Come on kids, let’s put on a show
by Keri Vermeulen
Interviewing the two directors of this year’s Theatre Under the Stars shows at the same time is at once fun and professional, nostalgic and modern, hilarious and thoughtful. Sipping latte’s in a favourite Commercial Drive coffee shop with Shel Piercy and Sarah Rodgers, one gets the feeling that the kids from the old Our Gang television series grew up, and Spanky is still saying to Darla: “Whadya say a bunch of us kids get together and put on a show!” Although now, the sets are better, the shows are bigger and the actors are pro quality..
Vancouver’s oldest theatre company, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) is just that kind of special place – nestled among the flowers and the towering trees, the open grassy space in front of Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl is where families gather, couples snuggle and friends relax, taking in fantastically imaginative tellings of musical theatre favourites. In it’s 75 plus years, it has become one of the most highly anticipated summer theatre events. This season is touted as the Summer of Love, as TUTS presents the lush Disney classic Beauty and the Beast (Piercy), and the heartbreaking, culturally searing classic, West Side Story (Rodgers).
Joining directors Rodgers and Piercy for the interview is Beauty and the Beast’s lead actress, Jaime Piercy (Shel Piercy’s daughter). As the three bubble over with lively stories from past shows and interesting tidbits about the current season, a tangible mood hovers over the table that is perhaps the secret recipe behind the great success of TUTS – there is such a blend of friendship, family, acceptance of each other – an “all are welcome here” feel – one can’t help but to want to take part in the shows, whether from the audience chairs or behind the curtain.
“It’s a bit of a family business,” shares Jaime Piercy. “I stared so young (acting in TUTS shows). I made all these friends. When you’re young school can be hard and theatre is a much more accepting community. The bonds you make are deep. In theatre, you need to be a bit out there, and think outside the box.”
Theatre Under the Stars is a place where the community stage mixes well with the professional stage, and the space is wide for young actors to join the ranks and get to work alongside the pros of dancing, singing and acting. “We talk about safe spaces, and that’s what we provide, so people can get together, and try stuff and not be laughed at,” adds Shel Piercy (who is also the Vice President of TUTS, a non-profit society.
Talking about the safety to try new things leads Rodgers and Piercy to remember Rodgers’ comical, and thoroughly endearing entrance onto the TUTS stage – she was auditioning for Piercy’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie – one her all time favourite movies. “I had the time of my life putting together the audition piece,” Rodgers recalls as Piercy nods enthusiastically saying it was one of the funniest audition pieces he’d ever seen. “I choreographed myself, and I’m not a singer, but I sang a song for Shel. I approached the song as a comedian – imagine Lucille Ball going in for an audition,” Rodgers remembers as Piercy laughs warmly. Needless to say, she got the part, and today, Rodgers has brought her gifted directing skill to about a half dozen TUTS shows.
The year’s Summer of Love is not to be missed. Piercy is going after the lavish, traditional feel of the original Disney movie in his presentation of Beauty and the Beast. He will also let the underlying theme of the show shine through. “I think the story has a great truth, and it’s a great musical,” he says. “There isn’t anybody in life who hasn’t felt like the Beast at some point or other, and someone who is beautiful saw them for who they are and fell in love with them. Add to that these lovely comedic characters and you’ve got a show that you can’t help but love,” Piercy says, noting beautiful costumes and a set “to die for.”
In her role as Belle Jaimie Piercy will capitalize on the openness of Belle’s heart. “She’s so open and vulnerable about everything – she has big dreams in a small town, and she’s unafraid to go for them. Her own strength surprises her at times.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers’ approach to the tragic romance West Side Story (a 20th Century retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) is to focus on the pure story of the classic, groundbreaking musical about forbidden cross cultural love in the middle of two rival gangs in New York City. “My approach is to tell the story as truthfully and honestly as I can, and with fresh eyes.” Although by copyright law, any production of West Side Story must stay within the original 1950s period, Rodgers is exploring the raw street feel of hip hop dance through modern choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.
Theatre Under the Stars season runs July 6 to August 20, with Beauty and the Beast and West Side Story running on alternate nights. Shows start at 7 pm. tuts.ca