Iroquois Lions Club celebrates 40 years of theatre and fundraising

A theatre production kicked off this week in Morrisburg, Ont. all thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers, some of whom have acted in every play produced over the past 40 years, raising thousands for the community along the way.

Wednesday was final rehearsal night at the Upper Canada Playhouse as director Wendy Gibb quietly watches from the audience.

“I love it. You can’t have a greater group of people to work with than the lions,” Gibb told CTV News. 

The Iroquois Matilda Lions Club are presenting ‘Drop Dead’, a British murder mystery set in the 1950s.

This performance celebrates 40 years of hard work from the club, who hosted their first play back in 1984 in a local high school gymnasium.

Now they continue to perform their most recent productions in an actual theatre.

“This is the big time,” Gibbs laughed. “This is moving on up!”

“When you come to the playhouse to see this particular show or any show, you’re going to see your friends, your neighbours, your family,” said co-producer Barry Fawcett, a Lions Club member. 

“It’s a fundraiser, but also kind of a community service,” he said. “The motto of lionism is ‘We Serve’, and I think this is just a wonderful way to serve the community and bring some laughter in a real feel good night to people.”

What’s special for this group, however, is the level of dedication involved.

Gibb has directed all 20 plays, and three cast members have also appeared in every one, including Margaret Swerdfeger.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of fun,” she smiled. “I think it was easier to do when we were working full time, taking classes, raising children than it is now, because it just seems to take so much more energy now. But we love it.”

Beside her sits her husband Glenn, who pitched the first play, ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’, back in 1984.

“I wanted to start the play because I felt the Lions Club needed a morale boost at the time and something that would bring the whole club together and I thought the play fit that role really well,” Glenn said. 

“A friend of mine was the president at the time, so the idea fit perfectly,” he said. 

“It’s been a great introduction to theatre for many and it’s been an inspiration to many to be a part of it,” added Reina Dejong, who recalled being pushed out on stage for that first performance 4 decades ago. 

“We don’t have to push her on stage anymore,” Glenn laughed. 

“I pushed her out!” added Margaret. 

“I was, just yeah, the jitters!” Dejong blushed. “And I still get them. It gives you energy.”

Glenn Swerdferger and Reina Dejong on stage. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

Now in their sixties and seventies, they are proud of what they have accomplished over 40 years.

“I’d like to say we started when we were 10 but that would be a bit of a lie!” Gibbs smiled. 

Glenn says after all those years, and all the fun, this performance might be his final curtain call.

“I think this is my last play,” he stated. “I was (prepared) two weeks ago!”

The 20 productions over 4 decades have raised more than $100,000 for the community, which goes toward bursaries, special events and charities.

The four shows in 2018 netted more than $25,000 on their own. 

“I think it’s just the time we spend together and know that we are doing something that’s fun and contributing to I think the mental health of the community,” Fawcett added.

“I think there’s people that come to the show, our Lions show, that maybe never come to the theatre and this is probably a stepping stone to see live theatre, especially,” he said, noting people look forward to their play every 2 years.

“I think Barry was right when he said it was the camaraderie,” Gibb said. “There’s just that incredible rush when you are on stage and you hear that first laugh and you know that people are totally enjoying themselves. It’s really fun they work hard.”

“I don’t yell at them that much,” she smiled. 

The group said they couldn’t put on these performances without the help of the Upper Canada Playhouse staff, who help with everything from lighting, to stage prep. 

“It makes a big difference to have the lighting and the theatre and the set,” Gibb said “We did the first two shows in a high school gym and we rehearsed in church halls and basements!”

“Now we have a rehearsal hall, we have a proper theatre, we have lighting and technical support. It’s fantastic,” she added.

The Upper Canada Playhouse in Morrisburg. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

“I think the theatre is very important to the area,” Margaret said. “People started coming to our plays who had never been to the theatre before and then they continued to come to the theatre, so I think aside from the money that we’ve raised all those years, we’ve also involved people to come and be an audience here.”

It’s a feat the entire cast and crew is proud off, and will carry on, even if some try to step aside. 

“It’s great working with Wendy and Barry. Barry is, he’s phenomenal,” smiled Glenn. “You can’t say no to him! If he asks me in two years it’ll be tough to say no to him!”

Drop Dead runs until Saturday at the Upper Canada Playhouse in Morrisburg. 

Tickets are $30 and can be bought from Lions Club members, Mustard’s Variety in Iroquois, or at the Upper Canada Playhouse and Scotiabank in Morrisburg.

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