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Theatre Veteran Tanya Ryga Blazing a Trail in Sylvan Lake

Just some of the talent auditioning for the Sylvan Lake Theatre Trail. From left to right: Eli Lauder, Cecily Healey, Jenny Vandenhoven, and Zoe Smibert

With all its visual artists, a jazz festival and countless recreational activities, Sylvan Lake has one significant gap in its entertainment scene: live theatre.

Residents Tanya Ryga and Wendy Thurston planned to fill that gap back in 2019 with the Sylvan Lake Theatre Trail program. After a two-year pandemic delay, that vision is being realized, with 17 shows scheduled for September.

“Sylvan Lake has never had a theatre company,” says Ryga.

With no theatre stage outside the high school, Ryga decided to take the performances into public spaces. The theatre trail will wind between four secret downtown locations for 90 minutes, with storytellers leading the trek.

“I thought I would like to take the theatre to the audience rather than urging audiences to come and attend formal theatre,” she says.

Ryga wasn’t sure what she would be getting into, since there isn’t a community of theatre artists in Sylvan Lake. After 25 years of teaching with the Red Deer College (now Polytechnic) theatre program, she has plenty of contacts in Red Deer, but didn’t want to call on them. The vision was to keep it homegrown.

Ryga thought creating four, 15-minute plays would be appropriate, since rookie playwrights and budding actors might not be suited to longer performances.

“A 15-minute play is a lot.”

Storytellers will add to the entertainment along the way. With all the historically significant sites downtown, storytelling seemed a natural extension.

Ryga and well-known Albertan storyteller Mary Hays held workshops in June to attract potential playwrights, cast and crew. The results were highly successful, with about 20 people involved in one way or another – some with multiple roles.

“I’m amazed that we found four people that wanted to write plays, and they’re all really strong plays,” Ryga says.

Thurston is writing one play. Ash Mercia, who is already well known in the Red Deer theatre scene, is writing and performing in another. Veteran reporter and columnist Treena Mielke pens a third, with recent H.J. Cody grad Megan Routhier rounding out the bill. Archivist Norene Reaume was first to take a role as storyteller, but many of the other roles were still being set going into August.

“We’re right on schedule,” Ryga says.

Ryga is especially pleased with the reception that businesses and community groups gave their idea. Every business they asked to provide a venue agreed eagerly, and groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club were eager to see an event running outside the busiest tourist season. And since September is Alberta Culture Month, provincial grant money was available to make it all possible.

The response from the business and eager theatre buffs inspired confidence in Ryga, not only for this year’s show, but that this new trail could become a well-worn path in future years.

“I feel quite confident that we will continue to build a nice pool of creative talent,” she says. “I would like to build a community of people that want to be part of Sylvan Lake theatre.”

Sylvan Lake Theatre Trail shows are scheduled for Sept. 9, 10, 11, 17 and 18. The performances are free and rated 14+. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page or email Tanya Ryga at theatretrail(at)gmail.com

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