Q&A with … Paul Mulloy (Centre for Performing and Visual Arts at Central Memorial High)

Paul Mulloy

This is one of a series of more-or-less-monthly interviews with some of the movers and shakers in the Calgary Musical Theatre scene.  Paul Mulloy is a Drama Teacher/Learning Leader at the Centre for Performing and Visual Arts (CPVA) at Central Memorial High School and the director of their upcoming production of Beauty and the Beast. I caught him for a few minutes during his lunch hour on Tuesday for a quick conversation.

Paul, how did you come to teach at the CPVA?

I studied vocal performance, theatre and education at university and then went on to work as a stage actor, mostly in musical theatre. I was in the Toronto and international touring productions of several shows, including Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.  I even got to perform on Broadway with the 1989 revival of Shanandoah. I also worked with a number of theatre companies in Canada, including Theatre Calgary, The Canadian Opera Company and the Shaw Festival.

When my three children were small they travelled with me, but once they were in school, I realized that the personal rewards of being on stage started to diminish relative to the price of being on the road all the time. I went back to school in 2000 and got an education degree so I could get a job where I could stay in one place, while still pursuing my love of theatre. I landed a position at the Arts-Centred Learning Programme at Milton Williams School, which moved to Willow Park School, and then came to Central Memorial four years ago. I really enjoy teaching, and particularly love putting on shows with the students. I consider myself honoured to have the opportunity to work here.

What is the CPVA programme and why is it unique?

The CPVA is housed at Central Memorial High School and it focusses on the arts discipline. Grade 10-12 students can choose to specialize in dance, theatre arts, visual arts or music (band, choral or strings). We have the only strings programme in the Calgary public school system. Students get one and a half hours a day in their chosen area as part of their high school curriculum and a guaranteed opportunity to be involved in a major production every year. There are about 400 students in the programme (~150 in drama) and they really like being in a school surrounded by peers who share their interest in the arts.

How do students get into the programme? Is it really competitive?

We do have more applicants than we have spots, but our selection criteria are quite broad and we try to make the process as painless as possible. Students send in a written application by January of their Grade 9 year and if their application is accepted, they have to prepare a short audition piece (a one minute monologue for theatre candidates, or a presentation of their portfolio for visual arts candidates, for example) and do a short interview. We realize that for most people, this is their first audition, and they’ll probably be pretty nervous, so we don’t expect it to be perfect. We’re looking for passion and preparedness, the ability to take direction and the willingness to take risks, as much as raw talent or experience. You can find more details on our website.

What kind of shows do you do and how do you pick them?

We typically do four plays a year, two of which are a musicals. We’ve got a lot of people, so we’re looking for a show with a big chorus that has enough to do to keep the students engaged. For example, we recently did Little Women, which has several great lead roles, especially for girls, but it was kind of boring for everyone else. [I saw this at Storybook Theatre earlier this year, and definitely agree. lmc]. We also typically double-cast the lead roles (i.e. two people are cast in the role and play it on alternate performances), which means we have to find not one, but two people who are capable of performing them. This can sometimes limit the plays we’re capable of doing in a given year.

The show also has to have a story we’re interested in exploring and that will challenge us, because, let’s face it, we have to put several months of time and energy into it, so we want to really enjoy and learn from the experience.  We also have to believe in what the show is trying to say. For example, we wouldn’t do a show like Grease, as much fun as it is, because we think it sends the wrong message to young girls about what you need to do to get friends/a boy. [Funny, I said the same thing in my post on a few of my favourite musicalslmc]. A few shows we’ve done in recent years include Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables and Urinetown, to give you an idea. Beauty and the Beast is a bit of change for us, but it’s fun to work with the students on something with which they’re so familiar, having all grown up with the 1991 Disney movie. One advantage we have over regular theatre companies is that we don’t have to worry as much about selling tickets, so we have the freedom to choose shows just because we want to do them, rather than because they’ll sell well. [That would explain recent productions of Scaramouche and Oresteia, among others. lmc].

Do you have anything else to add?

Our students have worked really hard to put on an entertaining show and we hope people will come out to see what a great job they can do. Also, we couldn’t put on a musical like Beauty and the Beast without the strong support and talent of the entire school – not just the students, but the other staff who are involved in areas like music, choreography, costumes, set-building and stage management. That’s the great thing about the Centre for Performing and Visual Arts. We’ve got all the talent we need to put on a great musical theatre production under one roof.

Beauty and the Beast is playing for 5 performances only at Central Memorial High School from May 22 – May 27 (excluding Thursday and Friday). Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students. Family packs are available for some performances. Click here for tickets.

Centre for Performing and Visual Arts Past Shows

I’ll be going to Beauty and the Beast next week on Opening Night (Tuesday, May 22).  If you want to come with me, join my Calgary Musicals MeetUp Group and meet me there. Watch for my review later in the week.

Lynn

Let’s Declare May “Calgary Musical Theatre Month”!

I had every intention of  posting my April interview or another 2012-2013 season launch tonight, but with one thing and another, I have decided to get some sleep instead (one of many things to migrate lower on the priority list since taking on this Calgary Musicals blog and the associated Calgary Musicals Meetup group).

Nevertheless, I can’t let May Day pass by without noting how many musicals are playing in and around Calgary this month  – 13 by my count,  and I’m probably still missing some high school and other amateur productions! Anyone who thinks this isn’t a musical theatre town, might want to think again. Check out the 2012 Schedule page – if you can’t find something worth seeing, then you’re just not trying.

I will be taking in 8 (!) shows myself, starting with Jubilations’ Jump for Glee! and Cappuccino Musical Theatre’s Frankenstein this week and ending with Storybook Theatre’s Avenue Q and Front Row Centre’s Gypsy (with Theatre Calgary’s Cats* (couldn’t make it early in the run, which is why you haven’t seen my review yet), Vertigo Theatre’s Sweeney Todd, Youth Singers of Calgary’s Museo, and Central Memorial High School’s Beauty and the Beast in between). I already saw Stage West’s Summer In The CityStorybook’s Little Women and Dewdney Players’ Rodeo and Julie-Ed, which are still playing, and plan to see Oh Canada, Eh? in Canmore and Anne of Green Gables in Rosebud once this wave is over, since they play all summer.

This will certainly be a record for me, and maybe for just about anyone except for some of our more enthusiastic volunteer ushers/ticket-takers (one of whom I will be interviewing in a future article). I’m not sick of musicals yet, but I am kind of looking forward to June (resisting the urge to break into the score from Carousel)… I realize this time of year works well for rehearsal schedules, but if only some of these theatre companies could move their musicals to the dry months of February and March, they’d have way less competition and it would help us musical theatre aficionados get through the dark days of Winter, not to mention the merry, merry musically packed month of May.

So what musical(s) are you going to see in May and why?

Lynn

Review: Little Women is (are?) Simply Astonishing

On Friday night I attended the opening night gala of Storybook Theatre’s Little Women with my sister Susan and her husband, Will (two of the most active members of my Calgary Musicals MeetUp Group).  In keeping with Storybook’s mandate as explained to me by producer George Smith, they have chosen another musical based on a book, this time the well-known and beloved 1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott.  I missed the 2005 show by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein (book by Allan Knee) when it played on Broadway, so I was glad to get chance to see it here in Calgary.

I remember having the book in the house growing up and I think I probably read it, but only vaguely remembered the intertwining stories of the March daughters (“brassy, tomboy-like aspiring writer Jo, romantic Meg, pretentious Amy and kind-hearted Beth”).   The story is set in Concord, Massachusetts during the U.S. Civil War (or as some southerners prefer to call it, even today, “The War of Northern Aggression”), while Mr. March is away serving with the Union Army and the girls are left in the care of their beloved Marme.  Howland also grew up in Concord, so perhaps that was why he was inspired to do this show.

As Joe Slabe (Forte Musical Theatre Artistic Director) says, one of the advantages of adapting classic books into plays or musicals is that you’ve got a strong base to work from and typically the stories stand the test of time and they’ve got strong characters. Little Women is no exception. The creators have done a good job of making the transition “from the page to the stage”, as they say (actually I don’t know if “they” say it, but I’m saying it now), although Susan tells me that they have taken some liberties with the original, and included elements from some of the sequels (Little Men and Jo’s Boys). Susan is a novelist herself (Deadly Fall) and we wondered if perhaps this book inspired her to follow in Jo’s footsteps – our family did have four daughters after all (and a son, who could be equated with Laurie, the new boy next door, who is embraced by the family in the song “Five Forever”).  The music, while not familiar, is also solid, occasionally reminiscent of other contemporary musicals like Wicked (Stephen Schwartz), or Beauty and the Beast (Allan Menken), while still keeping the feel of the era.  I’m writing a period musical myself at the moment (No Ordinary Tulip, set during the tulip mania crisis in 1637 Holland), so there may be some good role-modelling for me here.  

Storybook has another winner on their hands with this show – it’s well-directed by Linda Delaney (with musical direction by Patrice Barnes) and the acting and singing are strong across the board.  And it’s funnier than you might expect, especially when the family is performing one of Jo’s “blood and guts” melodramas.  The star of the show is Jillian Hannah in the role of the central character, proto-feminist Jo March.  She’s perfectly cast for the role, and her rendition of “Astonishing” at the end of Act I was so powerful it actually brought tears to my eyes.  She recently performed at the Kiwanis Festival with fellow cast members Taylor Steedman (Beth/Roderigo 2) and Naomi Dirksen (Clarissa), and won the Friends of the Festival scholarship.  I also particularly enjoyed Cassie Doane (previously seen as the mother in Storybook’s Pinkalicious)’s hilarious characterization of the sourpuss Aunt March.   

A show like this is a costume designer’s dream, and Rhonda Perry (who won last year’s CAT costume design award for Front Row Centre’s Brigadoon, and also did their costumes for The Rocky Horror Show and Chess in 2010-11) did an amazingly professional job here with no less than 92 period costumes, which were designed and created just for this production – when I spoke to Rhonda after the show she said it was definitely a labour of love, petitcoats, bloomers and all. Considering that the March family was poor, there were probably more costume changes than absolutely necessary, but it was great eye candy, and in addition to the women’s dresses being beautiful, they suited each character to a T.  And the men (yes, there are men in this show, in fact one-third of the leads and half the ensemble are men), don’t get short-changed either.  I hope someone else gets to use these costumes another time, as they’re too good to just gather dust in the closet.

I fear that Little Women’s simplicity and the perception that it’s a “chick” show or somehow old-fashioned will scare people away, which will be a shame, because it’s the kind of show that crosses ages and genders in terms of its appeal, even though it’s not about the spectacle. My brother-in-law liked it, mostly because of the strength of the story. Anyone who likes to read would probably enjoy it, and I expect people seeing the show will be inspired to read or re-read the book because of it. I know I will.

Troy Goldthorp (Laurie/Roderigo) told me after the show that many of the cast who have worked together on Storybook shows for years are graduating (from high school and/or college), and dispersing at the end of this show, so the final performance is bound to be emotional. I am always blown away when I see so much talent in people so young and I hope many of these fine performers will go on to careers in music and theatre, or at least continue to do it in their spare time so we’ll continue to see them on Calgary and other stages for years to come.

Little Women runs until May 5 at the Pumphouse Theatre. Shows run Wednesday to Friday at 7:30PM and there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 12:00PM and 3:30PM. Tickets are $18 and $22. Running time is 2 hours plus a 20 minute intermission and it’s rated G (suitable for all ages – although young children might find it long).

 For more information and tickets go to: Storybook Theatre

Q&A with … George Smith (Storybook Theatre)

George Smith LOL'ing

This is the third in a series of monthly interviews (this one in writing with only minor edits from me, to give credit where credit is due) with some of the movers and shakers in the Calgary Musical Theatre scene.  George Smith is Executive and Artistic Director of Storybook Theatre.

Storybook Theatre is well known to Calgary community theatre audiences. What can you tell us about the company and your involvement?  What makes Storybook unique?

I’ll answer those in reverse order.  Storybook is unique because its primary mandate is to create opportunities for young people, and we try to do that in a way that allows the whole family to participate and enjoy the process together.  We’ve got four ways families can participate.  The easiest way to start is to become a supporter and buy a ticket to a show to see what it’s all about.  Then there is volunteering behind the scenes in areas like ushering, crew, supervision, fundraising and board duties.  If you’ve got the itch, the third way is to explore your creative side by acting or taking a production role and help make a show!  Then lastly, if you are not quite ready to dive into a whole show, and just want to put your toes in the water, we’ve got a great year-round theatre camp opportunity, where kids can learn all the basics of acting, singing and dancing, while producing their own mini-shows which they get to perform on our main stage for family and friends. Usually families participate in multiple areas and in doing so, find a common interest in community theatre that they can share together, and enjoy for years to come.

As for my involvement, well, you might have guessed that I started as a volunteer. I began in 1997, and then I joined the board as President in 2009 because the company had fallen on hard times in the recession, and I didn’t want to see it disappear.  We had to drastically cut staff and so I also volunteered as the interim General Manager during that period, so my days were pretty full.  Thankfully, I got a lot of help from other Storybook Alumni, family and friends in the community, and together we got it turned around and back in the black, as they say.  Then in 2011, I decided to step down from the board and apply for the position of Executive and Artistic Director, because that was where I felt I could make the most impact moving forward.  Oh, and after volunteering for two years I needed a paying job… LOL

You’ve got a few different series, targeted at different audiences. What are they?

The original product is the Adventure Series which is family-safe theatre targeted at all ages.  This is where we put our big shows such as Annie, or more recently, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  These full-length, large cast productions are the foundation of our programming as they appeal to a wide audience and provide the most opportunity for participation due to the large cast and crew sizes.  Then we decided to create our Cookie Cabarets, which are specifically designed and aimed at younger children between 3 and 7 years old.  Often that age group can’t sit through a whole Adventure show, so the Cookie Cabarets are always about an hour long, and the content is very much designed to complement what’s in their world at that age.   Our current show, Pinkalicious, is in that group. The last series is our Novel productions, which are generally aimed at a more mature audience.  We like to think of these as a chance for Mom and Dad to leave the kids at home and come out for a Date Night!

Most of your shows this season are musicals. Is that typical? What do you look for in a musical for children?

Yes, that’s typical.  Musicals have a much wider appeal and we find they are generally more accessible to our audience, which is why you don’t see too many Disney cartoons without accompanying music, right?  We’re very big on shows that are available in book form because there is a tremendous crossover benefit in reading the book and then seeing the show.  Not only does it encourage reading, but it also contributes to the overall enjoyment of the live performance.  We also love classics because it’s just great fun as a parent to be able to share those cherished stories with your children.  For example, we’ve got Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, which has been expertly adapted into a beautiful musical, coming up April 20th.  Many Moms have read this to their daughters (because their Moms read it to them), so to be able to share the live experience of it together is really special.  Then you have the ones who haven’t read it, and will come to the show, and it becomes the driver to go get the book and start the family reading together.

You’ve reintroduced the Novel series this year with your upcoming production of the Broadway hit Avenue Q. Why would a company like yours do a show that is decidedly not family-friendly (and might even make some adults squeamish)?

Ha-ha… yes, we have PG disclaimers all over that one.  The thing that people need to remember is that in order to create really great, inspired programming for our families, we need to have a lot of really talented artists who want to work with us to help guide the production of that programming. To be perfectly honest, sometimes they get tired of doing Disney over and over and want a bit of a break.  I think Moms and Dads can relate to this after watching Shrek for the 900th time right?  So we have the Novels in place to give our artists the opportunity to enjoy producing passion projects that make them happy, and we get a great response from the Moms and Dads that come out and laugh themselves silly, during a fun night out.

Avenue Q is particularly adult but also really, really funny.  This is the show that beat Wicked! for the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 2004, and it’s a worldwide hit.  It’s just never played in Calgary before and it’s a bit of a coup for us to get it first. Those in the know understand what a great show it is, but it is definitely not for the more conservative audience members out there.  So, to the people who ask, “why is Storybook doing it?”, I generally ask “why not?”  It’s a great show, our volunteers really want to make it, it provides much-needed funding, and if it’s not for you, don’t buy a ticket.

You have a “bums in seats” track record that must be the envy of many theatre companies, selling out many of your shows before or shortly after they open. What’s your secret?

LOL… yes we have been very well attended of late, and while we are enjoying that, we also remember the periods when this was not always the case.  The secret is the names of all the highly talented and energetic volunteers willing to give their time and abilities to these projects.  They do it on relatively small budgets, and it’s not easy.  In fact when you think about how many multi-million dollar movies that come out and are just terrible, and then you see the kind of entertainment that our volunteers are delivering with a few thousand dollars, I think that they should all get medals!

We’re also very fortunate to have a huge chunk of our audience who support us just because they believe in what we do.  They know that we funnel the majority of our ticket revenue right back into future programming, and bigger houses mean bigger production budgets, and even more spectacular shows.  So the more they give to us, the more we can give back to them, and that’s actually a pretty special deal.

What are your hopes and dreams for Storybook Theatre for the next 5-10 years?

Well, we’re moving to a new home – the first permanent one we’ve ever had – and the target date on that is Summer 2012. From there, we’re working with our partners to make it the most successful community arts centre in Canada.  So we’ve got some fun dreams to work on, but the main plan is to try to keep growing our support base to stay sustainable.  If you don’t have a LOT of volunteers working together, then the few that you do have tend to get burnt out and that’s the biggest threat we, and many organizations like ours, face.  We are on the hunt for more volunteers at all levels, so if your readers are looking for something new to try, may I humbly suggest sending me an email ? (chuckle) [George's email is ed@storybooktheatre.org]

What else can you tell us about Storybook Theatre that we may not know?

That we need and gratefully accept private donations… LOL.  Well, you probably know that, but the part you may not know is that if you give Storybook Theatre $20 or more, the Alberta Government’s Spirit program will MATCH your donation AND you get to claim it on your tax return.  So for example if you give $200, you’ll get about half that back on your tax refund, so it will cost you about $100, but Storybook will end up with $400.  It’s a great way to make your gift go a long way!

Storybook Theatre’s current show, Pinkalicious, runs until Saturday April 14th. Shows are 7:30PM on Thursdays and Fridays, and 12PM and 3:30PM on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $14.

Storybook Theatre’s Past Shows