Photos courtesy of Rob Saunders
His will be big shoes to fill.
This August, after 23 years of bringing an eclectic mix of performers to Huntsville stages, Rob Saunders will retire from his role as General Manager of Huntsville Festival of the Arts. Knowing that they’ll need time to find someone up to the task, the HFA board has already begun the process of recruiting a replacement.
“We are reluctant to let him go,” admits HFA board president Karen Cassian. “The entire board is fond of him and we have great respect for him. It feels like we are losing a family member.”
Saunders got involved with the Festival back in 1996 when he was still working for the Royal Bank as a commercial account manager. They were interested in his financial expertise and he was happy to help them out. Not long after, at about the same time that Saunders decided to strike out on his own and do some consulting, the HFA board decided they needed a General Manager who could do month-to-month administrative tasks. “I was on the search committee and someone said, ‘why don’t you put your name in?’ I did and hired myself and it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says.
When the Festival’s early venue at Deerhurst was no longer available, its shows moved over to the tennis courts at Grandview where they set up a stage with lights and sound for the next nine years. They supplemented that with occasional outdoor shows at the pioneer village at Muskoka Heritage Place and in downtown Huntsville pre-River Mill Park. Then in 2005, the Festival began using the newly built Algonquin Theatre and was able to expand its offering beyond the summer months. And behind it all was Saunders. “I haven’t had a summer off in 20 years,” he laughs.
The highlights are many, but he picks out a few that stand out.
Meeting Roméo Dallaire, former commander of a UN peace-keeping force during the Rwanda genocide and later a Canadian senator, is high on his list. Dallaire was the second in the HFA’s early speaker series (astronaut Roberta Bondar was the first). “I had to pick him up from the airport and when we got just north of the 401, he said, ‘Don’t take any offence, I’m going to fall asleep.’ And when he wakes up he tells me he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to sleep, so he sleeps when things are moving so he knows where he’s at because of all the stuff he sees when he closes his eyes. That was pretty powerful stuff. I had total respect for him then and still do today.”
Meeting Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, another person he admires, was up there among his favourite moments, too, along with seeing artists and Festival favourites like Jesse Cook and Jim Cuddy return multiple times. “I try not to put myself in the face of the artists too much, I give them their space. But some you have a good conversation with and it’s neat to see them behind the scenes.” He said he’s only had maybe two artists in all his years with the Festival who were difficult to work with, but he’s not naming names. “It happens so rarely. Most people are happy to be here and they love the theatre. Overall it’s been quite positive.”
On a more local front, helping the late playwright Stina Nyquist — who was also a former HFA board member —stage some of her plays was an enjoyable experience. “I wasn’t an artistic-minded person, I came from a finance background,” says Saunders, “but I remember seeing Stina’s plays with the local heritage context and really enjoying them. They were educational but entertaining, done with all local actors down at the old Huntsville town theatre that is no longer there. They were a great addition. I look back on those as being some of the most fun presentations that we did.”
Nuit Blanche North, which grew from a combination of some early small HFA street festivals and others presented by Edge of the Woods Theatre and Dan Watson, has become an immensely popular and unique draw for visitors and locals alike and is perhaps the Festival’s most successful fringe event.
Other fringe offerings often came at the suggestion of the late Kareen Burns, a former HFA board member and a driving force behind some of its artistic endeavours. “She was such a yin to my yang, me being more practical and she being more artistic,” says Saunders. “We had a lot of fun over the years. She opened my eyes to a lot of things I’d think were nuts and they’d work out, and I held her back from getting into too much trouble.”
He credits the various HFA board members over the years for making his job easy and fun. “We are a hands-on group,” he says. “They’ve always been people who like the arts, who want to be involved, and are prepared to get their hands a bit dirty to make things happen.”
Saunders says his role has been a balancing act. “I think I’ve brought lots of ideas and helped shape ideas, but you have to be a financially practical person. You can do interesting things but they have to be sustainable.” Through it all, he’s remained true to the HFA’s mandate to present an eclectic mix of music and performances to the Huntsville community.
Up next for Saunders is an extended North American motorcycle trip, but he says he’ll be back in time for the HFA annual general meeting in mid-October. And then he can look forward to family time, more travel, and summers off.
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