After 27 years in the acting business, AnnaMarie Lea’s big-city success in small-town Central Alberta suits her just fine.
“I think I’m coming to terms with that little girl who thought she was going to be a movie star when she was eight-years-old,” said Lea. “I never did get my Oscar, but I have accomplished a Canadian career in the arts.”
Lea is the artistic director of Cow Patti Theatre Company, a professional company that stages dinner theatres, benefit shows and runs theatre camps for children. “I think Central Alberta has been lacking a professional company for a long time,” Lea said. “I think people have been quite taken aback by the level of talent we’ve been able to show them.”
The proof is in the box office. Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii closed recently, after smashing the company’s ticket sale records from the same timeslot last year.
The success makes Lea a bit nervous. What makes the record even more impressive is that during the run of Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii, Cow Patti had to cancel a performance due to weather conditions for the first time in its history.
“It’s raised the stakes for me,” Lea said. “I feel a pressure to make sure we continue in this vein, make sure we continue to give our audiences top-notch shows.”
To satisfy Central Alberta audiences—and to draw audiences from bigger centres—Lea lives by a three-part motto: “The first is affability, the second is availability and the third is ability,” she said, speaking about the company’s focus on reaching out to audiences, being accessible and producing high quality work.
Lea was born in Calgary and attended theatre school in Vancouver. She got her start in producing in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where she created the Yellowknife Theatre Company.
In addition to staging traditional shows, Lea spent a few seasons producing murder mystery dinner theatres—both on a boat that sailed on Great Slave Lake and in the cabin of a Boeing 737. In the pre-911 years, the plane would start down the runway, but ‘break-down’ just before take-off. Before the plane could be fixed, audiences were served both dinner and a murder.
It was during one of shows aboard the plane that Lea caught the eye of a young pilot, her future husband Tom. They married and had four children. Ironically, Tom now has a job flying 737s.
The family moved to Alberta, which is when Lea created Cow Patti Theatre Company. The idea for the company’s name came to her when she was pregnant with her third child and was living on a farm east of Clive. She was feeding the cows when inspiration struck. “I was forking hay over the fence and I slipped and I fell in a piece of cow [excrement]. And that’s where I came up with the name for Cow Patti,” Lea explained.
In 1997, Cow Patti produced its first show at Westling Hall. Shortly after, it began staging performances at the Lacombe Golf and Country Club.
After five seasons, the family moved to Cornwall, Ontario and Lea took Cow Patti along with them. They stayed there for 11 years, before returning to Central Alberta, where they built a home in the Clive area. Lea brought Cow Patti back to the place it originated.
“The more it changes, the more it stays the same,” Lea said, reflecting on her return to Lacombe. “The people are still that wonderful Alberta friendly folk who enjoy getting out and appreciate the talent.”
One interesting development is that a young, eager actor who auditioned for Lea and performed in a few of the early productions is now playing the role of Lacombe’s mayor, Steve Christie.
Home-grown talent is something Lea plans to focus on. Though in the past she has flown in professional performers from afar, she hopes to engage more western talent in future productions.
Perfect Wedding is the company’s next show. Billed as the ‘Valentine Show’, the production premieres on Feb. 13.
Lea says after the closing performance, audience members are invited to participate in the annual ‘stage kiss’ competition.
Last year’s winners were two women—friends—who won over the audience when one friend kissed the other on the cheek. The prize was two free tickets to a Cow Patti production. However, when this season came around, Lea got a call from the family of Pauline, one of the women who won. Pauline had passed away and so the family decided to make it a tradition to come see a Cow Patti show every year in her memory.
This year, on the evening the family came, Lea told the story and announced that the performance would be dedicated to Pauline.
“Those are my Oscars. Those are my moments where I can feel positive and feel fulfilled about what I’ve chosen to do with my life.”