Oliver, Peter Pan, Annie - these are more than just children's names, they're classic children's plays that are performed on stages across the world time and time again. Those stages include one in Niagara Falls.
Linus Hand has a long history with the theatre industry. A one-time general manager of the Royal Alexandra and Princess of Wales theatres in Toronto, Hand returned to Niagara in the ‘80s and went on to stage various plays in Niagara Falls under different production company banners. From Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to a production of Seussical!: The Musical, his goal was to bring family-friendly entertainment to the stage in an area that attracts visitors from around the world. Through hotel packages and online sales, he was able to attract tourists to shows being staged at various venues across the city. There was only thing missing: local involvement.
“There seems to be this attitude in Niagara, where locals think that if it's happening here, it must not be that good,” says Hand. “I get emails from people from all over the world who visited Niagara Falls and checked out one of our shows. They write about how much they enjoyed it and how great it was, but we can't seem to connect with our own residents.”
Hand arrived on Niagara's theatre scene with one set goal – to create family-friendly theatre.
“There is already world-class theatre happening here for adults, when you have the Shaw Festival – arguably one of the best at what they do in the country, you don't need to even try and compete with that,” he says. “Instead, I looked at what was missing and realized there was nothing aimed specifically at families.”
He aimed big and went through the licensing process required to stage Disney productions in Niagara Falls. Poaching talent from Toronto's stages, he put on productions of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
“Disney doesn't just allow anyone to stage their productions, there's a rigorous process you have to go through to get approval,” he explains. “So the idea that these were somehow inferior productions was misguided, they were high-calibre productions featuring actors you would have seen on Mirvish stages (in Toronto) the previous year.”
It was in 2008, while producing a run of Seussical!: The Musical that Hand found inspiration for the next chapter in his career. At the time, the people responsible for casting were having a hard time finding a group of 30 area children to participate in the show. While there were many children who could sing, they were having a hard time finding ones who could act.
“A lot of them had a tendency to over-act or they just couldn't do it at all,” he recalls. While they did eventually fill the 30 required spots, the dilemma sparked an idea in Hand's mind and his acting academy was born.
Hosting workshops throughout the year, children between the ages of five and 18 now have an avenue to explore their creative side.
“The idea was to find a group of kids interested in developing their talent and work with them to turn them into ‘triple threats',” he said. “Performers who can act, sing and dance.”
In the academy, kids work with choreographers, singing and acting coaches to build their skills and develop their talent. Participants learn the ropes of working in theatre by practicing monologues, taking direction, and eventually staging a student production. Hand said more than anything, it helps the children build confidence.
“It's not just for kids who want to become actors down the road,” he says. “Regardless of what they end up doing in life, whether it's something in the business world or sales, or anything really, they are honing these skills that will help them. They'll feel more comfortable standing in front of a room speaking, projecting their voice and carrying themselves with confidence.”
For those who are interested in acting, the academy gives them an edge when auditioning for roles in upcoming productions staged by Linus Hand Productions.
Since that 2008 run of Suessical!, Hand has gone on to stage more child actor-heavy productions, like Annie, Peter Pan and most recently Oliver. Now with a talented pool of young actors to choose from, Hand said it's a no-brainer to bring in these types of shows.
Staging them through the Christmas season, it allows them to draw on visitors coming to see Niagara Falls in the wintertime as well as school groups looking for a fun theatre outing. The productions are now staged in the Scotiabank Convention Centre with the children as the big leads. The adult leads are still professional actors, mostly from Toronto.
“Everything is really high calibre, from the staging to the costumes, to the acting,” he says.
Upcoming productions include the Young Theatre production of Into the Woods, the culmination of the acting academy's session, and next winter's run of The Wizard of Oz. For more information on the academy or upcoming productions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.