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 an upcoming 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. youngpeoplestheatre.org

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

CRA publishes details of London Arts Council’s year

Canada Revenue Agency this week published details of the 2018 charity information return filed by the London Arts Council.

Source: Canada Revenue Agency

The filing, for the period ending Dec. 31, 2018, shows total revenue for the year at $1.49 million, with total expenses at just over $1.48 million. Nearly 70 per cent of the council’s income came from governments, with $998,844 derived from the City of London and another $36,100 coming from the federal government. Other revenue, including funds from sources such as Ontario Trillium Foundation, London Community Foundation and sponsorships, came to $452,732. Receipted donations ($1,332) amounted to less than one tenth of one per cent of the agency’s income.

Source: Canada Revenue Agency

On the expenditure side, the arts council steered nearly $1.16 million to programming (a breakdown of 2018 grants in the largest of its programs, the Community Arts Investment Program, is available here). The council incurred expenses of $287,824 for seven staff salaries and had occupancy costs at its King Street location of $14,824. Another $12,612 was spent on professional and consulting fees. About $5,800 went to training for staff and volunteers, while $1,550 was spent on advertising.

The London Arts Council’s stated purpose is to work with “public, private and community partners to build and sustain Londoners’ awareness of, involvement in, and support for all artistic disciplines across the city.” Chief among its functions is the administration of the Community Arts Investment Program (CAIP), a funding program for local professional artists, artist collectives, and arts organizations that fosters artistic excellence. Additionally it offers assistance to artists, artist collectives and arts organizations with “professional development and training, networking and mentorship opportunities, and community connection and accessibility.” The council also advocates for public policies that support the arts.

A listing of recipients of the council’s CAIP grants for 2019 is available here. It shows the top recipients of funding in the current year as being Aeolian Hall Performing Arts Centre and Fringe London Theatre Festival ($55,000 each), followed by Palace Theatre ($50,000), Sunfest ($50,000), The ARTS Project ($50,000) and Home County Folk League ($40,000).

The London Arts Council is led by executive director Andrea Hibbert. Allison Price, director of programs and engagement at TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, is president of the five-member board of directors.

Titanic The Musical prepares to set sail

In the spring of 2016, as Grand Theatre artistic director Susan Ferley was concluding her tenure, I asked Ottawa-based theatre writer Patrick Langston about the yardsticks by which ADs should be measured. What makes theatre ADs successful and how should we evaluate their contributions to their theatres and communities?

The resulting column listed a number of Langston’s criteria; among them, whether the AD had managed to develop “local theatre makers” (actors, designers, technicians, playwrights), especially young people, who could reinvigorate the local theatre community.

Over the course of 34 productions spanning 21 years, the Grand Theatre’s primary tool for achieving that goal has been the High School Project. Launched by Michael Shamata and nurtured by successive ADs Kelly Handarek, Ferley and Dennis Garnhum, the HSP has grown steadily in popularity and reach.

Like many previous productions, this year’s HSP is a formidable challenge. Titanic: The Musical premiered on Broadway in 1997, winning all five Tony Awards for which it was nominated, and has since toured worldwide. Like its namesake, it is a monumental piece of work that will pose a significant challenge to the 50 students in the cast, supported by another 20 students in production positions. The students come from 12 different schools within the Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board. One student is home-schooled. By far the largest plurality of students (30!) hails from H.B. Beal Secondary School.

Illustrates blog post
Cast members of the 2019 High School Project appear at a media call for Titanic The Musical, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Whitney South

Titanic: The Musical officially opens at the Grand Theatre on Sept. 20 and runs through Sept. 28. It’s directed by Londoner Andrew Tribe, best known for his work as artistic director at Original Kids Theatre. Check back later for a brief review. A link to The London Free Press’s advancer on the show is here.

Previous HSP productions:
1998: West Side Story (May 7-16; Michael Shamata, director)
1999: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (May 14-22; Michael Shamata, director)
2000: Guys and Dolls (April 28-May 6; Kelly Handarek, director)
2001: Hello, Dolly! (April 10-22; Kelly Handarek, director)
2002: Oliver! (April 3-14; Susan Ferley, director)
2003: The Music Man (April 8-20; Susan Ferley, director)
2004: Fiddler on the Roof (April 14-25; Susan Ferley, director)
2005: Oklahoma! (April 5-17; Campbell Smith, director); The Sound of Music (Sept. 27-Oct. 9; Susan Ferley, director)
2006: Twelfth Night (April 4-8; Susan Ferley, director); West Side Story (Sept. 13-30; Susan Ferley, director)
2007: Romeo and Juliet (April 17-21; Susan Ferley, director); Les Misérables, School Edition (Sept. 25-Oct. 6; Susan Ferley, director)
2008: Listen to the Wind (April 15-19; Andrea Boys, director); The Pirates of Penzance (Sept. 23-Oct. 4; Susan Ferley, director)
2009: As You Like It (May 5-9; Lee Wilson, director); Grease (Sept. 22-Oct. 3; Susan Ferley, director)
2010: Macbeth (April 6-10; Heather Davies, director); Anything Goes (Sept. 21-Oct. 2; Heather Davies, director)
2011: The Odyssey (April 5-9; Jeremy Smith, director); Footloose (Sept. 20-Oct. 1; Heather Davies, director)
2012: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (April 24-28; Jeremy Smith, director); My Fair Lady (Sept. 17-28; Susan Ferley, director)
2013: The Taming of the Shrew (April 23-27; Jack Grinhaus, director); Legally Blonde (Sept. 17-28; Susan Ferley, director)
2014: The Importance of Being Earnest (April 22-26; Jamie Dunsdon, director); The Addams Family: A New Musical (Sept. 16-27; Susan Ferley, director)
2015: Much Ado About Nothing (April 21-25; Krista Jackson, director); Hello, Dolly! (Sept. 22-Oct. 3; Susan Ferley, director)
2016: Julius Caesar (April 12-16; Megan Watson, director); Les Misérables, School Edition (Sept. 20-Oct. 1; Susan Ferley, director)
2017: Shakespeare: The Mixtape (April 6-8; Megan Watson, director); Evita (Sept. 19-30; Jan Alexandra Smith, director)
2018: Prom Queen: The Musical (Sept. 18-29; Dennis Garnhum, director)

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