The High School Project is back

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.

I’ve written on this blog about the High School Project before — a list of productions is available here. The 2019 production of Titanic The Musical was the last before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

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.

Camilla Rodriguez as Rapunzel (upper left), from Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School, and Stella Yanga as Witch (far right), from H.B. Beal Secondary School, perform “Our Little World” from Act 1 of Into the Woods.

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.

The cast of Into the Woods concludes Act I with the finale, Ever After, at the Grand Theatre, September 2022.

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.

Saccha Dennis as Dorothy with Molly Atkinson as Glinda in the Young People’s Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz (2007-08). Set and costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco; lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Ted Simonett.

Engines of Joy

As a member of the Conrad Grebel University College alumni committee, I get a chance at least twice a year to return to the place where I spent most of my undergraduate years — and where my spouse and I lived, as dons, during our first year of marriage.

Yesterday’s visit offered a first chance to see one of Grebel’s latest art installations in person. We Are All Engines of Joy is a moving-wire sculpture that beckons the passerby to grasp the handle on its bottommost wheel and take it for a spin.

We Are All Engines of Joy, James Paterson, 2022

The work’s creator, James Paterson, is a Grebel alumnus who graduated with his BFA at the University of Waterloo in 1981. The label adjacent to the sculpture says it “unifies the University of Waterloo’s six different faculties, with musical symbols, Grebel’s iconic peaked roof, ploughshares, and agrarian windmills. The artist’s goal is to show sheer revelry, joy, and celebration of who we are at our best and the good things in life we share together.”

Here is Paterson at the sculpture’s unveiling:

While a student in Waterloo’s fine arts program, Paterson studied with the late Nancy-Lou Patterson, who designed the stunning stained glass windows of the Grebel chapel, dedicated in 1964. Even though I sat in that chapel dozens of times as a student, I return to those windows nearly every time I visit the Grebel campus.

The windows on the north side of the Conrad Grebel University College chapel, designed by Nancy-Lou Patterson in the early 1960s

A golden class reunion

Earlier this month, the emails began arriving in rapid-fire sequence: my old high school classmates from Leamington (Ontario) District Secondary School were gearing up for a 50-year reunion, to be held the weekend of Oct. 14-16. The subject of discussion within the latest flurry of missives: the pop music of our high-school years.

This much is indisputable: If you were a teenager in Essex County during the late 1960s, there was only one radio station that mattered: CKLW, the Big 8. And when I say it mattered, I mean that it mattered to more than just its teen listeners. CKLW, based in Windsor, was a giant influence in driving the pop music trends of the era. At 50,000 watts, it could be heard from Chicago to the outskirts of New York. And thanks to the “golden ear” of the late Leamington-born music director Rosalie Trombley, the Windsor station became a trendsetter, not only among Canadian listeners but deep into the United States. Trombley, in fact, had a huge role in popularising the Detroit sound that became known as Motown.

CKLW was a mainstay for me too, though by Grade 13 I’d set aside my transistor radio in favour of a record collection of my own — an eclectic mix of artists: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert — even the comedian Allan Sherman. The music of Woodstock, held in upstate New York just two years earlier, was still reverberating through pop culture too.

I have five distinct “musical” memories of that Grade 13 year.

  • The way German teacher Ernie Purr wove German folk songs into his curriculum. If we finished our lesson before the end of his period, he’d often lead us in song. Du, Du, Liegst Mir im Herzen, Lili Marlene, Der frölicher Wanderer, etc. All part of German culture. which Purr celebrated with gusto. If he’d had a beer stein handy, he would have raised it with a hearty “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!”
  • An intense conversation, between English II and biology classes, with Karen Otton (now Karen Brown) about Joni Mitchell. Karen had recently purchased Joni Mitchell’s album Blue (vinyl, of course) and she raved about it. We speculated that Mitchell was likely bound for a next-level popularity and fame that transcended the niche Canadian folk scene.
  • At some point during the school year — can’t remember when — the Festival Singers of Canada dropped in for a concert in the school’s gymnasium, under the direction of it founder, Elmer Iseler. The 36-voice choir had recently returned from a triumphant European tour and would return to the continent again later that year. As one who’d been part of several choral groups, including the senior choir at the Mennonite high school I’d attended earlier, I was blown away by the Festival Singers’ range, power and precision.
  • As the end of the school year neared, a group of students from across all five grades prepared for a series of performances of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, directed by English teacher Ronald Dumouchelle. The show had premiered off-Broadway only five years earlier; critical acclaim there had already spun off a show in London’s West End. I was especially interested because Jacquelyn Brown, one of my classmates, was the piano accompanist. She and I would begin dating in summer of 1972, days after the school year ended.
  • Finally, with only weeks remaining in the school year, biology teacher Hugh Cobbledick offered up an unexpected gift and honour. He bequeathed, to a handful of us, a half-dozen or so copies of a barbershop music songbook. He’d had them for many years and, I suppose, figured it was time to pass them along. Published by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), the spiral-bound volumes contained dozens of tunes. The songbooks were put to good use as those of us who were beneficiaries fanned out to various post-secondary schools. Cobbledick led the LDSS glee club and sang in the choir of the United Church of Canada congregation in Leamington for many years. Earlier in his career, he led the choir at First Baptist Church.

Many memories of that Grade 13 year are contained in the student yearbook, the Phoebus. I’ve referred to my copy countless times and re-read the inscriptions there from 13 of my friends. Interesting fact: the Phoebus began publication in 1933; before that, the student publication was called The Moon. The Phoebus’s first editor was Albert Law, who became a prominent merchant of men’s clothing in town. His spouse, Helen (Clarke) Law, founded the Leamington Choral Society.

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