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Stage Presence

Janet Bessey's gift will help preserve Hart House Theatre's role on campus

A U of T staff member whose name was synonymous with Hart House Theatre for more than three decades has donated $100,000 to help ensure the theatre’s long-term survival. Janet Bessey, who started as an assistant stage manager in the 1960s and later managed the theatre until she retired in 2001, says her job was a “work of love” that kept her close to the theatre’s most important constituents – its students.

During her career, the theatre mounted dozens of shows and took a democratic approach to casting U of T productions. “The philosophy was that everyone should have the opportunity to take part,” she says. Some students parlayed their experience at Hart House Theatre into careers. Rod Beattie, the star of the Wingfield plays, performed as Hamlet in a 1973 production. Two other Hart House Theatre alumni are also involved in the Wingfield plays: Dan Needles writes them and Douglas Beattie, Rod’s brother, directs them.

In 1986, the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama moved out of Hart House Theatre, leaving a budget shortfall and gaps in the production schedule. To survive, the theatre kept its many student revues, such as the Faculty of Medicine’s Daffydil and Engineering’s Skule Nite, but sought new clients among dance studios, local ethnic groups and touring stage productions.

Despite some box office successes, the theatre has always relied on the university to subsidize operations. In 2000, Hart House took over management of the theatre and launched an endowment campaign to raise $7 million. An additional $1 million is being sought for capital improvements. Bessey describes her contribution as a kind of thank you. “The theatre has been a part of my life for so many years,” she says. “I wanted to give something back for all the enjoyment I’ve received.”

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