Durham theatre in the spotlight

Siobhan Kelly and Shane Kelly in the final week of The Addams Family at OLT. Photo credit: Kathryn Fraser

Shane Kelly creeps onto the stage, holding a ukulele and staring wide-eyed at an intent audience. He begins to strum and sing a song about love. The orchestra joins and the music swells. The curtains open.

There stands Siobhan Kelly, doing all she can to prevent herself from breaking character and cracking a smile. She is proud of her father and “Uncle Fester” is proud of her too.

A production filled with darkness, kookiness and comedy, The Addams Family was the most recent musical to hit the Oshawa Little Theatre (OLT) stage in late November to early December. The show was selected last year alongside three others to create the 2018/2019 theatrical season.

The Addams Family follows the life of Wednesday Addams after she has grown up and fallen in love with a ‘normal’ boy. Antics ensue and true colours are revealed when her ghoulish family meets her fiancee for the first time.

Shane Kelly, the set designer and projection designer, played the notable role of ‘Uncle Fester’ and used to be on the OLT Board of Directors. Both of his daughters were also involved in the show – Siobhan acted on stage as an ‘Ancestor’ and Aibhilin worked behind the scenes. Kelly said he was excited The Addams Family was selected.

“I like how it has lots of lead characters,” he said. “Most shows usually have a handful of leads and a bunch of supporting cast. Where this one, it feels that every character has a lot. They have their own song, they have their own scene.”

The selection of community or professional theatre shows, such as The Addams Family, are important.

Not only do theatres provide entertainment in the form or musicals or plays, they can shape a community.

The right show will generate the right profit and will appeal to the membership demographic.

According to the OLT Production Overview of the 2017/2018 season, musicals earned more profit compared to the plays. $193,256.67 were collected from the two musicals (Anne of Green Gables and Beauty and the Beast) while $138,122.78 were collected from the two plays (Noises Off and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Combined, the total reached $331,379.45.

The show Beauty and the Beast, a Disney production, was the most profitable show in OLT history by receiving $105,480.72. Overall, the shows varied in style but each earned money from respective audiences.

Show selection matters.

But how is a unique show, like The Addams Family, selected? In broader terms, how do community theatres and professional theatres pick their shows?

Each theatre has a different process and each theatre strives to choose shows they know will draw in audiences.

Former OLT vice-president Liz Pask said the theatre has four shows in a season and executive prouder Michael Schneider brings show ideas to board meetings. Shows are discussed and a decision by the entire board is made to select shows which will benefit the theatre.

Specifically, OLT is adamant about selecting a lighter musical during the holidays.

“For the musicals, they always want something a little bit more family-oriented something a little bit more fun in the November-December time frame because that’s leading up to Christmas. They don’t want anything dark or sad,” she said.

Pask said OLT looks for shows which haven’t been put on in the last ten years. As a result of being non-repetitive, some popular shows are unavailable because of licensing.

“[There is] a specific guideline around who qualifies to get [rights] or not,” Pask said. “Sometimes you have to be a professional theatre group, paying your actors, and of course, we don’t. That would be our biggest problem, trying to get the rights to shows.”

At Whitby Courthouse Theatre (WCT), shows are selected through another process: a play reading committee.

WCT Youth Program board director, Nicole Vezeau, said the play reading committee is created by the theatre’s artistic director. The members meet once a month and discuss plays and musicals they’ve read separately, together. They decide which shows are their favourite and then the artistic director brings the selections to the board.

“We try to find musicals that don’t need a cast of 40 because that’s a lot of people on not that big of a stage,” Vezeau said. “As well as trying to keep a balance of male versus female casting. There’s always 70 women who will audition for one role and there will be 12 guys who come out for 12 roles.”

The play reading committee used to be smaller but Vezeau said it has grown in size.

“This year we’ve expanded it to have more people and more diverse age ranges to get younger voices on there,” she said. “Anybody in the world can suggest a play for the play reading committee to read. It really depends on the artistic director’s vision.”

Theatres over the years have been moving away from performing narrow-minded and old-fashioned pieces. As a result, the focus in modern society highlights shows which inspire acceptance and equality, a theme which theatre expresses well.

Carey Nicholson, artistic director for Port Perry’s professional company Theatre on the Ridge, said factors such as context, quality, profitability, talent and Canadian content influence the decision of a show.

“[We want plays that are] well written but artistically satisfying and challenging for both the artistic team and audiences,” she said.

Alongside choosing four Canadian shows for the next season, Nicholson tries to find shows that can leave a lasting impact on audiences.

“I’m looking for plays that present and explore issues and ideas without being exploitive,” Nicholson said. “I’m really wresting with a lot of plays that deal with abuse or women’s issues or mental illness. You want that topical issue but you don’t want to be cashing in.”

Nicholson said she tries to pick at least one show that examines these social issues. She wants the audience to learn something from the performance, maybe even learn something about themselves.

“Does a piece move the audience itself forward in any way?” Nicholson asked. “When people leave, have they shifted from where they might’ve been, either on a personal level or on a [global] level? Have we moved them on their own spectrum? Have we made a change, so that they’re not leaving as the exact same people they came in as? If [the play] causes some kind of change in their own behaviour or thought process, that is awesome. Not every play can do that. I think that’s the power of theatre.”

Community theatres are already following suit by selecting shows that invoke change and influence larger discussion.

For example, Doubt, A Parable is a play which addresses sexual misconduct and analyzes abuse and distrust within the Catholic church and it will soon play at the Scarborough Village Theatre. Legally Blonde, a feminist musical that breaks stereotypes about gender and sexuality was performed at OLT in 2017. Next to Normal is a musical about mental illness and how it affects families and changes lives. It was performed recently at WCT.

In contrast to the heavy social themes, Nicholson said she includes ‘family-friendly’ work because theatre should ‘be fun.’

In the end, The Addams Family was truly a family affair. Siobhan Kelly has been in other shows with her father and she enjoys performing with him.

Father and daughter team up on stage at OLT. Photo credit: Kathryn Fraser

“I’m proud of him and he’s doing so well,” she said. “This is the first show where he’s really gotten the spotlight and I’m his background dancer. It’s cool to see the perspectives of working together.”

Shane Kelly agrees.

“I don’t think a lot of fathers and daughters have this opportunity to be on stage every night together,” he said. “A lot of dads don’t know what their teenage daughters are interested in or doing. We have this certain common bond and I really love it a lot.”

Theatre connects family and theatre creates family. When selecting the right shows, you’re unifying people with shared ideals who can help transform the minds of audiences.