OUR WORK CONTINUES: RBC APPRENTICES
“There is no past. There is no future. There is only this moment, right now.” When Mitchell articulated this shattering, yet simple thought in a recent staff meeting the swirl of the ideas I had been having about working during what feels like an endless pandemic coalesced. The plans for the future, which we made in the past, are all gone. In defiance of despair, our response to the uncertainty of today is to proudly choose to create something new, in this moment. My task is to chart a new course for our RBC Apprentices, our Banks Prize artists, our Freeman Apprentices, and our Metcalf Intern Artistic Director.
The delicious challenge in this re-imagining is to continue to offer each of our apprentices an opportunity to observe top-tier artists at work in the field, to receive masterclasses and mentorship from industry leaders, and find the chance to take the lead on a creative project by putting all of their learning into practice. Read on to discover how we have been living in the moment with our nine emerging artists through interactive masterclasses, mentorship meetings, and meaningful work on all our ongoing projects.
JANUARY & FEBRUARY, 2020 – ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE and Banks Prize Cabaret rehearsals begin. Three of our four RBC Apprentices are attached to our production of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, in an observational capacity. Early on, apprentice choreographer ESIE MENSAH offers her skills to her mentor, choreographer Tim French. Throughout the process, her insight, creativity, and keen eye for detail are put to good use in the creation process and in cleaning rehearsals. Apprentice stage manager KARLI FELDMAN takes a very active role in assisting our stage management team by assuming the duties of ‘child actor supervisor’. Apprentice director TSHOLO KHALEMA, reflects: “Observing Robert McQueen direct CAROLINE, OR CHANGE was an excellent way for me to expand my skill set… I had so many valuable experiences going through this process like learning how to bring together and create a safe space where folks are being asked to be open and vulnerable with their art… all very valuable lessons for a new director.”
Metcalf Intern Artistic Director, JORDAN LAFFRENIER takes the lead on planning and implementing the 2020 edition of our MARQUEE program. Jordan really connected with the urgent relevance of programs like this one. In his own words: “MARQUEE taps into something that is often overlooked in our ecology. It is an education program specifically for people who are often overlooked and left out of the center of the conversation. The sessions are taught by working professionals with similar experiences to their mentees. I learned a lot while working on MARQUEE – how to build and run an education program, how the conversation that happens after the show really can be more impactful than the show itself, and perhaps most importantly, I learned the importance of programs that give opportunities to underrepresented leaders.”
Meanwhile EVA FOOTE and KALE PENNY, our Banks Prize winners, begin gathering materials and start music rehearsals with music director Paul Moody in preparation for their Cabaret. They are soon joined by Freeman Apprentice director ALI JOY RICHARDSON and RBC Apprentice stage manager, KARLI FELDMAN. In the words of Kale, “Creating the cabaret with Eva, Ali, Paul, Karli, and the entire Musical Stage Company team was invaluable to me as an artist… I had never created anything like this before. It was a steep learning curve and such a fun ride. It was, in my opinion, the finest way to be introduced to the Toronto theatre scene. “
MARCH 2020 – UNCERTAINTY SETS IN
March started with our Banks Prize cabaret playing to capacity crowds at the Jazz Bistro. When asked to describe the impact of her Banks Prize Cabaret experience, Eva shares “In my case – it has urged me towards singing and performing in Musical Theatre. I come from a folk & country music background and trained as an actor, and always felt this distance between those two sides of my life. With the help of Paul, Ali, and Kale, I feel like I discovered a whole new part of my voice, which has definitely changed the way I look at music. Ali’s direction of the Banks Prize was also super enlightening. Her precision and focus on making something of meaning gave me a new layer of the lens I strive to make art through.”
And then the world as we know it changed. With the closing of our offices and public health orders banning large gatherings came the postponement of our spring production KELLY v. KELLY, the shift of our new works development processes from the rehearsal room to the Zoom meeting room, and the cancellation of the face-to-face mentorship meetings that had been arranged.
RBC Apprentice sound designer DEANNA CHOI was wrapping up her mentorship meetings with Broadway sound designer Nevin Steinberg (perhaps most well known for his work on HAMILTON The Musical). Unfortunately, the follow up to her meetings with Mr. Steinberg had to be postponed – Deanna was intended to join the Sound Engineer at the Canon Theatre and observe their work on the touring production of HAMILTON.
Before heading to the Shaw Festival to choreograph her first musical ASSASSINS, RBC Apprentice choreographer ESIE MENSAH was preparing for her final leadership activity – a series of private Choreographic Consultations with me and my dance assistant in preparation for a production of DA KINK IN MY HAIR that I was slated to direct and choreograph in Vancouver this spring. Esie was intended to give me a foundational knowledge of Afro-Fusion dance techniques; an area of expertise for her.
Both RBC Apprentice director TSHOLO KHALEMA and RBC Apprentice stage manager KARLI FELDMAN were in planning periods of their apprenticeships. The emphasis was on career management, individual strategic planning, and long term goal setting with me.
Our Banks Prize winners were both in Stratford On – EVA FOOTE was in rehearsals and KALE PENNY was enjoying some post-cabaret downtime with his family. On our end, we were arranging masterclasses for them both with an array of scene-study and vocal coaches to be held once Eva’s rehearsal schedule eased up in the spring and early summer.
Freeman Apprentice director ALI JOY RICHARDSON and Freeman Apprentice music director JULIETTE JONES were gearing up for their respective masterclasses and mentor meetings before heading into KELLY v. KELLY rehearsals. We paired Ali with Canadian directing phenom Ann Hodges with the aim of providing sharper insights into the art of directing large-scale musicals. Juliette was paired with Broadway composer, orchestrator, and music director Lynne Shankel. The jumping-off point for their discussions was: New works or revivals? How to launch a career that is financially viable AND artistically fulfilling.
Each day seemed to bring new developments from our public health officials and what felt like ever-increasing restrictions on gathering. This put many of our plans in jeopardy. How would our Freeman Apprentices observe the rehearsal process of a new musical from start to finish if we had no musical to rehearse? How could our Banks Prize winners work together with our acting and singing coaches if physical proximity (typically required of scene work)? How could we, as an organization, ensure that each of our apprentices continued to have a rich and impactful learning experience?
APRIL 2020 – A NEW NORMAL
Determined not to let the devastating closure of theatres across the country derail our plans, we had a deep rethink about how to engage all of our apprentices. Not only did we have to make sharp adjustments to the customized experience for each apprentice, but we also had to get innovative in our delivery of the programs.
From a customization standpoint, we shifted away from face-to-face performance-based coaching for the Banks Prize winners, and have moved towards a focus on creation. In alignment with their mutual interests we are pursuing classes in Music Production & high-quality at home recording, adaptation & the writing process with an emphasis on material that straddles both the pop/folk music/theatre worlds, and an exploration of creating theatrical music and musical theatre.
With the postponement of KELLY v. KELLY we were suddenly without a rehearsal process for our Freeman Apprentices to observe. As it happens the three Launch Pad teams and two writing supervisors (Rick Boynton & Lynne Shankel) agreed to continue working on the development of the three short musicals in online meeting rooms. Thankfully for our apprentices, all of the artists involved generously offered to allow them into the process. We crafted a “micro/macro” experience that mirrored the makeup of the creative teams. For the “micro” observation, each apprentice has been attached to one of the three new musicals, working closely with the team member in their discipline. For the “macro” both were given the same birds-eye-view access to all three new musicals as the ‘writing supervisors’. The beauty of this adjustment is that our Freeman Apprenticeship has now effectively doubled the number of mentors and international professional connections (not to mention that they have tripled their exposure to the development and rehearsal process of new musicals by iconic industry leaders).
From an innovation standpoint, I would say that our innovation was simple, yet had an incredibly profound effect: host the remaining Masterclasses via videoconference and invite the entire 2020-21 cohort to participate in one another’s classes. Traditionally these classes are one-on-one, which is effective for the student, but has less community impact. By using Freeman Apprentice director ALI JOY RICHARDSON‘s online directing Masterclasses with Ann Hodges to pilot this innovation, we were reminded that by increasing access to learning, we also increase impact. Not only do our apprentices from across all disciplines feel closer to one another, but they also have increased their appreciation of one another’s rigorous commitment to craft, and developed a deeper awareness of the cross-disciplinary nature of music theatre. It has been a joy to watch the real-time growth of top-notch collaborators and their thorough understanding of the challenges and complexities inherent to our art form.
Much of Metcalf Intern Artistic Director JORDAN LAFFRENIER’s work was able to shift to the virtual sphere. “My Metcalf Apprentice Artistic Directorship has changed shape a lot since March. There are projects that I have had the opportunity to work on and people who I have been able to work closely with that I would not have otherwise. I took a course organized by The National Alliance of Musical Theatre on digitizing the fourth wall and put learning into action when I digitized one of our donor events. I started meeting weekly with Ray Hogg to discuss producing theatre. These conversations have been immensely valuable to me and together we organized The Musical Stage Company’s first-ever virtual general auditions. I read and assessed musicals for our Aubrey and Marla Dan fund. I appreciate seeing how this can be continued virtually.” We are particularly excited that Jordan’s inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit led to the creation of his own independent initiative – ‘The Songbird Series’. This series partners with professional musicians to give music to people who have little access to connection right now. Watching him implement all of his learning from marketing and digitizing, to fundraising and strategic planning has been enormously satisfying for me. This is one of those exciting times in which I get to be a first-hand witness to the powerful impact of our programming!
MAY 2020 AND BEYOND…
And so here we are nearing the end of June, with a plan in place, a successful pilot, and a cohort of apprentices eager to continue their learning and optimistic for their collective futures. We asked the apprentices to examine their experience so far, and reflect on their future:
DEANNA CHOI remarks: “The RBC Apprenticeship has been invaluable not only in my professional development, but in keeping me artistically engaged during the quarantine period. Even in these times of social distancing, I had the opportunity to network with the apprentice directors and reconnect with colleagues via Zoom meetings, which were facilitated by the apprenticeship program. Although my involvement in the program continues to evolve, it adapts with the theatre industry landscape in real time. Whether it involves investigating online platforms to deliver performances, or creating audio versions of a workshop, or focusing on online-based tutorials to improve my design toolbox, the RBC Apprenticeship provides a stable framework within a time of turbulence and uncertainty.”
For TSHOLO KHALEMA: “Theatre has a huge network and depending on what your life’s intersections are, it can be difficult to access some networks or the process may take longer. Programs like the RBC apprenticeship really help buffer that. Rooted from a few marginalized communities myself, this gave me an opportunity to grow my network and make industry connections that will last past this experience. Learning and observing from other professionals who have been in the industry longer than I have was exciting and extremely eye-opening. What a humbling and exciting experience observing the production smoothly come together and tell a difficult story. I am thrilled to continue to grow as a director and excited for more opportunities like this. I’m looking forward to working with more experienced directors to build my skill sets, growing more as an actor as well as a theatre producer. Opportunities like this give hope and time to create, and tell untold stories, creating opportunities for marginalized folks.”
ESIE MENSAH says that “This program helped me grow personally and connect with like-minded artists that I am excited to work with again. As someone who exists in the dance/theatre industries as a creator, choreographer, teacher, advocate, and producer, it is great for people to interact with me in new ways. I do my best to create a space where artists can bring their whole selves to the work and I’m grateful to have the chance to do that in new spaces I am invited into. I am excited about seeing these relationships grow over the years. A great working relationship on both sides that can really grow and elevate the foundation of our experiences. I am excited to keep cultivating my artistry! Pushing myself to expand my talents to continue to raise the bar of how Canadians/Black Canadian artists are seen on an international lens.”
Banks Prize winner KALE PENNY observes: “We have been able to participate in online masterclasses with acclaimed director Ann Hodges, while she mentors fellow apprentice Ali Joy Richardson, and that has been such an amazing window into her mind and her process. I’ve learned so much in those meetings, from Ann and from everyone else involved. I look forward to getting to dive into our own masterclasses and see what new connections and opportunities arise. I’m also so honoured and excited to be invited to perform in the UnCovered series this fall, in whatever capacity mother nature allows it to be created.”
JULIETTE JONES remarks… “being able to connect with mentor Lynne Shankel has completely changed my outlook on music direction, arranging, and composing and given me insight into the industry that I wouldn’t have had without her guidance. It was also liberating being able to learn from another female identifying artist in the industry who is making waves and shaping the creative process for other MDs and arrangers to come. Lynne was generous with her time and knowledge and provided me with tools and skills that will aid me in my future career in the arts and I feel that I have made a mentorship connection with Lynne that will continue past the final days of this Apprenticeship.”
We at The Musical Stage Company have a vision of making Canada a leader in the global musical theatre landscape. We believe that in support of that vision, our work developing the leaders, artists, and artisans of tomorrow is as critical as our work developing writers, composers, and musicals. We take pride in our ability to tailor learning experiences no matter the artist, and no matter the circumstance – even through a global pandemic! And so, yes, the work continues, and we are thrilled that it will continue into our next season too.
*If you are interested in learning more about apprenticeships in our 20/21, please contact Artistic Associate, Ray Hogg at email@example.com.