School’s Out- Time to Be Victorious!

By Meghan Hubley

Barbara Johnston is frustrated with people labeling our generation ‘apathetic’. I am not surprised by this considering this young woman’s goal is to start the first repertory company in Canada for musical theatre. Along with best friend Suzy Wilde and over 30 talented performers, Johnston aims to “produce good, not-for-profit musical theatre shows.” Their fourth show, BEGGAR’S BAG COMPANY’S SCHOOL’S OUT started rehearsals in April, and is going up at the Bathurst Street Theatre June 19th. The press release states it’s “a bi-annual musical theatre cabaret show with an enormous cast made up of recent graduates of performing arts programs at Ryerson, Sheridan, Humber, U of T, Etobicoke School for the Arts and Wexford school for the arts.” Johnston graduates from Ryerson’s Performance Acting Program on Thursday and Suzy has graduated from Humber Music School, the show is produced by performer Amber Allicock-Hawtin, who works at SK Films. Over-time they hope to have full seasons to put up a new Canadian musical and remount an old American classic each year, and cast from within their huge company base which covers ages 17-30. Matt O’Connor, also graduating from Ryerson on Thursday, says it’s about time Canada has a company like Wilde and Johnston envision. This is O’Connor’s third show with the aptly named ‘Canadian Musical Theatre Repertory Company’ (CMTRC) which began in his and Johnston’s second year of training. Sitting in on their Sunday afternoon rehearsal, I watched Johnston, O’Connor, Jeanine Dinger and Danny MacDonald work on choreography to a beautiful song written by Suzy Wilde herself. O’Connor shocked me when he said he had never sung or danced before hooking up with the Beggar’s Bag, as I took him for co-choreographer or a dance captain role! “It’s just that I’ve been at every rehearsal,” He laughed. “I find the dancing very challenging, this show is the most I have ever done. People come and go (with the company.) The last shows had more trained male dancers, but now I have to step up and pretend I know how to do it.”

It’s the growth in performers like O’Connor who rise to the challenge and push their limits, that Johnston enjoys the most about producing these shows. “Everyone is dancing, everyone is developing skills.” Johnston’s pride of the work she and the cast – all comprised of friends of her and Wilde, or friends of friends, from theatre school or high schools – are doing, is infectious. And watching her work with the dancers is enchanting. The environment is collaborative and easy-going. The first hour or so Johnston, O’Connor, MacDonald and Dinger are working on Wilde’s song, featuring a guitar strummed gorgeously and poetic lyrics only enhanced by the body’s full movement. Each lift, turn, or jump fits the song naturally, broken down like an actor may break down moments in a monologue. The dancers are full of drive and desire to move forward and tackle the material, but the determination is speckled with the sense of joy in the room – everyone wants to be there. Suddenly more dancers enter and the rehearsal hall splits in two. There are four facing where I sit, and six facing the mirrors on the east side of the room where performer Jesse Stanley leads a review of the title track’s choreography. It is a wise way to use their time, which has been the biggest challenge according to Johnston. “Being artists, we are not naturally organized people. We’re developing skills on the fly, learning by things we do wrong. You have to be more flexible when people are donating their time.” (Did I mention everyone involved is entirely on a volunteer basis?) Challenges for Johnston include “Time management, organizing 40 very different schedules, fundraising…” though she is quick to tell me that ticket sales haven’t been a problem in the past and that eventually the aim is to pay the players.
Before their break (which is taken a half-hour late, to no complaints by the dancers) the group works on two huge numbers, including “mostly” original Fosse choreography to ‘All That Jazz’ (which makes me mushy.) For their finale number, the dancers are given the instruction “find a silly way to get onstage” and 10 seconds later there is not a straight face in the room. I only spent 2 and a half hours with these guys and am already struck by their diversity and ability to shake up the style from rock’n’roll to swing to contemporary to vaudevillian without a second thought.
“The theme is moving on, change…And letting go,” Johnston says of SCHOOL’S OUT, tying it in with the fact many of her cast are now graduating. “There are bigger issues like war, and our generation needs to come up and be a voice for something!” She looks out in awe at her cast, now beginning a vocal warm-up. “We’re all people, together. We need to be victorious!”
From my sneak-peak into CMTRC, I think they will be. SCHOOL’S OUT plays June 19th and 20th at 8:00pm at the Bathurst Street Theatre. Tickets: $20 General Admission, $15 Students (I.D required) To reserve or purchase tickets for School’s Out please contact Adrienne Ceaser at (416)432-0057 or online by emailing tickets@beggarsbag.com www.beggarsbag.com

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