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 firstname.lastname@example.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!