Carousel Players opened its 2010 theatre season with a pair of public performances on January 31 before hitting the road for over 50 school engagements, playing to 10,000 kids (cross-reference below). For many of those, playwright Daniel S. Craig’s Danny, King of the Basement will be their first experience with live professional theatre. But for nearly everyone (including teachers, parents and staff), the themes and issues behind the humour, hijinks and family oriented situations will resonate in a variety of ways (not a few of those coming uncomfortably close to their own circumstances) that will, hopefully, begin conversations, admissions and interventions that will last far longer than the runtime of the shows.
While the Niagara region has been blessed with an outstanding array and number of theatre companies whose primary audiences are adults, without an organization that is the champion of existing work (such as Danny, which was first produced by Roseneath Theatre Company in 2001 and went on to win a slew of prizes) and incubator for new material (two world premières are set for 2011) aimed specifically at young people (JK-Grade 8) laying this vital foundation, the future for “mature” theatre-goers and presenters would be in serious jeopardy.
Ever-aware of the uncertainty facing local arts organizations (new and established) even as the promised cultural renaissance of downtown St. Catharines seems to be stalled, JWR jumped at the chance to sit down with the leaders of one of our most respected and long-serving (founded in 1972) cultural institutions to learn more about the current state of their art.
For artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna—now entering his fourth year at the helm—the first show is like a homecoming. “I stage managed Danny for Roseneath during its initial tour and was very impressed both with the play and Richard Greenblatt’s direction,” he recalled as we chatted in the administrative office just steps away from the newly renovated Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre. “We’ll be using their set, but the cast are all new to the play so we’ll be able to open the book ‘fresh.’ As soon as we’d decided to go ahead, I knew I wanted Stephanie Jones to play Louise [Danny’s frequently-single mom]. Not only is she a great actress, she brings a knowledge of family in general and this area in particular that will help the others immensely as we prepare to tour it all over the peninsula.”
Well-known to Niagara theatre goers through her work as artistic director of Essential Collective Theatre—most recently in the very adult show, Crack!—this sort of cross-company collaboration speaks volumes about Carousel’s leadership in working with other local arts groups rather than building silos and shamelessly competing. That’s not surprising since many of the plays they’ve selected to produce and tour over the years decry the notion of bullying or one-upping in favour of collaboration and collegiality.
General manager Jane Gardner enthusiastically walks that talk as she continually looks for creative partnerships that, in the short term, are of mutual benefit, but over time will raise the artistic bar collectively and, consequently, help keep the financial wolves from the treasurers’ doors. “We’re just completing our funding requests for the next three years,” she explained. “Our play development initiative is key to those plans. Brock University’s Monica Dufault is writing Peg and the Yeti for JK-3 and Daniel Karasik will give us The Remarkable Flight of Marnie McPhee for the older ones.”
In March, Craig’s Rocket & the Queen of Dreams will blast into the imagination of young kids and their parents. “It’s a show of dreams told in puppetry and features Linda Carson [co-writer with James Marshall and star of George and Martha for Carousel a few seasons ago]. My wife will be one of the puppeteers,” said Felices-Luna. With 150 puppets to see and more sound bites than ever before, this production will appeal to anyone who’s ever conjured up a ferocious monster after their bedtimes.
Gail Bowen’s Saving Lonesome George will hit the boards at the end of April. The newly trimmed-down play is a rescue story. In this case a wonderfully named pirate, Sweet Solomon Bunch, teams up with extra-shy Jess (and his pet squirrel) to track down a kidnapped turtle—whimsical drama of the most inventive kind.
Yet again, the artistic trust tackles present-day issues (in this case, threats to endangered species) in an engaging, entertaining and ultimately enlightening manner that can’t help but make all of those fortunate enough to see any of these shows a little more comfortable in their own skins. With consistently high-level writing, talented casts and dedicated staff, Carousel Players brings new meaning to the frequently heard admonition “Play nicely.” It’s a notion that ought to be reinforced and extolled to the world’s biggest bullies. JWR