Winnipeg theatre company finds niche working with young actors

It all started with a University of Winnipeg production of Hair in the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

Winnipeg Studio Theatre presents edgy musical Avenue Q until April 13

A cast of young Winnipegers perform in Avenue Q at the John Hendry Warehouse. ( Leif Norman)

It all started with a University of Winnipeg production of Hair in the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Kayla Gordon, who teaches musical theatre at the U of W, harnessed her talented students to mount this classic rock musical eight years ago. That led to more fringe productions and eventually to the birth of Winnipeg Studio Theatre (WST) in 2006. The company now presents musicals during the regular season.

"Hair was the impetus for really getting this new bunch of kids into musicals and it actually started a whole phase of musicals at the Fringe," said Gordon, who is artistic director of WST. She feels the company is really filling a void.

"I really wanted to work with young emerging artists. Teaching musical theatre at U of W, I see these incredible kids coming through the program and not a lot of avenues for them to perform. It's been a super way to utilize these young kids," she said, pointing to Samantha Hill and Nyck Bielak, who are now performing on Broadway, as great success stories. 

Popular productions like Spring Awakening and Altar Boyz have really helped the performers hone their skills.

WST is currently presenting the edgy Broadway hit Avenue Q. The Tony award winning musical involves some great songs and dancing and some very funny puppets. The story follows a young university graduate who moves to New York City with big dreams, but no money. He's in search of a sense of purpose. He meets a colourful bunch of characters in a dumpy part of town and realizes that life in the big city is not all it's cracked up to be.

Gordon says buzz for the show has been good and ticket sales have exceeded both shows from last year. They've already added an extra performance on April 13.

But it hasn't been easy for this young theatre company. It doesn't qualify for operating grants, so it applies for production grants on a project by project basis. When Gordon realized it wouldn't get funding from either the Winnipeg Arts Council or the Manitoba Arts Council this year, he turned to the popular crowdsourcing method of fundraising, Indiegogo. Gordon says they were able to raise enough funds to rent and bring in the puppets from California.

With raunchy songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is for Porn," Gordon is also hoping to reach a younger audience -  late teens, university age and up. But note, because of subject matter and mature language it is recommended for age 14 and up.
Avenue Q is enhanced by a lineup of very funny puppets. (Leif Norman)

Gordon is hopeful for Avenue Q's success. 

"It's really over-the-top cheesy at times, but it also has a lot of heart. And there's a lot of truth."

And then there are those puppets.

"We can say things through a puppet that we can't say as human beings, so they get away with a lot more. They seem to be able to say things that are extensions of us and somehow you can forgive a puppet a little bit more," she said.

"And they're just so adorable!" she added, laughing.

Winnipeg Studio Theatre presents Avenue Q at the John Hendry Warehouse until April 13, with a second show added for the evening of April 13. Appropriate for age 14 and up.

Joff Schmidt will review the play here on April 7.