David Fanstone, a titan of the theatre scene in Orillia for more than three decades, died unexpectedly Tuesday at Orillia’s Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH). He was 70.
“He was a big, big part of community theatre here,” said Mary Lou Kempton, whom Fanstone hired to help promote his theatre company in 1990. “He started the Sunshine Festival and he wrote so many small plays and musicals – theatre, big or small, was his passion.”
Fanstone’s Sunshine Festival grew to be one of the largest of its kind in Ontario. “He hired me in 1990 and my job was to promote the bus trade,” said Kempton. “We worked closely together for all those years.”
Kempton said Fanstone had a blend of artistic talent and business acumen that is rare in theatre. “Most artistic people don’t understand the business side. Many are self-absorbed, they want the glory, but don’t understand you need bums in the seats,” she explained. Fanstone was “smart enough to understand a small town couldn’t sustain it. He knew he had to go outside Orillia, market get-aways, go to bus trade shows to bring people here. In its heyday, it was remarkably successful.”
Tom Gostick, owner of the Island Princess, agreed. He recalls the first year working with Fanstone, when three busloads of people came to town. “It wasn’t long and the Sunshine Theatre Company, under his guidance, was a roaring success. One year, over 100 buses visited Orillia, the boat and a variety of attractions.”
However, for a variety of reasons, the Sunshine Festival ceased in 2005. Soon after, Fanstone returned to his hometown of Niagara Falls. But he opted to return to Orillia in 2013 and, a year later, he debuted his new Orillia Stage Company. Last summer, he presented a series of shows at Orillia Community Church and was busy creating a new season for this coming summer.
Sadly, Kempton believes those shows will now be cancelled. And while Fanstone has had health struggles, he had been relatively healthy in recent months. Kempton said he was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw about two years ago, but this summer learned he was cancer free. About a month ago, however, he started experiencing neck spasms. He went to OSMH late last week and, while in the emergency department, his heart stopped. He was revived and taken to the intensive care unit. When life support was removed, he died.
“We kind of knew he was in poor health, but it happened within a matter of a few days, so that was the shock,” said Kempton.
Former Orillia Opera House manager Krista Storey, now manager of arts and culture for the Town of Gravenhurst, said Fanstone will be missed by many.
“David dedicated his life to the theatre,” she said. “He gave many the opportunity to get their start on stage and behind the scenes. He brought a lot of good to Orillia and definitely brought a lot of good people together. His passion for creating theatre never waned. My condolences to his family and to all those who cherished him.”
That sentiment is being echoed throughout the region as people learn of Fanstone’s death. “We are being just inundated with calls, emails and messages on social media,” said Kempton. “His reach was large.”
For example, Chris Wilson, a Toronto-area drama teacher wrote on Facebook: “David Fanstone was a kind soul who cared very deeply about the theatre and the work he created within it! He was an extraordinary arts advocate within the community of Orillia with the Sunshine Festival (and many other ventures) and for so many young artists (such as myself) whom he invited to play with him on the stage of the Opera House."
Greg Gibson also paid homage to Fanstone on Facebook: “As a producer, director and playwright, David employed thousands of actors, musicians, designers and technical crew during his lifetime. He gave many young emerging artists their first professional jobs. Personally, David forced me out of my comfort zone, hiring me as an actor/singer and also as a composer. David wasn't perfect, but he was someone who felt truly passionate about creating good work ... and I will always be grateful for the opportunities he gave me over the years.”
No funeral will be held for Fanstone, who leaves behind two sisters. However, Kempton said she is hopeful a memorial service will be arranged. “I think it would be fitting if that was held in the small theatre at the Opera House, but I’m not sure yet what will happen.”