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Friends, Timing and Gertrude Wilkes

May 2010

One day Gertrude Wilkes is sitting in her call-centre cubicle trying to soothe a distressed customer; the next she’s trying to sell theatre fans on a performance of Shakespeare. The set of co-incidences that lifted her over that divide has made her believe there’s space for everyone in community arts.

Last week Wilkes signed on with A Company of Fools to promote its summer-long performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Torchlight series moves from park to park around Ottawa during July and August, hoping for good weather and putting theatre back into truly public space. “Shakespeare, under the stars, a real connection with the artists; it all fits doesn’t it?” Wilkes ponders.

Gertrude Wilkes. Photo by Mike Levin.

She grew up in British Columbia and tried farming in Quebec (“I milked a few goats”) before settling in Ottawa with a family in 1976. She worked the real-estate market for a decade until 1999 and then realized she wanted to be more creative. A course in meeting-and-convention planning at Algonquin College led her into conference work just as an economic downtown was about to cut about one-third of corporate events. In 2007 she started at the call-centre.

“There’s the sweat shop of the new millennium, a really hard job that is under-appreciated. It just takes away all your initiative because someone is always listening to everything you say,” Wilkes explains. As a buffer she volunteered sporadically for local performing-arts events like the Canada Dance Festival and a bit last year with the Fools’ promotional nexus Crystal Parsons.

After Parsons left the Company, Wilkes ran into her while walking her dog, only to discover they lived on the same street. Right after, while volunteering with Mothercraft, she fell into discussion with Ottawa costumer Louise Hayden. Both women felt Wilkes could help the Fools with its summer-series promotion. “It made me think, yeah, it’s my time,” Wilkes says.

There’s no frustrated performer wiggling to get out of Wilkes; she’s in awe of people who create, because of how inspirational she finds them. The contract for Torchlight Shakespeare gives her a chance to mix an outgoing personality with a theatre company who’s unwritten motto is “Pssst, hey come here. Wanna see something fun!” Wilkes is nervously ecstatic at the chance. “I hope to be part of giving people an experience with the Shakespeare they wished they got in high school.”

Community arts needs the Gertrude Wilkes, experienced with the enthusiasm of a newbie, and an example of how, sometimes, it take friends to let you know it’s your time.

For information on A Company of Fools Torchlight series, Wilkes can be contacted at

One Comment »

  • Terri said:

    Great article on an awesome woman! 🙂

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