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Rosebud, Alberta celebrates its rural theatre roots in a tiny prairie village rich in pioneer history.
Rosebud, Alberta professional theatre productions range from familiar musicals to international dramas.
Rosebud, Alberta's Rural Theatre Revives Historic Village.

by Megan Kopp

Rosebud Theatre productions range from familiar musicals to international dramas. Rosebud Theatre

European settlers began homesteading in Rosebud in 1883, laying the foundation for a strong farming and ranching community. The hamlet flourished in the early 1900s, reaching a population of 300 in the 1920s. By the early 1970s, however, the population dropped to less than thirty, and dozens of abandoned buildings awaited demolition while the community threatened to vanish with the next prairie wind. Then it dreamed bold of a theatre school and performance centre .... today hosting 40,000 visitors annually into its 27th season!

An hour-and-a-half drive or 100 kilometers northeast of Calgary, my friend Susanah and I dipped off the prairie plateau and into a tiny town tucked neatly in the river valley bottom. There are no gas stations, no strip malls, no fast food restaurants in Rosebud, Alberta, but it is a haven for artistic souls and that’s what we’ve come to experience.

The native Blackfoot called it “Akokiniskway”, meaning valley of roses. Filled with the scent of its namesake wild flowers in summer, Rosebud is a year-round testament to re-inventing itself thanks largely to LaVerne Erickson, a music and art teacher from Calgary. In 1973 he started the Rosebud Camp of the Arts as a summer outreach program for Calgary youth. It evolved into today’s thriving Rosebud School of the Arts, partnering with Alberta’s largest rural professional production company, Rosebud Theatre.

Rosebud School of the Arts: Rosebud, Alberta celebrates its rural theatre roots in a tiny prairie village rich in pioneer history.
Across from the abandoned tracks, the hamlet's historic hotel is now home to the Rosebud School of Arts. Megan Kopp
Rosebud, Alberta celebrates its rural theatre roots in a tiny prairie village rich in pioneer history.

We had tickets for the lunch buffet, the afternoon matinee at the Rosebud Opera House, and the 4.30 p.m. performance at the Studio Stage. But we chose to arrive mid-morning for a chance to soak up the flavor and history of the town. At the four-way stop – the only one in town – you’re in the heart of the hamlet, resident population 100. It’s a five-minute walk in any direction to the edge of the grasslands. Directly across the street from the 1911 Mercantile Building is the Centennial Museum and Little Country Blessings General Store. We wandered through the ragtag collection of paraphernalia that remains as witness to prairie lives, picking up a map and enthusiastic directions from the storekeeper, to start our short walking tour of town following signs #1 through #12 beginning at the museum's parking lot.

Rosebud, Alberta celebrates its rural theatre roots in a tiny prairie village rich in pioneer history.
Rosebud's streets encourage leisurely strolling.
Neil Bousquet 

The museum building, like most of the buildings in town, was originally built for something else. In this case, first Mah Joe's Laundry in the 1920s and '30s, then a farm supply and bulk oil dealership, transforming into a coffee shop before sitting empty until the Lions Club renovated it for the museum.

Heading north on Main Street we found ourselves drawn into the fabric of early prairie life, reading about Charles (Mac) McBrien’s family arriving in 1918, wearing masks to protect themselves from the Spanish Flu; the raging inferno that took the town’s pool hall and International Harvester dealership in 1938; the roar of the 1950’s-era stockcar race track near the United Church turned Akokiniskway Gallery.

Outside the Mercantile, we couldn’t help but chuckle at the story of Jack Sangster’s fear of robbery. His solution: leave instructions on top of the safe on how to open it and hide all his cash in canvas bags throughout the store. In our stroll around town, we experienced a trip through life that seemed to reflect what Rosebud was all about – optimism and hard work.

Art galleries are part of Rosebud, Alberta's rural historic tourism.
Just along from the Opera House, the Akokiniskway Gallery has new shows three times a year. Megan Kopp
Alberta tourism Rosebud Theatre.

Rosebud Theatre began in 1983 when the now-established School of Arts was looking to raise funds through a little dinner theatre. This serendipitous event became the economic engine that would allow Rosebud to play host to tens of thousands of visitors each year. The Opera House began as a couple of granaries pieced together with wooden church pews for seats. Although it has been completely upgraded since, the intimate nature of the building remains. The historic mercantile building, built in 1911, now houses the ticket counter and buffet restaurant on the main floor, craft shop in the basement.

Rosebud Theatre performance of Don Quixote is part of Alberta's rural theatre and history.

When time came for our 12:00 noon seating for lunch, we both did our best not to drool over the rows of decadent desserts as we loaded up on salads and seafood and hot entrees. Stuffed, we attempted to stroll off the calories in a gallery to gallery shuffle through Rosebud’s eclectic collection of art and craft stores, before heading over to the Opera House for the 1:30 p.m. showing of the musical, Man of La Mancha.

Lights dimmed and we were quickly drawn into the magical madness of Don Quixote’s vision. Tattered white fabric on a towering wooden frame provided the backdrop for an inspiring tale of dreams and reality and undying optimism – a recurring theme of Rosebud productions.

A rousing "Quixotic" performance on Rosebud's Opera House stage. Rosebud Theatre

From the Opera House, it’s a short walk (or drive) down the gravel road leading to Rosebud’s Studio Stage where the one-man show, Confessions of a Paperboy, was playing that day to a full house in the black box theatre. We were astonished by actor Giovanni Mocibob's energy. He had just come straight from a two-hour performance as Don Quixote’s squire in Man of La Mancha and now he was onstage for an hour long solo performance as a 12-year-old boy on a bicycle completing his paper route. Each of Mocibob's characters were as riveting as they were completely different from one other.

Rosebud Opera House: Rosebud, Alberta's Rural Theatre Revives Historic Village.
The Rosebud Opera House is the mainstage of the village's theatrical showcase. Randall Wiebe

They called 2009 Rosebud’s “Impossible Dream Season.” However, unlike Don Quixote’s tale, Rosebud may be built on dreams, but it’s also grounded in reality. Like its namesake prairie flower, this theatre town has strong roots that allow it to continue to bloom. As my girlfriend and I discovered, it’s impossible to experience Rosebud and not come away with a smile.

Follow Up Facts box to article: Rosebud, Alberta's Rural Theatre Revives Historic Village.
Located on Highway 840, Rosebud, www.rosebud.ca, is 100 km northeast of Calgary (1.1 million people) and 35 km southwest of Drumheller (8,000 people).

Rosebud Country Inn, Rosebud Alberta. Rosebud Theatre performance details and ticket information: www.rosebudtheatre.com. Its 2010 season runs from mid-March to December featuring an Italian comedy, two British musicals and two South African dramas. Rosebud is also home to Rosebud School of the Arts, www.rosebudschoolofthearts.com, a post secondary educational institution that offers conservatory training in theatre and music to students, many who advance to performance in Rosebud Theatre productions.

Rose Cottage B&B, www.therosecottagebb.com, and the Rosebud Country Inn, www.rosebudcountryinn.com, are popular overnight stays.

While visiting the area, check out Drumheller's world-acclaimed Canadian Badlands Passion Play, www.canadianpassionplay.com, offering six open-air performances each July. See our richly-illustrated feature article about this second theatrical gem in Alberta.

Province-wide tourism information: Travel Alberta, www.travelalberta.com. The pink, fragrant wild rose is Alberta's provincial flower.

Photo above: Rosebud Country Inn offers ten spacious rooms with a hot breakfast included. Check out the inn's Theatre Packages and Seniors Specials. Megan Kopp

Based in Cochrane, Alberta, Megan Kopp is a freelance writer whose specialties include outdoor and rural travel. When not paddling rivers, hiking mountain trails or getting ready for another adventure, she is blogging about the outdoors (www.brooks-range.com/brblog) and publishing travel articles and non-fiction children's books. Megan also teaches a continuing education travel writing course every spring and fall at Mt. Royal University in Calgary. www.megankopp.com.

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