After each performing their emotional, gut-wrenching or humourous monologues for an audience of approximately 50 strong, eight high school-aged students gathered in a backroom at the Court House Theatre to surprise instructor Travis Seetoo with birthday cupcakes.
The poised, mature deliveries by all of his students were probably the icing on the cupcakes for the Shaw ensemble member’s 32nd birthday Sunday.
Billed as the Shaw Festival Niagara Region High School Monologue Derby, the afternoon performances were the culmination of a two-week opportunity for the students to work with Seetoo and other theatre professionals in both group and one-on-one sessions.
The idea for the program came out of a discussion with a local high school teacher, who informed Seetoo of the heartbreak experienced by students whose drama and musical theatre productions had been shut down by the pandemic. He sympathized, and used his role as an embedded artist with Shaw to give them a chance to do what they love.
In that role, Seetoo has been hired by the festival as a full-time employee, removing some of the uncertainty that usually accompanies a career as a performer.
“Actors at theatres all across the country are contract workers,” he explains, “hired for the season and then they’re done. This gives us full-time work on three to five-year contracts. It gives us security, and we’re not having to spend our time auditioning. It’s ideal for actors who also have interest in other parts of the building.”
Seetoo’s interests beyond the stage have always revolved around education. He pitched his idea to work with students to education department members Suzanne Merriam, Megan Gilchrist and Warren Bain. They loved the idea and reached out to others at Shaw, including actors Kiera Sangster and Kristopher Bowman, and head of wardrobe Jason Bendig.
They put the call out via social media and connections with local high school drama teachers. Then they set about collecting audition submissions from interested students ranging from Grades 9 to 11. Those chosen were given a truly immersive experience, completely free of charge.
“We did all of our sessions in person, at the amazing facilities at the Shaw,” Seetoo explains. “We were in the Festival Theatre, the Studio Theatre, we’ve been in all the rehearsal halls. I was able to give them backstage tours, they met a bunch of actors. We had really good COVID protocols.”
Both weeks were bookended by four-hour group sessions, during which the aspiring actors learned about preparation techniques, the use of voice, projection, and interpreting theatrical text.
“These are really, really important things for students to know,” Seetoo stresses. “A lot of these students are going to be auditioning for universities or community theatre productions. I’m trying to give them all the tools that they will need to successfully work on a monologue and have a good audition.”
In addition to the group sessions, each student received two individual coaching sessions with either Seetoo or another member of the Shaw ensemble. These sessions focused on honing their monologue deliveries in preparation for the Aug. 29 performance date.
Another highlight for the students was getting to see a performance of Flush at the Royal George Theatre.
Of the seven girls and one boy who participated, Seetoo says two had no prior on-stage experience.
“I’ve just been so impressed with how much they’ve grown,” Seetoo says. “Their voices are bigger, they’ve got really, really good command of their text. They’ve told me they don’t want it to end.”
Hope Mercer is heading back to Eden High School next week for Grade 11. She chose to deliver a monologue in Juliet’s voice from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“I tried to relate the character to me and go from there,” she said Sunday, following her performance. “Once I broke down the monologue and connected the words to what I would say in real life, that helped a lot.”
Mercer hopes to use what she learned the past two weeks in her drama classes at Eden this fall.
The lone boy in the program, 16-year-old Sebastian Mocchio, also attends Eden and, like Mercer, has performed with Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Yellow Door Theatre Company. His father Eric, a teacher at the same school, is happy his son had a chance to get back onstage.
“He really enjoyed the group activities,” Eric said. “That was a great way to break the ice, not having to do individual things in front of each other right away. And the individual acting workshops with Travis were an amazing experience for him. He was able to capture more of his character that he was supposed to play.”
“Coming out of the pandemic, without having this kind of outlet,” Eric continued, “this has been a game-changer for him. His demeanour went from pandemic blahs to being this kid full of energy and passion again, because he got to be performing.”
Sebastian’s monologue was from Canadian playwright Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land, about a young Amish man who enlists during the First World War. On his return to Canada, having killed a German in the war, he deals with his father and his girlfriend who are devastated by what he has done.
Mocchio delivered the lines with the urgency of a young man desperate to win back the respect of his community.
“The pride of seeing my boy get into a character where, I don’t think he’s ever felt that emotion before,” his father said. “It was really cool to see him be able to portray something I’ve never seen him be able to do. It had me feeling the feels because of it.”
Seventeen-year old Hannah Baechler chose Amnesia, a monologue written by a 16-year-old Calgary high school student. For Baechler, who will be attending St. Joseph’s College School in Toronto, isolating just one part of a play was something she had never done before.
“It was very different focusing on monologues by themselves,” she said. “They really focus on the details. It’s not something I’m used to, which was really challenging. With just the monologue, you only have so many minutes to let the audience know what the story is all about.”
The enthusiasm of the participants was matched by Seetoo, who at 32 could have easily passed himself off as one of the students. For the former National Ballet School student, the three-week program was important for building bridges, “not just for the kids, but for the Shaw as well,” he says, “to connect to the talented people in our own area. We really need to focus on the people in our own backyard. It’s important for us to show them what this is all about. They might want to work here one day, as actors or in other areas. It’s a huge cultural centre.”
“I take it very seriously,” Seetoo continues, “that I should take the initiative to do projects that are beneficial to the Shaw and our community. And the fact that they are performing at the Court House, where it all started for Shaw, it brings the past and the future together in one place.”
Seetoo hopes the Monologue Derby becomes an annual event at Shaw Festival.