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From tears to strength, former cast member reflects on time served at dinner theatre

From tears to strength, original cast member Dawn (nicknamed ‘Fanny’) Matthews-Nichols remembers growing up at the Air Force training base in Slemon Park.
Original cast member Dawn (nicknamed ‘Fanny’) Matthews-Nichols remembers growing up at the Air Force training base in Slemon Park, and her time served in the dinner theatre show Flyer’s Feast. - Desiree Anstey

Dawn Matthews-Nichols still gets goosebumps when she remembers the Flyer’s Feast, a story that captured her heart

SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Even the hardest of hearts broke when the cast of the Flyer’s Feast began to sing their rousing rendition of “Lily of the lamplight” according to original cast member Dawn Matthews-Nichols, who returned for a third summer at Brothers Two Restaurant in Summerside to play the obnoxious Toronto star “Sarah Briggs.”

“I still get goosebumps when I think about the Flyer’s Feast that summer in 1984. There were tears in people’s eyes and you could see that they had gone back to the turbulent war times, when young men were called off to fight for their country,” reflected Matthews-Nichols, now aged 61 and living in Calgary.

Although Matthews-Nichols auditioned for the very first dinner theatre production called the ‘Governor’s Feast’ in 1979 and landed the part as the happy-go-lucky Irish character Fanny O’Grady, it’s the Flyer’s Feast that captured her heart.

The Flyer’s Feast changed the direction of dinner theatre. It turned the Irish jigs on their heels and focused more on a strong story-line that connected with the audience. As a result, it soared in success.

Dawn Matthews-Nichols pictured in the centre far right, aged 24, as the happy-go-lucky Irish character Fanny O’Grady in the Governor’s Feast.
Dawn Matthews-Nichols pictured in the centre far right, aged 24, as the happy-go-lucky Irish character Fanny O’Grady in the Governor’s Feast.

“There were pilots being trained for the Second World War in Summerside, so we all had our work cut out to get the Flyer’s Feast spot on. We went to war museums for research and talked to people to find out how war really was like,” said Matthews-Nichols, while noting the script doubled in size from previous shows.

During the war years, thousands of military personnel came temporarily to Summerside to prepare for Air Force duty under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Matthews-Nichols father was a corporal in the Air Force working at a training facility in St. Eleanors, where the family lived.

“I remember a particular show where we had a bunch of air pilots come in from the base. They were having a few drinks and wanted to take over because one was retiring and they wanted to acknowledge him with a medal, so I had to take a guy outside before breaking my character.

“I knew the guy and said firmly, ‘listen, you have caused me to break my character and I don’t do that.’ He was shocked. I said, ‘this is not about you, this is about the show and you are ruining it for everyone else. Go to your table and get them under control or you will all be made to leave.”

Matthews-Nichols admits the experience of Feast combined with her degree in English and Special Education, awarded from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, helped pave the way towards a successful career in unlocking the potential of young offenders.

“In 1984 I left P.E.I. after the Flyer’s Feast and went to Calgary. I became a special education teacher working with kids that have behavioural issues. My last teaching post was with young offenders at a jail,” she said, while acknowledging dinner theatre prepared her for all types of scenarios in this career.

“You have to be on the ball when you’re teaching young offenders because of their attention span… you have to be quick thinking.”

Matthews-Nichols continued to sing in choirs after the dinner theatre, and even performed at the opening of Confederation Bridge in 1997 with the Nova Scotia Mass Choir.

As for her Feast experience, “Those years were some of the best times I had on this Island. People still talk about that production (Flyer’s Feast) to this day.”

She ended with, “I’m thrilled that something we started 40 seasons ago is still thriving and involving young people, it has put Summerside on the map.”

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