CASUAL COUNTRY 2019: The name behind Boitanio Park’s Gwen Pharis Ringwood Stage

Local actor Michael Rawluk said Ringwood was a great director

Boitanio Park’s outdoor stage was named after Gwen Pharis Ringwood, a playwright and the founder of Williams Lake Studio Theatre.

Ringwood moved to the lakecity in 1953 with her husband, Dr. Barney Ringwood, and their four children.

“My dad was a doctor and he joined a practice with Dr. Atwood,” said the Ringwoods’ daughter Sophia Schneider, who lives at Chimney Lake. “They had met during the war. My mother was already a published playwright and taught at the University of Alberta before they moved here.”

Dr. Ringwood had started his surgical internship before moving to Williams Lake and then finished it up in Toronto while he was practicing to become a general surgeon as well as a general practitioner.

“For a long time he was the only surgeon nearby and then they started to hire people, tore down the old hospital and built a new one,” Schneider said.

A few years later, he retired and they lived out at Chimney Lake up until they died.

Cariboo artists Vivien Cowan and her daughters Sonia Cornwall and Dru Hodgson were good friends of the family.

Read more: Cowan, Cornwall legacies celebrated at Station House Gallery

“They taught my mother how to do art and she taught them how to do theatre,” Schneider said.

Ringwood taught English and theatre at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School before it closed and made a dictionary in the Tsilhqot’in, Carriere and Secwepemc languages.

“My mom was very charismatic and could motivate people to do almost anything. Some of the people who were in her productions she had got to know when she taught at St. Joseph’s Mission School.”

Schneider also acted.

She, along with her sister Carol, and brother Patrick were in a production called Our Town in which a former Tribune publisher, Clive Stangoe, acted as well.

“It was at the Elks Hall where I also saw Buffy St. Marie perform many years later.”

Historically there was an amphitheatre in Boitanio Park north of the present stage that was opened officially on June 19, 1971 and named the Gwen Ringwood Theatre.

Eventually the amphitheatre was vandalized and needed to be torn down.

Schneider wishes it had survived because it would have been an asset, even if they did have to put a roof over it because of weather.

Michael Rawluk acted in many plays directed by Ringwood and is still a member of Studio Theatre.

“She was a really good director,” Rawluk said of Ringwood. “I think she’s the reason I kept doing it — she really inspired me. I’ve been in a play every year since 1970. That’s 49 years.”

The first production of Ringwood’s he was in was The Stranger and it was performed in the amphitheatre in Boitanio Park.

“Sometimes there was a puddle there from rain and lots of mosquitoes, but with the seating everyone was quite close to the actors,” he added.

Rehearsals were held in a portable at Columneetza and most performances were at Williams Lake Junior Secondary.

There were also some productions in what is today the Ramada Inn.

“We did shows upstairs where the pub is today before they reconfigured it,” Rawluk added.

Because he worked for BC Rail, Rawluk eventually moved to Prince George when the shop in Williams Lake was downsized.

“I worked as a labourer, then a car man’s helper and car inspector.”

After Schneider left home she remained in the theatre industry for 20 years and then trained as a an art therapist and later also as a Feldenkrais Practitioner.

Today she lives above Chimney Lake in a log house she and her former husband built many years ago on land her parents gifted to her.

In 2015, Studio Theatre’s marked its 60th anniversary by staging two of Ringwood’s one-act plays: Still Stands the House directed by Cathy Hamm starring Sharon Hoffman, Curt Sprickerhoff, Tony Savile and Amanda LeForte and Garage Sale, directed by Sylvia Swift, starring Rawluk and Schneider.

In 2017, Schneider directed a production of The Lodge, a full-length play written by her mother set in the Chilcotin Lodge and inspired in part by the relationship that developed between her fictional lodge keepers and the First Nations people nearby.

This was reflective of the kind of relationship the original lodge keeper Tom Rafferty and his family had with the nearby First Nations communities, Schneider said.

Today the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Stage is used for concerts, such as Performances in the Park during the summer, and special events like Orange Shirt Day and National Indigenous Day, but it is not used for live theatre.

Read more: Lively lineup slated for 2019 Performances in the Park

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The original amphitheatre in Boitanio Park was officially opened in June 1971 and named after Gwen Pharis Ringwood. Tribune archives photo

Gwen Pharis Ringwood throws her arms around then Mayor Herb Gardner when he announces the new amphitheatre (right) is named after her in June 1971. Williams Lake Tribune archive photo

Michael Rawluk has been in a play every year for the last 49 years and credits Gwen Pharis Ringwood for inspiring him. Monica Lamb-Yorski photo

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