus on promoting the 50-50 draw which was already outperforming expectations with prizes averaging $11,000 in its first three months.
After kicking promotion into high gear, the pot hit $61,000 in January, he said.
“I didn’t think it could get any better” and then February’s draw “took off like greased lightning,” and hit about $100,000 on the first day of sales, Austin said.
Eventually, the pot reached about $408,000 by the end of February and the draw remained strong for some time which allowed the theatre to move forward with renovations put on hold by the pandemic, he said.
That included new washrooms, renovations to the second-floor lobby, new auditorium seating, roof repairs and work on the building exterior, new sound, lighting and video technology. The theatre spent $2.7 million on its recent renovations, he said.
A capital plan originally expected to take five to seven years to complete was eventually finished in 18 months as the theatre took advantage of the $2.5 million the 50-50 draw has brought in so far, as well as the pause in use of the building for shows during restrictions.
The Imperial is back running at full capacity and in use about 280 nights a year by Theatre Sarnia, touring shows and productions, as well as events by other community groups.
“It truly is an exciting time to be part of our theatre community,” Austin said.
“It has been my goal since I took over as executive director to show people that they don’t have to go to London or Toronto to be entertained. We can do it right here at home.”
Austin said the theatre is planning a legacy project for Theatre Sarnia’s centennial in 2027 that will focus on renovating its production and rehearsal building on Campbell Street.