Heading into its fifth year of mounting ambitious musical theatre productions featuring youth from across Niagara, the Yellow Door Theatre Company is offering something completely different this December.
Going Under will be performed by the Yellow Door Teen Company Dec. 5 through 7 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. Formerly known as The Subway Songs, the new musical explores connections through a group of high school students stuck on a subway, and cut off from the rest of the world.
Only four days later, Yellow Door’s Junior Company performs Bremen Rock City at the same venue. It’s a modern take on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Town Musicians of Bremen. For the first time, a live rock band, consisting of local musicians, will accompany the young actors on the PAC stage.
Both productions feature music and lyrics by contemporary musical theatre songwriting team Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal, based out of Toronto.
Yellow Door’s founding director, Andorlie Hillstrom, says Dauncey and Romer-Segal “are movers and shakers in the musical theatre world right now. They connect strongly with these young people.”
Adds Hillstrom, finding these “back-to-back pieces by the same writers has allowed us to do some pieces this year that are child-centred and focused on our Junior Company, the 10 to 13-year-olds, and our Teen Company, our 14 to 18-year-olds.”
Dauncey spent her September weekends working directly with the young people at Yellow Door’s Line 2 location in Virgil. Hillstrom says it was an amazing experience for both companies to work directly with the composers.
Though there will be professional musicians accompanying the Junior Company for Bremen Rock City, these are the first productions for Yellow Door that will not feature professional actors alongside the youth.
Hillstrom explains that Yellow Door was unsuccessful in its applications for some grants, putting the company in a position in which they couldn’t afford to bring in professional actors. “I do know that everyone in the arts is dealing with cutbacks.”
However, she adds, “as a not-for-profit, and a charity, we have to be prepared for that. I actually think this has been good for us, in a way. We’ve had to perhaps move in a different direction. I am certainly planning on returning to our original formatting next year, a full company show in the fall, but this is where we’re at this year.”
And where they’re at excites Hillstrom and her young charges.
The premise of Going Under is a group of teens on a subway en route to that rite of passage, their school prom. The characters all know each other, but there was an incident that occurred with them when they were younger that made it difficult for them to connect with each other.
“One of the really strong themes in this play is connection. We’re all well aware, and particularly youth, that they have a phone in front of them all the time. That’s how this show starts out. But when the subway comes to a screeching halt, they are forced to deal with their personal demons.”
Friendship, anxiety, loyalty, teen pregnancy, peer pressure and other themes arise in the play as well. It’s a script that has forced the young actors to dig deep to bring their own emotions to the surface.
Hannah Jamal, a Grade 10 student at Laura Secord Secondary School, plays Sam, a popular girl in the school. She has struggled in the past with another character, Ben, played by Santiago Rivera. The two characters haven’t spoken to each other in years, and are forced to confront each other, and to let out their anger on their way to a reconciliation.
Hillstrom describes Jamal as a hard worker, and a bit of a perfectionist. “She’s always willing to do the work, has a great attitude, listens well, and has always been a really strong actress,” she says. “I love working with her.”
Going Under is the fifth Yellow Door production for Jamal. She says it has been easy to relate to her character. “It’s kind of about moving on and accepting that the past is the past, and you shouldn’t let it define what you do for the rest of your life.”
Rivera, a grade 11 student at Governor Simcoe, is relatively new to the Yellow Door Theatre Company. A school trip to see the company’s production of Robin Hood peaked his interest in learning more about the program. He became involved last January, and this is his second Yellow Door production.
Hillstrom says Rivera fit in with the company from the beginning. “He’s very talented, a really great actor. He’s so willing to jump in and take risks, and I absolutely love that.”
“I want to pursue a career in musical theatre,” asserts Rivera. “Through Yellow Door, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of professionals and I’ve become connected to people from Sheridan College, too.”
Rivera says one of the challenges to the play is the fact that all the actors are on stage for the whole performance. “We have to keep acting throughout the whole show, as the play takes place entirely on the subway car.”
Bremen Rock City, on the other hand, is described by Hillstrom as “very tongue-in-cheek, a lot of fun, with strong rhythms, and strong rock music. The characters include a donkey, cats, dogs and chickens singing rock songs.”
The presence of a live band, led by Anthony Scaringi, has resulted in another first for Yellow Door. “The live band will be amplified, so every actor is going to be mic’d,” explains Hillstrom. “I actually prefer kids to work acoustically, but sometimes it’s just a better choice, especially if technically you can manage it.”
The Junior Company will have its first rehearsal with the band this weekend, and members are very excited for the experience.
Hillstrom estimates that through Yellow Door’s recreational and performance programs, she has worked with between 400 to 500 kids over the time the company has been in Virgil.
She says it’s rewarding to see some of the first Yellow Door Theatre participants beginning to graduate and go on to colleges and universities to study theatre.
“Having said that,” she adds, “it isn’t all about performance. This is about creating experiences for life for these kids. Many of my former students (from her previous company in Alberta) have become educators, and they are motivating other young students to have a passion for the arts, and to promote it. That is actually more important to me than knowing they are becoming a successful actor, dancer or singer.”
And that attitude agrees with the Yellow Door Theatre Company’s commitment to growing and developing the children and youth of Niagara.
Opening night for Going Under is Thursday, Dec. 5 at the FirstOntario PAC in St. Catharines. The play runs until Saturday, Dec. 7.
Bremen Rock City opens Wednesday, Dec. 11, and runs at the same venue until Friday, Dec. 13. Visit yellowdoortheatre.com for more information.