For the past couple of weeks, theatre excellence has taken to the tiny stage at Talk is Free Theatre. With 120 seats, this ambitious 'tiny giant' in the theatre world has been presenting the first Canadian mainland run of a long-ignored Canadian story written by a well known Canadian theatre reviewer, Richard Ouzounian.

Emily, the Musical, tells the remarkable story of Emily, Laucy Maud Montgomery's three book series that took back seat to Anne of Green Gables for half a century.

The Charlottetown Festival and Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island are inextricably linked to each other. They are undeniably one of Canada's biggest tourist draws. The careers of many Canadian theatre personalities are linked to "Anne."

But, enter "Emily". She's the new kid on the block and opened in Charlottetown to strong reviews as an addition to steady runs of Anne.

It was Barrie's Arkady Spivak and Talk Is Free Theatre who brought Emily from Charlottetown and presented her to the rest of the world. The show opened with previews May 17 and 18 and the official premiere May 19 and with 120 seats in this intimate theatre, it's been opening to sold out shows.

Saturday (June3) and Sunday (June 4) are the final performances. In between, representatives from Ed Mirvish, Stratford, Shaw Festival have all attended. The productiion has received great reviews.

This isn't necessarily a plug for "Emily" but it's background to the remarkable individual in our midst who has the vision to recognize this historically significant literature which is now so apt for the stage.

Arkady did not grow up on Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables and Gilbert Blyth. He grew up in Moscow, in the republic of Russia towards the end of Communist rule. With family roots in the Ukraine, Arkady's life as a child included his mother and a strong Jewish community in an urban cluster in Moscow.

Arkady's father died when he was a young child, and he and his mother left Russia for Canada when he was 14. The plan was to join his father's family in Winnipeg. Arkady's mother had her eye on her 14 year old son, and the compulsory Soviet army stint that was about to occur. It was the perfect time to leave and in 1989 they moved to Winnipeg... then to Toronto. Arkady registered at Newtonbrook Secondary School and began to absorb English.

He wonders that he didn't immediately plunge himself into theatre at his new high school; Newtonbrook has graduated a significant number of theatre, music, dance professionals. He was busy learning how to be Canadian. He was busy adding English to his working knowledge of French, Italian, Spanish and Russian. He headed into languages at York University's Glendon Campus. He was going to teach. And, to put it in Arkady's words, "I hit York University and went sideways"... headlong into theatre. He requalified himself for drama studies as a major with a minor in business... an excellent choice for an individual who wanted to work on the business side of theatre. Theatre management gave him the ability to be artistic and build significance at the same time.

He came to Barrie's first professional producing theatre, Gryphon, as a grant-funded publicist and stayed to learn how to do everything. As Gryphon morphed from a producing to a presenting theatre, Arkady took what he'd learned and started Talk is Free Theatre. He'd actually done three TIFT performances in Toronto while working at Gryphon but when the Advance's publisher, Joe Anderson, approached him with support, it was all systems go.

Talk is Free Theatre has attracted energy and capacity on a local level. Registered as a not for profit organization, it functions with a volunteer board of directors. Steve Sperling offered space through Aerarium; Park Place offered a temporary theatrical home; Aline Revoy from her living room turned into a power house of fundraising and this autonomous organization has completed 19 full productions plus some fundraising events as it heads down the home stretch of its fourth season.

"We commission a new play. We design and build the set, we audition and rehearse actors, we hire a director and we launch the production," says Arkady. "We make it, and we sell it." Doing Emily required a rewrite to 15 actors from 29 and a 5 piece orchestra ... still an expensive proposition. Arkady expressed gratitude to the Molson Fund for its help this year.

He has positioned Talk is Free to be the launch for Canadian talent, the recognition of excellence that becomes a theatrical initiation. It's an important role. It has much more to do with the actors than with the script.

Arkady's goal, and that of his longterm supporters, Anderson, Revoy, Beth Foster, and now Kathy Revali, is to make Talk is Free to Barrie what the Shaw Festival is to Niagara on the Lake, or what Shakespeare is to Stratford. With an exception. Arkady's goal is Canadian. Canadian playwrights. Canadian productions. Canadian performers. "We present emerging talent with an artist-driven production company."

If we have Emily, the Musical... what about Arkady, the man? Family? Not yet. Mom, while supportive from Toronto, had her eye on much more traditional revenue sources for her only child. Arkady's giving himself total concentration to career, 24/7 to get Talk is Free established.

He's at the end of year four now. Getting ready to fly. And aren't we lucky that his wings are solidly centred over Barrie?

Thanks, Arkady.

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