By Angela Hawn
Photos courtesy Tweed and Co. Theatre
Good thing Tim Porter likes to keep busy. These days when not run off his feet operating Tweed & Co. Theatre, Porter's hard at work performing a wide range of acting gigs in various theatres near and far. Name any major city in either the U.S. or Canada and Tim has probably graced a stage there. In fact, well before this issue of Country Roads makes it to press, his current Tweed show ‘I'll Fly Away’ will have long since wrapped up and Tim will have moved on to St. Jacobs to perform in a Christmas panto version of Aladdin.
“I think I’m pretty good at multi-tasking,” Porter chuckles into his bluetooth as he cruises around Toronto, running errands and answering interview questions on the fly. “But [my girlfriend] Sarah would probably disagree.”
In the background, Sarah Higgins laughs, but doesn’t contest Tim's ability to keep a number of balls in the air all at once. A cast member of ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and quite familiar to the tight-knit group of young, energetic, (mostly) 20-somethings who form the theatre company's core, she's no doubt used to seeing more than a few projects juggled simultaneously.
“Joel MacMeekin is 31, so I guess that makes him the oldest,” Tim laughs, describing the theatre company's key players. “He's the associate artistic director/producer, but we like to call him a ‘Jack of all trades.’"
What does this mean exactly? Well, in addition to helping write and perform in many Tweed & Co. productions, MacMeekin's the guy you call on when you're looking for a fine arts touch. Often central to the important task of set construction, he also plays a convincing acoustic bass as one of the music-loving characters in ‘I'll Fly Away.’ And if in doubt of his talents with a paintbrush, check out some of Joel's paintings, one of which held centre stage at the latest Tweed & Co. silent auction fundraiser.
Emily Mewett acts as general manager, a job she performs with much enthusiasm and professional aplomb, despite the fact most of her energies now focus on stage manager duties for Toronto's famous SoulPepper Theatre. Then there's talented Tricia Black, who co-wrote the company's latest show with Porter and MacMeekin, drawing on some creative ideas she'd been kicking around for years. Like Mewett and the other Tweed and Company regulars, Black's based mostly out of Toronto, but happily takes on the job of artistic producer in Tweed. Porter leads the bunch as artistic director, overseeing artistic elements, selecting theatre seasons, directing shows and generally bringing scripts and story ideas to the rest of the company for consideration.
And while that might seem like a lot, it makes sense. The company is essentially, after all, Porter's baby. Still, it makes for a hectic lifestyle.
'I've tried to be smart about it and it's usually worked out,” Tim says in regards to navigating around potential schedule glitches. “Usually the shows in Tweed fill the gap between other projects.”
And what a lot of projects there have been. Educated at Kingston's St. Lawrence College, Porter has never once doubted he made the right career choice. Whether playing a character in a Stirling holiday panto or garnering rave reviews for his portrayal of Noon in ‘Cannibal! The Musical’ at Toronto's Panasonic Theatre, Tim moves from one job to the next with the grace and security of someone who's found his niche.
Along the way, he's been fortunate enough to work with some major heavy hitters in contemporary Canadian theatre, including well-known directors David Connolly and Christopher Bond. Always eager to improve his own craft, Tim's even managed to mentor a few up and coming actors himself. Co-founder of Quinte Youth Actors Company, he's also put in plenty of hours running theatre camps for area young people. Even a cursory glance at Tim's packed CV leaves one wondering just where on earth he ever found the time to start up his own theatre company!
Yet, as far as Tweed & Co.’s productions go, ‘I'll Fly Away’ represents only the latest tip of a very impressive iceberg. A folk- and gospel-oriented musical about an old-time radio show seeking to pump life into its ratings by entering the brand new world of television, the show carries a real "wholesome, Tweed-Twangers" vibe according to Porter. Perfect for the entire family, it's simply the most recent offering in what appears to be quite an extensive list. This home-grown theatre group has been steadfastly bringing first rate shows to audiences since 2007.
Proudly Tim ticks off some titles, starting with the American musical ‘The Last Five Years,’ which the group first performed in Belleville before taking the show to select centres across Ontario. Next came a string of major hits including ‘Godspell,’ ‘Tweed the Musical’ and ‘Aleck Bell.’ Incredibly, Tim and the talented crew behind Tweed & Co. wrote many of these musicals themselves. No slouches when it comes to sifting through scripts, they also appear extraordinarily adept when choosing from the best of works penned by others. One of their latest productions, the rock musical ‘Stalkyard Hurts,’ appeared at the Toronto Fringe Festival just this past summer.
Written by Justin Collette and Danielle Leger with vocal arrangements by Jennie Del Motte, this clever "rockumentary" details the successes and excesses of a fictional rockband. Opening for audiences at Toronto's famed Lee's Palace, the show played on a stage well known to local music fans. Think Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and The Tragically Hip. All played the Dance Cave at Lee's Palace early on in their careers. No doubt inspired by some of these past legends, Tweed and Company delivered 11 straight smash performances, earning much popular and critical acclaim.
"We were named a best bet and fan favourites by The Torontoist, Gracing the Stage, Mooney on Theatre and Now Magazine," declares Porter, a little awe creeping into his voice.
With any luck, ‘Stalkyard Hurts’ just might return to the stage in future to wow audiences yet again. The trick, of course, is finding the money to get the job done.
And no one knows better than Tim how important the money is. Though he speaks glowingly of Tweed & Co.'s creative successes, he acknowledges there have been a few personal sacrifices along the way, starting with generating enough cash to front the company in the first place.
"I've funded things from the get-go," Porter says, though it's obvious from his tone he considers every step of the journey worthwhile. "I knew I wanted to start my own production company one day, but I thought it might happen in my forties.”
So how does someone in their twenties realize their dreams so early? Remember that popular children's TV series ‘The Doodlebops?’ Tim credits time spent with The Doodlebops road company for granting him the kind of financial freedom most young theatre grads only dream about. Using income earned while touring across the country as Rooney, the tall, blue, guitar-playing member of the famous multi-coloured pop band, Tim bankrolled Tweed and Company from the beginning. And there's simply been no looking back since.
"Back then it was called Iana, a play on the word Canadiana," Porter declares ruefully. "But no one knew how to pronounce it or what it meant, so we changed the name to Tweed & Co."
Still, Canadiana aptly describes one of the things this talented crew of thespians cares about most. Making it their unofficial mandate to deliver original Canadian scripts to the Canadian stage, this dedicated group puts in a lot of time bringing worthwhile shows north of the 401 corridor and beyond.
"It's an exciting time to be in theatre," exclaims Tim, noting the growing number of home-grown writers, performers and producers coming up with hit shows. "We will now hopefully start to be a vehicle for more Canadian shows, not just the ones we write."
In the meantime, Tim and the rest of Tweed & Co.'s stalwarts will continue to take on various gigs, most of them far away from the little theatre-loving town of Tweed. Fortunately, the group really seems to love coming back! And when they do, you just know it's going to be an entertaining homecoming!