(photo: Robert Galbraith)
Jane Petrov, playing the Bird Woman in the Montreal School of Performing Arts’ a capella production of Mary Poppins, has been a returning acting student for five years now. “I did a lot of theatre when I was at McGill years ago, then I had a family and became a librarian,” she explains. “Then just before I retired, I decided I’d enjoy going back to theatre, so a friend brought me to MSOPA, and the reception I received was a very warm one. So I started taking classes, and I have no regrets.”
Unfazed upon learning she’d be belting out her numbers solo, she says it’s “not a problem since my mother was a music teacher – we started off early in life having to sing without accompaniment. It was the music of the Bird Woman that attracted me – it’s almost the theme song of Mary Poppins.” And theme is everything in this particular production.
“I think a lot of message got lost in the original musical,” says director Dale Hayes, who adapted the a capella version with an eye to highlighting the theme – which, to her, is about priorities.
“The message is family,” she maintains, citing elements of the story that got lost in the 60s version’s catchy tunes. “Mr. Banks, the children’s father, he’s very much business, business, business. And the kids several times during the opening of the play refer to their father – ‘I wish father had more time for us, I wish he could come and play with us.’ And through a series of events that happen in the play – that actually happened in the movie, but I don’t think people really focused in on that – the father comes to a realization that family is really important, that his children are more important than the almighty dollar, and it takes a tuppence – two pennies – to make him realize that in the end.”
An edgier, more meditative Mary Poppins? “We could have done a really dark version,” says Hayes, “but we weren’t going to go there. We still had to think about the kids, you know. There’s a lot of laughter and the kids are going to enjoy it because there’s what they’re expecting – the fun stuff – but there’s also this family message that’s clear. Of course the kids are going to expect A Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – and those songs are in the play – but it’s all a capella, we didn’t focus on the music. We really focused on the theme and the message, and it’s interesting, because the father, in the first half of the play, he talks about money and how important it is and about the stock market, and I thought, ‘how topical.’”
(photo: Robert Galbraith)
The modern resonance of the theme and the Bird Woman’s place in it held another part of the role’s appeal for Petrov. “It’s through the little boy giving a tuppence to this woman, to feed the birds, that the realization comes that there’s more to life than the stock market going up, up, up or down, down, down.”
But she didn’t simply have the part handed to her based on type. “It’s never done that a person is solicited for a role.” No one gets in without passing the audition – “you always have to in this school.”
“When we first started the school,” says founder Josa Maule, “we weren’t going to do any productions – just train actors.” After a couple of years, she recalls, “we did ‘pay to play.’ If you were in the class, you were in the production. That didn’t work really well – we did three shows, and it was cute and their family and friends came, but it just didn’t do it for us. So then we decided, yeah, we’re going to start auditioning people.”
“We cast within the school, but it’s an audition process just like it is in the real world,” says Hayes. “They have to pass a cold reading, which means that they don’t get any chance at all to go through the script. They can read it beforehand of course, but they don’t get to see the scenes that they’re going to be auditioning. The actors from our very first level right up to our more advanced students, they all have the opportunity to audition for the role. And they know going in that it’s a heck of a commitment. It’s serious stuff. We work for eight weeks, every weekend, some evenings – and as we get closer to the production date, it’s like… grueling, you know? But they live for it, and they’re up to the challenge, and it’s working out. I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made. It’s a professional-caliber production, not like a highschool musical. It’s good stuff.”
Besides the stage chops, students get preparation for the mechanics and etiquette of the trade. “We’re a school first and foremost,” Hayes notes. “It’s important that our actors are well informed about not just how to act, but how to audition, and how to get the role, and how to be in a production, and the protocol when you’re in a production, and all that sort of thing, so it’s a learning experience.”
Some learning curves are longer than others. “A few of our first students,” from 1992, “are still with us today,” reports Maule. “Alan’s one of our ‘oldest’ students (he’s in his fifties). He takes several classes over and over just to be in the game of things and to get everything right. He likes the opportunity of working with new people from time to time… he says I’m not getting rid of him anytime soon.”
Petrov sums up the experience as “going back to something that I really love doing… and what really meant most to me over these last few years is how you have young and old people all working together, to create the magic of theatre.”
“We’re an acting community within an acting community,” Maule says. “Once you come onto our stage it’s like you feel right at home.”
Maule’s school goes out of its way to make theatre accessible for actors and audiences alike, with $10 Friday workshops and regular show seats for $12. “Not everybody can afford $20-30 a person to bring out a family,” she says. “We also do casting mostly for independent and student films, which pay nothing or very little, and we’re doing 11 plays a year called Express O Theatre, where we promote new plays from new playwrights, preferably local.”
MSOPA hosts an open house 2 pm Saturday, January 10. Mary Poppins runs until Sunday, December 14 with shows at 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays and at 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays.
Info: 514-483-5526 or msopa.com
Labels: Music, Theatre