Yellow Door Theatre Project’s newest original production combines the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with the historical plight of London’s ‘home children’, many of whom ended up in Niagara- on-the-Lake.
Between 1869 and 1932, more than 100,000 children were sent from Britain to Canada through assisted juvenile emigration, according to the Canadian government. Many were orphans, while others were from poor families living in dire conditions. They were shipped to Canada with the belief that they would find better opportunities.
According to the NOTL Museum’s records, Marie S. Rye began bringing poor young women and girls to Niagara in 1868 to be domestics. A year later she acquired the old courthouse and gaol in NOTL (where Rye Park currently sits) and converted it into Our Western Home, which became a boarding house for these girls while awaiting their destination to farms in Ontario and Eastern Canada. There, they often lived a life of servitude.
That local angle is a huge bonus for the charitable youth theatre group’s founder and artistic producer Andorlie Hillstrom.
“The home children were right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” says Hillstrom. “It’s an extraordinary part of our history. We brushed it under the carpet (back then), so to speak, but it was really quite awful. That was a really serious issue.”
Playwright Lezlie Wade and composer Scott Christian have collaborated to combine the two dark tales into an original musical theatre production called Nobody’s Children. It will make its world-wide premiere, performed by a group of actors between the ages of 10 and 17 years old, on Dec. 7.
Nobody’s Children has a definite Oliver feel to it. Yes, both stories upon which it is built are dark, but the musical theatre genre gives the creators the opportunity to lighten up the story, finding the comedic elements as well as the heart for many of the characters.
The musical continues an ongoing partnership that Hillstrom has formed with Wade and Christian to provide a professional theatre experience for her young charges.
At 14 years old, Laura Secord Secondary School student Alex Berghoeff is already a Yellow Door veteran. He values the opportunity to work once again to bring another Wade–Christian creation to life.
“It’s so amazing that they let us, these kids, do these plays,” Berghoeff tells The Local. Hillstrom, he says, “gets these people who make these amazing plays. It’s crazy to think that one day other people will do this play, too.”
Berghoeff plays Ichabod, who he says undergoes a transformation from a shy, reserved character to an extrovert once he forms a friendship with Mary Sharples, the daughter of a rat catcher. Sharples is played by 12-year-old Parnall Public School student Hannah Otta.
Otta stepped into the role of Mary when Catherine Dubois successfully auditioned for a role in the upcoming Shaw Festival Theatre production of White Christmas. She previously appeared in Wade and Christian’s Yellow Door update of the Hansel and Gretel story, as well as in their film Red Letter Day.
“It was sad, because I really enjoy working with Catherine,” Otta says. “But I felt prepared because I was her understudy. We were all working together, and I had learned the music already.”
Otta says Mary is an adventurous, spirited girl from a middle class family. She gets wrapped up with a group of orphans on the streets of London when she takes a detour on Christmas Eve. That’s when her friendship with Ichabod is sparked.
The musical straddles two continents, set as it is in both Victorian London and Canada, the final destination of many of the home children.
With the first full run-through of the Wade-Christian script behind her, Director Kerry Ann Doherty, a Shaw ensemble member and founder of Toronto’s theatreSix, is excited with the approach of the play’s opening.
“It went really well,” she says of Sunday’s rehearsal. “Very exciting. It had the usual fits and starts, but overall it’s going very well. We learn a lot when we put it all together. We’re all really happy.”
Doherty doesn’t see a huge difference between directing adults and working with younger actors.
“Sometimes you give a note, and they may not understand the instructions,” she says. “You may ask them to move upstage, and sometimes you have to be sure they know what’s upstage and what’s downstage. It requires a few more teaching moments just to make sure everything is understood.”
And she praises the work of Wade and Christian.
“They work so well together,” says Doherty. “The songs are beautiful and fun. There’s lots of comedy, even though it’s a drama. The comedic moments come out of the realness of the characters.These kids come together and choose to look out for each other. It’s really a lovely story about chosen family.”
“I think Scott Christian is a brilliant composer,” adds Hillstrom. “We are so fortunate to have him. And I love Lezlie’s sense of humour. There are always great things in her writing.”
Hillstrom adds that Nobody’s Children, like all Yellow Door plays, is primarily student-driven. Wade and Christian workshop their plays with the young participants and often make changes to the script and music based on those sessions.
“But they (the kids) work with professionals,” she says. “There is one adult in the show (Christoph Ibrahim plays Mary’s father) and all of our designers and our crew are all professionals. That has always been my vision from the very, very beginning, that these kids get to work with professionals.”
The world premiere of Nobody’s Children, an original Christmas musical, runs Dec. 7 to 10 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines. Tickets are available through firstontariopac.ca.