Ottawa musical theatre production a mystery to actors, audience alike

The stage is set for this weekend's performance of the Confidential Musical Theatre Project in Ottawa. The actors haven't rehearsed, and the audience don't know what they're about to see.

No audition, no rehearsal, no problem as performers eye opening night

The Confidential Musical Theatre Project production of Stephen Sondheim's Company at Arts Court Theatre in Ottawa on Oct. 7, 2015. ( Jennifer Scrivens)

Pssst! Can you keep a secret? Here's the deal on the Confidential Musical Theatre Project — but keep it under your hat.

Imagine this: Actors gather backstage for the opening night of a Broadway play, but they've never rehearsed together. In fact they're meeting each other for the first time — just before the curtain rises.

And the audience? They haven't a clue about what they're about to see.

That's the concept behind the Confidential Musical Theatre Project, a franchise created in Toronto that's sweeping across North America.

Ottawa's production is headed up by two local theatre pros, producer Nicole Milne and music director Wendy Berkelaar.

"It's so exciting in this digital age, when everyone has so much information before they see something, I love to be actually able to surprise them," said Milne.

No auditions, no rehearsals

The entire operation is conducted under a cloak of secrecy.

There are no auditions. Actors apply online, with a head shot, bio and video clips.
Confidential Musical Theatre Project music director Wendy Berkelaar (left) and director and producer Nicole Milne (right). (Resonate Photography)

The director and producer choose a play and cast the performers without regard to age, body type or gender, then send out the scripts and scores with the strict condition that the chosen performers don't spill the beans to anyone about what role they're playing or even the name of the play. The actors are able to consult with the musical director occasionally, but will not meet the other actors until the night of the performance.

Milne said many very talented local performers are coming out of the woodwork to take part in the mystery play.

Some actors 'petrified'

"There is outstanding musical talent in the city, actors who are excellent singers, who don't often have the chance to be in a musical."

When the curtain rises the performers are on their own — ready or not — with neither sets, nor costumes, nor lighting cues, and only a piano for accompaniment. There's only one rule: the show must go on to the end.

"It's so exciting to see live risk," said Milne, who has already staged a similar event in Ottawa. "There is a lot of responsibility on the actors' shoulders. Some are petrified, but once the jitters fade they dive right in, and the audience cheers them on."

The Jan.16 performance at Arts Court is already sold out, and because the element of surprise is so essential to the enterprise, it's got to be a one-off.

But with both actors and audiences in Ottawa apparently willing to take the risk, it's no secret that the Confidential Musical Theatre Project will return.