John Roper, general manager of the Phoenix Theatre Management Society, greets me with friendly enthusiasm. His love for the theatre and his love for his audience shine warmly in all of his stories.
The Phoenix Theatre, like the Yukon Arts Centre, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. It also has a gallery space and a full theatre, with rigging. I admit admiring the cozy 209 soft-seat space with some envy and excitement.
The Phoenix Theatre has survived, all of those years, due to diversification. There is no commercial theatre in Fort Nelson, so they screen movies much like the Yukon Film Society has been doing at the Yukon Cinema—I noticed they had some of the same films on offer. “When the films aren’t so big, we do live performance, and when there’s less live performance, the films fill in,” the adaptable Roper told me.
Fort Nelson has suffered some economic setbacks over the past couple of decades. In 2008, forestry left town. Workers lost two mills that had provided 550 direct jobs and 1,500 spinoffs. Then oil and gas bottomed out in 2012. That had an impact on the theatre’s ability to bring in big acts such as Randy Bachman or the Stampeders. You need a solid patron base for that kind of thing. So they thought about how to diversify, how to provide services to the community.
Not only are they the only indoor movie theatre in town, but they offer outdoor movies. This began well before Covid, in the Art Fraser Memorial Park at the recreation centre. They had a whole inflatable screen setup, which was labour-intensive but worth it.
Outdoor movies in the North have their own challenges, which we share. You have brief windows in the spring and fall, when dark and sufficiently warm temperatures combine to make them possible.
The movie theatre’s concession is an important part of how the organization adds enough income to its public funding, to keep open. Roper’s co-worker, Danielle Morine, challenged him to come up with a way to do something other than pop.
All of this meant that, when Covid struck, they knew they had the capacity to do outdoor movies. On April 18, 2020, they offered their first Covid drive-in movie. People asked to be able to park next to a friend, and kids threw beach balls around between vehicle sunroofs. These movies were a place to connect when there was nothing else. “Together Again at a Distance” was their slogan.
Beside the popcorn maker and sign for real butter, Roper makes me a hand-pressed lemonade. He tells me a story of prototyping the lemonade. He brought samples over to City Hall and asked the receptionists for their input. One older worker, who was always a little standoffish, sipped the lemonade and her face broke into a smile. “That’s just like how my mom used to make it,” she said, which launched a conversation with Roper about her childhood and where she grew up.
These moments, where cultural activities or the activities around them can make the context for people to share stories like this, are part of what Roper works for.
Stories of resilience lie at the heart of the Phoenix Theatre. The history of cinema and performing arts in Fort Nelson has been marked by fire. From school gymnasiums, to movie theatres, to hotels, the site has burned another time. Collaborative efforts—between the local arts council, citizens of Fort Nelson, the corporate community and all three levels of government—opened the facility in 1992, and it continues to this day.
The theatre teams up with local charities to do home deliveries of popcorn and lemonade. With support from various funders, the theatre bought and maintains a “Pop Bug,” a Volkswagen with a red-and-white-striped effigy of a container of popcorn on the top. People can watch all kinds of movies at home, but they can also take part in the concession and support both the theatre and other local community work.
In addition to countless hours at the theatre, Roper is running for re-election to City Council. All of his work comes from his love for the community. The Phoenix has been part of his life since childhood. At 14, his job was postering the shows around town. At 16, it was his first job. Though he had spent a short time working in a larger theatre in Prince Rupert, in the end, he came back home.
He loves the technical side of the theatre, both for movies and the stage. He shows me the various projectors the theatre now has in place, as well as the sound systems for live performance.
Outdoors, they now have a screen right on the side of the building for outdoor movies, and a shed (which they recovered from the dump) with a state-of-the-art digital projector inside.
The indoor theatre originally sat 272 and was renovated with comfortable, bigger seats and improved accessibility, which actually improved their audience numbers. They’re part of the Northern Presenters Network, and so also present live acts when they can.
They offer theatre tours to schoolkids … John showed me his rotoscope that he uses to teach them how movies work, as well as a short 1937 35mm reel from Disney. He shows them the lights and rigging. He feels it’s important to invite them into the ideas of theatre and culture as early as possible.
For residents at the seniors’ facility, next door, they paired a screening of the latest Downton Abbey with a High Tea.
Roper dreams of one day presenting a stage play in the space, with 3D effects from the cinematic equipment they have on hand. The community stages a musical once a year, but he would love to see local live productions happen more frequently. He himself starred as Shrek, a few years ago, and other community members tell me he has a lovely singing voice.
In the theatre’s lobby, a small art gallery exhibits works on a consignment basis. Roper loves hosting an opening for these events.
Yukoners, Fort Nelson (though it’s on our way to the South) is in many ways more remote than Whitehorse. They have no extended care facility, and you have to leave the community to give birth. We pass by as quickly as we can, stopping for gas, stopping longer only if we need help with our vehicles. It might be worth slowing down a bit and checking the Phoenix Theatre website when we head through (www.fortnelsonshow.com/home), to see what they have on.On November 14, Kim Beggs and Nicole Bauberger (me) will present a performance of songs and stories, celebrating Kim Beggs’ Steel and Wool album that she released last spring.