by Nadine Faulkner
John Muggleton and Chris Ralph took a big risk on August 12, 2013. That risk has paid off nearly four years later to the day, not just for them but for the Glebe. When these two long-time friends turned “acto-preneurs” and opened The Acting Company to teach acting, they were nervous, and rightly so. People who open small businesses take on all the risk and failure can mean not just unemployment, but heavy financial losses or debt.
Both Muggleton and Ralph were not unprepared, however. Each had significant experience in both acting and teaching. With nominations for several Best Actor awards, Muggleton had worked hard for his dues, living and studying in London for six years before settling in Ottawa to focus on television acting. And Ralph, an experienced stage actor and National Theatre School of Canada grad, had also taught at both the University of Ottawa and York University. “I remember feeling really lucky that we got such a great space with 60-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, a mezzanine, and stunning hardwood floors. But I also remember thinking that there’s going to be a real learning curve here!” said Ralph.
Today, they provide a broad range of classes including improvisation, comedy, film, TV, voice, musical theatre and playwriting. Their more than 14 experienced instructors teach all age ranges and provide a variety of class times and formats, which range from $115 to $295 per session. Nearly all classes also now include a public performance (usually packed), be it the Improv Showcase or the public performance of a one-act play. The unique space is also rented to local and travelling theatre companies from within and outside Canada for public performances.
“We have a remarkably eclectic group of students, which really enriches the class experience – new Canadians, different occupations, and varied age ranges. Some people also use the classes to improve their communications skills. Our Studio 55 classes continue to be really well attended.
“About 70 – 80 per cent of our students keep coming back and we couldn’t be more honoured. One of our regulars is in his eighties and has attended more than 27 courses,” smiles Muggleton.
With all this on the go, who would have guessed that this team would also have beaten out every theatre production in Ottawa, including the National Arts Centre? Well, no one, but they did. In 2015, under their studio name, Avalon Theatre, they won the coveted Best Production at the Capital Critics Awards for their production Glengarry Glen Ross. I repeat: “Little guy beats out the NAC.”
Muggleton decided to add a wedding and a baby to the mix just to keep things interesting. “I’ve had to cut back a bit,” laughs Muggleton, looking just a bit bleary eyed, “but being a parent has made me know at a different level that behind every performance stands a whole family experiencing all the nerves and hopes for their little one on stage. I tear up now when I see the kids perform. I’ll be a mess when it’s my daughter’s turn!”
And that’s what stands out about The Acting Company’s relationship with people: a family feel. “We are definitely social!” smiles Ralph. “The P&Q and Feleena’s are our regular after-class spots where students and instructors talk about anything from theatre to the weather.” The community support seems to be mutual. Amir, the owner of P&Q, recently sponsored their new play, Burn, a suspenseful ghost story that’s already getting rave reviews and will run again at the Gladstone Theatre from August 24 – 26 this summer. (Watch out NAC.)
Finding new relevance for acting skills has also been key to making the business work. “Reviewing the different technologies and activities, we could see a new need for acting and performance skills. With our artistic director Kate Smith, we’ve developed classes such as camera for journalism and voice-over for gaming and animation,” says Ralph. “We’re also developing tailored performance classes for business students and businesses. Acting skills are a great way to learn effective communication, and participating in a class naturally fosters inclusion and enhances respect for differences,” adds Muggleton.
The Acting Company is a good example of how local businesses can be engines of the community, not just the economy. The Glebe, or any community, is lucky to benefit from those willing to work extremely hard and take a very big risk. I can’t wait to see what Muggleton and Ralph offer us next.
Nadine Faulkner is a philosopher, author and humorist who contributes regularly to the Glebe Report.