School's Out for Summer

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Canada Columnist

High school, for me, was rough. I found solace in musical theatre – though I didn’t know it, yet. I loved to dance and my favourite classes were Creative Writing and Drama. We were given the opportunity to express ourselves on paper and in front of an audience (well, our classmates, anyway). In Drama we did mask work, Shakespeare, improv, we even got the chance to direct. For a class of 75, a school that invested even a little money into the arts was a blessing. But I abused those gifts. I didn’t care. I didn’t pay attention or retain any of the wonderful things my teacher taught me because I didn’t think I would be going into the arts. My graduating year, I knew I was going to be done with dance competitions and I wanted something to fill my time so I auditioned for my first show. I had never auditioned, I had never done a full scale production, and I had no experience in musical theatre beyond dance class. 

I walked in to an audition for Les Miserables singing a shaky rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” with no resume and no clue how to actually conduct myself in an audition. Looking back on it now, I’m embarrassed but proud that I had such a horrible first experience. It made me want to learn more. The next time I auditioned, I got a part in the ensemble and that was it. I was hooked. For all intents and purposes my theatrical career didn’t begin until after I graduated high school.

I deeply regret that I didn’t pay more attention in drama class because I now understand the value of getting as much experience as you can, as early as you can. 

Which brings me to today. I got the opportunity to speak with a few student involved with the SSIP or Student Summer Intensive Program at Storybook Theatre. As a few students described it: “[the] Intensive Program allows students aged 12-20 to taste the real work of actors and actresses outside of school, and gain experience.” – Lloyd Matthieu Caday, 18 

It’s “a Summer program which enables young artists to learn from local performance professionals while putting together a full scale production and developing unbreakable friendships. A program that facilitates hard work, passion and joy in every student.” – Victoria Clark, 17

For the last three years, Storybook has been working with students to create theatre magic. This 11 week program invited 50 young adults to work with professional artists, honing their talents and working to put together a full-scale production. This year it was “Grease”. In 2015, it was RENT, and in their first year, it was Les Miserable (School Edition). Next year, they’ll have the chance to perform in West Side Story.

It all starts with that first audition into the program. 

“…I felt sick to my stomach. My hands and knees couldn’t stop shaking. Even though I knew the words, the choreography and everything, I was still nervous because I wanted to impress my directors and the team and get that dream role I’ve always wanted.” – Lloyd Matthieu Caday

In other words: they get a taste of what it means to work in the theatre right from the start. Once they were accepted into the program, the students endured “terrifying and intimidating” workshops where they learned songs and dances with no casting. They became equals.

From there, rehearsals (with casting) began and they finally understood the meaning of “Intensive Program”. For four days a week, students rehearsed 4-10 hours per day, along with take home projects and character work to keep their brains running long after they left rehearsal. “We got plenty of laughs…but it was all hard work and focus…” These are incredibly dedicated students who are there because they want to learn from the best.

The best included a stellar team of acting coaches, musical directors, and choreographers who passed on their wisdom every rehearsal. 

“The teachers in this program are inspirations to me.” 

  • Eden Hilderband (Choreographer),
  • Amanda Iandolo (Acting Coach),
  • Tara Laberge (Music Director),
  • Leon Leontaridis (Vocal Coach),
  • Carly McKee (Acting Coach),
  • Jacqueline Strilchuk (Acting Coach),
  • JP Thibodeau (Director/Artistic Director),
  • Lauren Thompson (Choreographer) and,
  • Justine Westby (Acting Coach) are included in this incredible ensemble of teachers who bring their students’ passions to the surface. 

“They've shown me what it takes to thrive in this industry and how to approach characterization and acting as a whole.” – Carter Debusschere, 17

Spending the summer together inevitably created strong bonds through the cast and crew. They became a family of teenagers with similar personalities who connected over a lack of sleep and a love of theatre. They spent a lot of their free time together, seeing movies, attending parties, and making lasting memories. 

“We [would] take prom pictures like back in the 1950s during intermission. We’d bring in our own camera, some of us even brought polaroids, and all of us would take pictures on social media.

Our head stage manager decided to rap our performance notes using Hamilton.

[They] decided to pump up our energy by learning the choreo to some of our songs and performing them for us! They added some inside jokes in some of the lyrics and actions…they also had us perform a gender swap version of Greased Lightning and Freddy my Love. It was a wonderful activity to get us energized for the show!”

One particular memory I’d like to share is one I heard from numerous people around the theatre because of how extraordinary these kids are. 

“A cast member received glasses that enabled him to see the colour green, he had been color blind his whole life. The day he received these special glasses we all wore green in celebration of him seeing this colour. It was beautiful to see his reaction. And recently during intermission of one of the shows there was a rainbow outside, something this cast mate had never seen. I was so glad to witness him seeing a rainbow for the first time, you could imagine there were many tears shed from many people from our cast.”

For the last two years, Storybook has been able to invite professional actors from Broadway to provide a workshop for the students and give them a once in a lifetime opportunity. In 2015, Adam Pascal arrived to give the students some advice on playing in RENT, and this past summer saw the arrival of Laura Osnes to show the students how to successfully dance their way through Grease. What a treat!

The beauty of this program is that any student from any walk of life can audition and join the program. Victoria Clark has been with the program since the beginning. She recently graduated from Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School and has had the opportunity to play Marty in Grease, Maureen in RENT, and Fantine in Les Miserables with SSIP.

“My mom was searching for summer camps for teens in Calgary and stumbled upon Les Miserables: School Edition and set up an audition immediately… [I joined] because it was a dream show for me to do. It was an opportunity I could not pass up.”

Carter Debusschere is in Grade 12 at Bishop Grandin High School and is joining the Ensemble for the very first time. A friend of his invited him to join the program and he auditioned because he was looking for more theatre opportunities outside of school. Now, he plans on returning next year because “this has been the most fulfilling experience of my life from the people and the skills I've developed.”

Lloyd Matthieu Caday is also a first time SSIP member, playing Sonny/Ensemble (it’s a double-cast show), having just graduated from Bishop O’Byrne High School. “In a span of 3 months of summer, I learned a lot from my mentors, coaches, director and also from my peers. Not just SSIP, but Storybook theatre itself runs in a very professional manner so it gave me an idea of what real actors do…what I need to work on as an actor.”

This program is helping to create rising stars and dedicated actors. I can’t wait to see what they do next year.

Of course high school-level theatre begins in high schools. 

Carter described his high school program as adequate but lacks musical theatre. And that’s a trending pattern I noticed. “The facilities are nice with talented staff who know how to put on a show and educate young actors.” He takes theatre arts for both acting and directing and he plans to “continue training and working in theatre wherever I can; whether I'm on cast or crew.”

Victoria loved her school’s theatre program. “[My school] had an incredible award winning drama program that reminds me of the SSIP in terms of the direction I received from my drama teacher. I was also part of the incredible award winning technical theatre program, in which we would design and construct the sets, costumes, props for the Drama 30 shows. We didn't have a very strong musical theatre [program] due to it being a new underfunded program at my school. [But] I was part of all the theatre programs. I was a costume designer in the technical theatre program for the majority of my high school career. I played the lead in many of the musical theatre and drama shows. I was in all 4 of the choir and ensembles.” 

Lloyd also enjoyed the benefits of his high school’s theatre program. “[It’s] advanced. I learned pretty decent acting techniques and skills but it never was enough…I was part of Drama class, Art in International Baccalaureate course, and Choir course. I joined choir to improve my singing skills and balance my voice when working with groups of people…I took Drama to hone my acting skills and learn different acting methods and I joined Art IB to engage my creative thinking around me.”

All in all, this is a fairly successful group of students who have embraced what theatre they have available to them. Oh, how I wish I’d been one of them. What we share in common, however, is a love of performing arts.

“[Theatre in high schools] gives students a safe place, a place where they feel accepted and able to fully express themselves and their emotions. It gives them confidence in themselves and can help them feel confident in public situations…[it] makes students work hard and feel proud of what they accomplished. 

Theatre has always been my home since I was 2. I grew up in the theatre. It’s the place where I’m most happy, despite difficult rehearsals. Under the stage lights is where I feel most alive. The sound of applause is something I live for. The community and family that is created in theatre is unparalleled to anything else. Theatre has made me into the person I am. It is a part of me.” 

– Victoria Clark

“High School Theatres are great and you’ll learn a lot of basic or advanced keys into musical theatre, but community theatre is you’ll begin your journey as an actor and experience real life theatre work. This is also where I started getting a bit serious about my acting career.

To me, Theatre is life. It focuses on ourselves and the world around us…We get to embrace a different part of ourselves. As an actor you’ll learn various problem solving and creative ideas that will flow through your mind. Theatre will lead you to think outside of the box and change your perspective as a person on a whole different level.” 

– Lloyd Matthieu Caday

Finding an outlet for your passion is so, incredibly important, and I’m glad that these students are supported in their future pursuits – whether a new, general plan to pursue the arts, or the decision to move across the country and study at a top school. 

I wish I’d started my theatre career earlier, I wish there’d been resources like SSIP when I was growing up. But I didn’t, and there wasn’t – at least none I took advantage of – so I can’t look to the past; only to a future of artists from all walks of life who started their careers at age 2, or 20, or 40. What matters is that they are creating and learning together. 

Finally, I asked the students to give advice to their classmates; what to do if they want to pursue theatre.

“Take any opportunity you can no matter how large or small, you can learn from everything you do in this line of work.” – Carter Debusschere

“Just audition, you won’t regret it. It will change your life for the better. You will never know what you're missing out on until you experience it yourself.  You don't have to be perfect to be part of a theatre show. Learning is the best part of the process.” – Victoria Clark

“The Theatre process/life is hard. It’ll constantly pull you down…but never let it get to you. In fact take those constant pull downs as an advantage…Practice every day. Practice makes perfect; fake it ‘till you make it, and never give up on learning.”

My advice is this: if you’re interested in theatre, go after it. Take in the resources available to you. Ask questions and never stop learning. If you’re in high school and you just think theatre is fun, take it all in. You never know where your life may lead you so be ready for it.

Photo: Interlochen Center for the Arts