Cash-strapped Sears Canada has pulled funding for an annual theatre festival that involves thousands of high school students in Ontario, B.C. and the Atlantic provinces. 

Known as the Sears Drama Festival, the program's alumni include famous actors Keanu Reeves, Rachel McAdams and R.H. Thomson. 

News about the funding loss has sparked an outpouring of emotion on social media from many former students who worry about the festival's future. 

Kevin Hanchard Orphan Black

Kevin Hanchard, left, was Det. Art Bell on the sci-fi series Orphan Black. (Space)

"My heart is broken," tweeted Toronto actor Kevin Hanchard, who starred in the TV series Orphan Black.

He told CBC News that he participated in the festival when he was a student in the early 1990s. He excelled, winning an outstanding performance award which included a $3,000 university scholarship to study theatre.

Hanchard says the experience inspired him to pursue an acting career.

"There was no doubt once the Sears Festival said, 'You've got something special and go for it,'" he says.

"It's a wonderful experience. For that to be potentially lost, for me, is a tragedy."

The Sears Drama Festival began in 1946 in Ontario. It spawned a sister program in B.C. in 2005 and in the Atlantic provinces in 2011.

Every year, more than 12,000 high school students perform plays at regional festivals, learn about the performing arts and compete for awards including post-secondary scholarships.

Sears Canada and its predecessor, Simpsons-Sears, sponsored the festival for decades. In December, Sears Canada sent a memo to participants stating, "I welcome you to another exciting year!"

Sears Drama Festival funding

As part of the Sears Drama Festival, high school students perform plays and compete for awards. (Sears Drama Festival)

But six months later, the retailer said it had no choice but to pull the plug on its funding after it filed for protection from its creditors and embarked on a restructuring process.

"Funding sponsorships is, unfortunately, not something that it can consider while operating under [creditor] protection," Sears Canada spokesperson Peter Block said in an email to CBC News.

"The festival is considered an after-school program and so does not have a direct impact on drama education being able to continue in schools."

Nevertheless, the festival has had a dramatic impact on many students who have been inspired to choose a career in the performing arts.

'I could cry'

"We're pretty devastated, basically, for the kids and the future," says Wayne Fairhead, executive director of the Sears Drama Festival. He wouldn't reveal how much money Sears contributed, but said it covered close to 100 per cent of the Ontario program's budget.

An organizer with the B.C. program told CBC News that Sears contributed $23,000 each year, about one-third of its budget.

All three programs, in Ontario, B.C. and the Atlantic provinces, need to replace Sears' funding to continue. Fairhead is determined the festival will go on and is shopping for a new sponsor.

"It's so important for young people, and if you read all the testimonials, I've just been inundated about how it's affected their lives," says Fairhead.

Many of those testimonials can be found on the Ontario festival's Facebook page.

"I could cry. This festival is a huge reason I became a professional artist," wrote Michael Kras, artistic director with Broken Soil Theatre in Hamilton.

"If it was not for the Sears Ontario Drama Festival I wouldn't be where I am today," wrote Toronto stagehand Justin Antheunis.

The show must go on

Antheunis told CBC News he had planned to become a math teacher until he worked backstage during performances and realized he'd found his true calling.

"It was really this festival that opened my eyes up to what the theatre world actually is and that it's actually a viable career."

Since then, his career has included seven years as head electrician for the Toronto Centre for the Arts, working on productions such as Jersey Boys and My Fair Lady. He's now a local president for the union representing stage employees, IATSE.

"The arts play a crucial role in the development of everybody," he says. "People always think of extracurricular as sports and not necessarily as arts. And I think it's going to be a huge loss if there isn't a way that this festival can continue on."

Actor Hanchard agrees. "I just hope that there's someone that understands the importance of this festival and is willing to step in" and become the new sponsor, he says.