Yesterday afternoon, I attended the media call at London’s Grand Theatre for the High School Project production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, Into the Woods. Performances began last night. Opening night is Sept. 23; the show closes Oct. 1.
During the lockdown in the fall of 2000, the Grand improvised by offering students The High School Project Online. It invited students to dive into the theatre-making process by addressing topics such as musical theatre canon, show selection, dramaturgy, design, directing and performance. It then asked student participants to develop and pitch show concepts to the Grand Theatre’s team. All meetings took place via Zoom from Oct. 19 – Nov. 16, 2020.
Similarly, in 2021, as continuing lockdowns kept audiences out of theatres, the Grand ran The Great Grand Road Trip, a kind of love letter to London, Ont. Under the direction of Andrew Tribe, High School Project students spent three weeks exploring some of London’s favourite landmarks and imagining the theatrical possibilities. Students utilized unique London environments to reinvent classic musical theatre numbers in new, exciting ways — and all outdoors.
Into the Woods brings the HSP back in front of live audiences. It’s a special experience to witness the sheer joy and enthusiasm the students bring to their parts. And I am constantly amazed at the quality of their voices. Maybe I’m mis-remembering, but I’m convinced that no high school — or even a collection of high schools — during my teenage years could have produced voices as rich, trained and skilled as those on display here. What’s making the difference? More formal voice training? Better musical instruction in schools? TikTok?
This year’s edition of the HSP involves a cast of 26 student performers, another 15 backstage and three orchestra members. They’re drawn from Grades 9-12, mostly from schools within the Thames Valley District School Board and the London Catholic District School Board.
This year’s High School Project is directed by Saccha Dennis. In an interview, she told me of her own experiences with acting as a pupil in elementary school, then as a member of Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. I tried to capture some of her thoughts in a column in The London Free Press.