Summer Series: Rob Kempson at the Thousand Islands Playhouse

The Thousand Island Playhouse / Photo courtesy of Rob Kempson

The Thousand Islands Playhouse / Photo courtesy of Rob Kempson

Over the course of the summer, PAONE is looking at arts education in the blissful and sometimes chaotic summer months. (Summer Series: Chapter 1Chapter 2 and Chapter 3).

In the fourth chapter in this series, we chat with Rob Kempson, Associate Artistic Director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse about his work in Gananoque, Ontario.

PAONE: What are you up to this summer?
RK: From April to October, I spend my days working as the Associate Artistic Director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in beautiful Gananoque, Ontario. I grew up in Kingston, the nearest city, and the Playhouse is where I saw my first professional theatre. It feels pretty special to return now as an artist, and to have a chance to work with the incomparable Ashlie Corcoran and the amazing team here. Now in its 34th season, the Playhouse is nestled on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in the heart of the 1000 Islands Region. To say that it’s a magical place would be the understatement of the year.
PAONE: Can you tell us about your summer work and how it connects to arts education?

RK: My work here involves a litany of tasks, ranging from facilitation of the Playwrights’ Unit to Assistant Directing to helping Ashlie with programming. However, one of the biggest parts of my job is the Direction and Facilitation of the Young Company programming. Our Young Company is made up of university-aged artists who are interested in taking a step towards a professional career in the theatre.

The program begins with rehearsal and production of a touring show for children, which the company then performs for 14 weeks across Eastern Ontario. The troupe performs in parks, libraries, elementary schools, and retirement homes. While I direct their show, I’m also in charge of facilitating their experience. As a part of the program, they receive training from professional artists in various areas of the theatre, they observe rehearsals, they read Canadian plays, they attend Opening Nights, and they meet regularly with me. I have really enjoyed working with this program, and these young artists over the two seasons that I’ve been here.
I also help with Student Matinees in the spring and fall, and run a series of pre and post show chats throughout the season.
PAONE: What is special about summer programming? Why do you feel it’s important?
RK: One of the unique things about programming at the Playhouse is that we do not make any decisions without considering our audiences. That doesn’t mean that we pander to their every desire, but it does mean that all of the work we do here is for an audience, and we really care about their engagement. When programming, Ashlie considers what the audience is asking for, but she’s also interested in helping them find the things that they’re not asking for (but will really love). To me, the work that we do here has the capacity to change people’s lives; because we are in a small (and relatively conservative) town, the work that we produce is affecting and educational in both content and form.
Last year, we produced Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast, which is the story of a gay couple moving to a small town. I have rarely attended work that felt this provocative, despite being a heartwarming comedy. Similarly, the piece made use of vocal masque for the two actors to play over 20 characters. Thus, our audiences were engaged with the HOW of the theatre as well as the WHAT. Theatre in rural communities is often underrated in terms of its impact, but as an artist and an educator, I can speak to how important this work is in the creation and development of cultural communities.
PAONE: What will you be doing when you aren’t working this summer?
RK: Writing. Reading. Swimming (at both my house and my office). Drinking too much wine. Playing a dice game called Farkle. Visiting farmer’s markets and flea markets. Going to country auctions. Watching DVDs of The Golden Girls. Listening to my LP collection. Listening to Broadway soundtracks as I drive down country roads in my 2003 Honda Civic. Seeing some really great theatre.
PAONE: What’s the best thing about summer outside of the city?
RK: When I’m in Gananoque, I live in a cabin in the woods without the internet, so life is pretty different and pretty perfect. I wake up to birdsong, and sleep to crickets. I have a private beach 20 feet from my front door, and I don’t have the distraction of having the internet at home. To me, summer has always been a rural experience, so when I’m here, I feel like I’ve really found my summer home. And I feel pretty lucky to have found that.
Thanks so much, Rob! It sounds idyllic and inspiring!
Rob Kempson General HeadshotRob Kempson is a theatre artist and educator. A graduate of Queen’s University, Rob works as a playwright, director, and performer. Writer/Director: Mockingbird (Next Stage Theatre Festival); SHANNON 10:40 (timeshare); explicit (Rhubarb Festival); #legacy (Harbourfront Centre); In My Own Skin (YRDSB); The HV Project (Community); Intersections (TDSB Arts Co-Op). Director: Violet’s the Pilot, Rose’s Clothes (Thousand Islands Playhouse); Songs for a New World (Claude Watson). As a performer, he was most recently seen starring in his Dora-nominated musical The Way Back To Thursday(Theatre Passe Muraille). He was a member of the 2014 Stratford Festival Playwrights’ Retreat and is currently the Associate Artistic Director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. More info at or @rob_kempson on Twitter.