When the Highland Arts Theatre first opened its doors in January 2014, no one could have predicted the story that would unfold over the next decade.

"Oh, I don't know that I ever thought that we'd make it to ten years,” said artistic director Wesley Colford.

It was Colford's idea to convert the former St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church — a building more than a century old — into an approximately 400-seat theatre in Sydney's downtown.

From the beginning, Colford says the odds were against them.

"I think I committed, in my head, to maybe five years that we'd try to make a go,” they said. “I didn't know if it would last that long. I expected at some point to have to move back to Toronto."

While there were many hurdles for a not-for-profit depending mostly on ticket sales, the biggest was, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.

By mid-2020, "The HAT,” as it's known, faced bankruptcy, but they pivoted — and in dramatic fashion.

An online fundraiser raised more than $50,000 in a matter of months in the middle of the pandemic and saved the theatre from closure.

"It really gave us a chance to sit back, say, 'Why are we here?' and the answer, ultimately, is this community,’” Colford said.

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September 2022, 'God Save the Queen' rang out from the former church bells at the HAT.

It was one of the more poignant examples of the theatre’s role in downtown Sydney.

“I feel like every time there's something substantial, the bells are called upon,” said Glenda Watt, who played the bells that day and on many other occasions. “When the shootings occurred on the Mainland, the bells were here. During COVID lockdown, the bells were here."

To celebrate their big milestone, the HAT is holding a special lineup of performances this week.

"It's called 'Cheers to Ten Years,’ Colford said. “It's running Tuesday to Sunday, starting on January 9, and we have some of the best hits from our best performers over the entire ten years."

"I grew up knowing I wanted to make a career in theatre, and knowing or expecting I would have to move somewhere else to do that,” Colford said. “The fact I get to be here in the place I love, working with people I love, making incredible things — that's something I never expected, and something I can't be more grateful for."

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