By Jane Pinzhoffer Photography Courtesy of Drayton Entertainment
The Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) is a distinction created by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to recognize the remarkable contributions of Canadians for exceptional deeds that bring honour to our country in many fields of endeavour.
Alex Mustakas, founding Artistic Director and CEO of Drayton Entertainment, was honoured with the Meritorious Service Medal on May 26, 2022, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada, for his lifelong commitment to making the performing arts affordable and accessible.
Alex oversees all aspects of Drayton Entertainment’s business—from the artistic product and technical departments to budgets and administration. Under his leadership since its inception in 1991, Drayton Entertainment has become one of the largest and most respected theatre companies in Canada. An achievement that is all the more remarkable when you consider it’s a registered, not-for-profit, charitable organization.
At the age of six, Alex emigrated from Cyprus. “My parents came here when they were in their 30s on a ship with one crate,” says Alex. “Whenever I think I’m having a bad day I remember, and realize it’s not that bad.”
Even as a high school student at Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener, Alex loved being in the theatre but earned a degree in Economics from Wilfrid Laurier University, to honour his father’s wishes.
Alex spent time in the corporate sector, but his heart was still in the performing arts. He worked as a professional actor and director for several years before pursuing his Master’s Degree in Arts Administration at City University in London.
After returning to Canada, he began pursuing his dream of finding a little country playhouse where he could run his own live theatre.
“I was directing a production at the University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre, and the manager who lived in Drayton told me about this old opera house the community had saved,” says Alex.
Built in 1902, the all-but-abandoned building sat amid rural countryside at the crossroads in Drayton. Alex immediately saw the former opera house’s potential, particularly in the original tin ceiling with its remarkable acoustics.
When the 375-seat Drayton Festival Theatre opened, it was an immediate success. By the third season, 36,000 seats were sold out a month in advance. The Drayton Festival Theatre has brought in as many people as 40 times the town’s population. “It’s a tribute to the local citizens who believed in it and was the start of a circuit of seven theatres across the province,” says Alex.
However, Alex gives his father a lot of credit for his success. “My father was right, and I’m grateful to him for encouraging me to pursue business. It gave me this unique combination of fiscal responsibility and artistic integrity,” says Alex.
It’s been this ability to straddle two often opposing worlds that created Drayton Entertainment’s distinctive business model that amortizes costs over seven stages across Ontario: the Drayton Festival Theatre in Drayton, Hamilton Family Theatre Cambridge in Cambridge, Huron Country Playhouse Mainstage and South Huron Stage in Grand Bend, King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, and St. Jacobs Country Playhouse and the Schoolhouse Theatre in St. Jacobs.
At the height of operations, Drayton Entertainment is one of the largest employers of professional artists in all of Canada, annually staging over 800 performances for an audience of more than 250,000 at its seven theatres. The Government of Ontario’s Tourism Regional Economic Impact Model (TREIM) estimates this generates over $80 million annually in visitor spending to numerous communities throughout the province. Over the last 30 years, Alex has produced and directed hundreds of productions for Drayton Entertainment and other theatre companies across Canada.
However, all that changed when Covid shut down live performances in March 2020.
“The pandemic hit arts and culture the hardest. We had to lay people off. At times it was hard not to give up, but you just keep believing in what you do,” says Alex. “Coming back has been a perfect storm as people are also dealing with inflation and the high price of gas, it’s harder to get them to drive to Drayton’s various theatres around the province.”
“Our biggest production since opening for the 2022 season was Mamma Mia, which sold out. However, in July, cast and crew members came down with Covid. We had six understudies in the show. Then I ran out of understudies and had to shut down for four days. More people are venturing out, but we’re still slaying the pandemic dragon, keeping audience members safe and recommending that people wear masks, even though many people don’t.”
Since reopening this year, Drayton Entertainment’s theatres are down about 30% in attendance, and the nature of the shows has been different too. “Instead of big musicals, we’ve been doing smaller plays, but next season I’m planning bigger productions back to pre-covid standards,” says Alex.
Christmas theatre productions begin in November and run throughout the holiday season. This year, Drayton Entertainment’s biggest show is The Sound of Music. It will run for five weeks at the Hamilton Family Theatre Cambridge and was already 55% booked at the beginning of September.
The St. Jacobs Country Playhouse will feature The Wizard of Oz the Panto throughout December. It’s a slightly different version with audience participation that gets kids cheering.
The St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre is situated in a renovated schoolhouse built in 1867. Seating only 100 people, it offers an unmatched intimate atmosphere. From September 28 to December 4, We’ll Meet Again, a nostalgic tribute to the music of the war years will continue to run.
“When I see empty seats, I don’t think of lost revenue, I think of the lost experience. The communal experience that theatre offers where people act as one, cheer together, laugh together, and cry together. Things are slowly changing, and the people coming to the theatre are having the time of their lives.”