Alex Mustakas: Celebrating 20 years at the helm of Drayton Entertainment

Looking back on 20 years at the Drayton?Festival Theatre, Alex Mus­takas can think of only one time he ever wondered if he was in over his head.

Drayton?Entertainment’s artistic director and chief executive officer recalls in 1991 asking early theatre proponents like Ab Hesselink, Bruce Schieck, and John Green if the group could really pull off an ambitious first season that included three professional productions over nine weeks.

“We didn’t question it until about two days before the first show,” Mustakas said with a smile. “That was the only time.”

Premiering on July 1, 1991 under the direction of Alan Lund and starring Mustakas, Vaudeville was a successful kick-off to the inaugural season, which  attracted 14,592 visitors to the village of Drayton.

“We knew after the first season we had something special,” Mustakas said.

Two decades later, Drayton Entertainment has become one of the largest and most successful theatre companies in Canada, entertaining about 225,000 theatregoers annually at six locations: the original Drayton theatre, the Huron Country Playhouse and Playhouse II in Grand Bend, King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene and the Schoolhouse Theatre and Country Playhouse in St. Jacobs.

“It’s the little theatre that grew, as it were,” noted  Mustakas of the original location in Drayton.

He said Drayton Entertainment has come full circle, with ongoing renovations at the Drayton theatre coinciding with the company’s 20th anniversary.

“This theatre is the highlight for me,” Mustakas said of the 20-year milestone.

The renovations, which include improved access and sidewalks, brick work and an addition that will almost double the size of the stage and add an orchestra pit, should be completed by the end of this month.

“It’s going to open a world of opportunities for us and really enhance the theatre experience for our patrons,” he said.

Built in 1902, the historic building once housed Dray­ton’s municipal office, council chambers, library, fire hall, garage and jail.

The opera house on the second floor at one time was part of a theatrical touring circuit, Mustakas explained, featuring late comedic legend and Canadian actress Beatrice Lillie.

But by the 1980s the space was seldom used.

“Essentially the theatre sat in a time capsule for many, many years,” he said. It was revived in 1983 by The Drayton Community Players, a group of area residents that staged two amateur shows annually until the theatre was closed for safety reasons in 1989.

That generated great debate locally about the future of the building.

Upon hearing talk of a possible demolition, a determined group of Drayton residents rallied to raise $110,000 to retrofit the facility to meet the fire code. Then debate heated up again about what exactly to do with the grand structure now that it was saved from the wrecking ball.

Mapleton Mayor John?Green said local councillors always wanted to do something with the building, but they had limited artistic ability.

Enter Mustakas, who after attaining a Masters degree in arts administration from City University in London, Eng­land, wanted nothing more than to open a “country playhouse” in small-town Ontario.

“This was the perfect opportunity,” he said.

Green relayed that after several meetings, early theatre proponents felt Mustakas was “a bright and talented young man” who not only wanted very much to start his theatrical career in Drayton, but also had a long-term vision for the facility.

In fact, within seconds of an opera house tour with Jean Camp­bell, Mustakas could envision great things for the old building.

“I couldn’t believe it … Here was this beautiful opera house basically at the cross­roads of two county roads,” he re­called.

On Sept. 1, 1990 Mustakas pre­­sented his vision to members of the community and  a committee of council.

“I couldn’t be­lieve the positive response that night,” he said, adding the community again rallied to raise enough money to get started.

“It was just the right time, with the right people, in the right place.”

One of the first to speak in favour of Mustakas’ plan was Schieck, whose grandfather helped build the opera house and who remains the president of the board of directors.

Schieck spoke about the need for an artistic presence in the area to compliment the already established Sports community – and others at the meeting echoed that sentiment.

The 385-seat theatre now employs about 30 people every summer, welcomes over 40,000 patrons each year and has become the artistic foundation locally that Schieck and others envisioned 20 years ago.

Mustakas, despite all the company’s accolades, remains humble and re-directs any praise for the theatre’s success to the people in the community and Drayton Entertainment’s staff and board of directors.

“I tend to get way too much credit,” he said. “This thing is a success because of the grassroots.”

He specifically mentioned the important roles played by?Hesselink, Schieck, Green and Campbell, as well as Ron?Ellis, Neil Aitchison, Allan Cherrey, Bob Thurston, Kathy Watt and Reta Weber – many of whom are still directors or involved with the company in another capacity.

In the beginning, those  individuals – and many others like them – not only provided financial and moral support, but also helped fill a myriad of positions, from greeters to ushers, to laundry and technical support.

Yet the influence of Mus­takas has always been unmistakable and invaluable.

Born in Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea located south of Turkey, Mustakas’ family immigrated to Canada in 1966, when he was just six years old, and settled in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

For as long as he can remember, Mustakas always wanted to be in theatre.

“It sort of ran in the family,” he suggests, mentioning his uncle, Sotiris Moustakas, who was such a famous actor in Greece that he received a state funeral after his death in 2007.

Alex attended high school at Eastwood Collegiate In­stitute and despite the influence of Sotiris’ success, at the urging of his father, Alex studied business at Wilfrid Laurier University.

He remembers one day presenting his father with his economics degree and telling him, “Now I’m going to do what I want to do,” before heading off to England to study arts administration.

But Mustakas, who now lives in West Montrose with his wife, Jackie, and two children,  has no regrets about his early education.

As noted by Green, most theatre companies require two individuals to fill the artistic director and CEO roles, but thanks to Mustakas’ expertise in both theatre and business, Drayton Entertainment re­quires just one.

Moreover, his two-pronged expertise also makes Mustakas perfectly suited for Drayton?Entertainment’s business model.

“We try to balance artistic integrity with fiscal responsibility,” he said. “We’ve never forgotten the basics.”

While thankful for the company’s corporate sponsors and locals who support theatre fundraisers, Mustakas explains the true cost of producing the high quality shows for which the company is known is not reflected in the $35 ticket price.

He added the company receives no funding whatsoever from the Canadian Arts Council and uses other grants for capital upgrades only.

Drayton?Entertainment is able to remain relatively self-sustaining in part by rotating shows between venues, which  benefits actors and can save money in costumes, props, lighting and sets.

And after becoming one of the greatest theatrical success stories in the country, Drayton?Entertainment is able to draw “the cream of the crop” when it comes to actors, musicians, directors and choreographers.

“In the beginning, no one knew where Drayton was,” Mustakas chuckles.

But as Green can attest, they certainly do now. In his travels throughout province, whenever the mayor mentions his hometown, people usually comment on the theatre.

“It certainly put Drayton on the map,” Green said of the the opera house. “It’s built quite a reputation over the last 20 years.”

Ironically, being located in a small village in rural Ontario that was previously unknown to many patrons has worked in favour of the Drayton theatre.

“We kind of under-promise and over-deliver,” he said, noting many theatregoers are un­sure what to expect talent wise, and walk away blown away by the performances.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the theatre experience,” he said, adding Drayton?Entertainment staff are sticklers for detail.

“What patrons see on stage is the icing on the cake.”

And Mustakas expects a new 15,000 square foot facility in Cambridge – to be completed next year – to further enhance the experience for Drayton?Entertainment theatregoers.

The new building will house a state-of-the-art, year-round per­for­ming arts complex and also facilitate the con­solidation of the company’s pro­duction facilities in Grand Bend and its administration  headquarters in Drayton.

“We needed a hub,” Mus­takas said, adding the goal is to rehearse every show in?Cambridge to ease the quick transition between shows at each venue.

“This will let us breathe a little bit … [and] will really strengthen what’s happening in?Drayton.”

It always seems to come back to Drayton.

The historic venue, quaint community, quality and value of the productions and a nice drive to the country all combine to help keep seats filled in the Drayton theatre, Mustakas said.

But to this day, every time he has a speaking engagement, the first thing he mentions is the people in the community, whose dedication, vision and selflessness helped spawn one of the country’s greatest theatrical success stories.

“It’s about the relationships we’ve built,” he said. “If I’ve taught people in this area anything about theatre, they’ve taught me about community.”

For more information on Drayton Entertainment, including the 2010 season, visit