The New Side of The Stage
When speaking of the Wood Buffalo arts community, especially about the theatre, one will almost immediately hear the name Michelle Thorne mentioned. The co-founder and Artistic Director of the independent theatre company Theatre; Just Because, veteran actor, youth theatre mentor and workshop facilitator is an influential and passionate champion for the Fort McMurray arts community. This holiday season, she is making her Keyano Theatre main stage directorial debut with the family-friendly production of The Other Side of the Pole by Stephen Heatley, in which two young amateur detectives investigate why Christmas has been banned from their hometown of Split Hoof. In pursuit of answers, they learn some very interesting things about themselves, their families and the magic of Christmas.
Michelle’s theatre journey began back in junior kindergarten when she played Chicken Little in her class production. Having caught the theatre bug at such an early age, she continued to explore the stage as a student at Westwood Community High School, acting in the drama club and in their award winning improv group. After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Lethbridge, she returned to Fort McMurray and has since then brought her invigorating and innovative spirit to the local theatre. You might have seen her in several Keyano Theatre main stage productions, including Cabaret, Boeing Boeing, Extremities and Dracula, just to mention a few.
After returning to her hometown, she was feeling frustrated by the lack of opportunity to be involved with theatre in Fort McMurray. Thus began her transitioning from actor to director and arts champion. “I wanted to create more opportunity for local theatre artists to be able to perform their craft,” says Michelle, “I realized that if I were to successfully create these opportunities I would have to take on more of a leadership role.” Her first venture as a director was Louis and Dave, a short one-act play with only two actors, very few props and set requirements. It went on the win Best Production at the ADFA Provincial Festival, an achievement that gave her the confidence to keep directing and selecting more challenging projects.
Earlier this year, she directed Steel Magnolias for the Keyano Theatre’s Stage 2 Series and describes it as an incredible and rewarding experience. “Bringing a group of individuals together not only on stage, but off again, has been incredibly satisfying” enthuses Michelle, “watching those women support and find strength in each other was one of the most beautiful experiences of my career”. The production almost never came to be, as the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation happened only mere weeks before the play was scheduled to open, and it was indefinitely postponed. Due to the diligence of Michelle and the cast and crew, the show fought its way back and took to the stage four months after its original opening date, receiving standing ovations.
The opportunity to direct for the main stage this season has been a thrilling ride for the budding director. “To be directing for a stage and company that has done work by some of the most respected Canadian directors is a huge accomplishment,” she says, “I am honoured to follow in their footsteps.” Having the support of Keyano Theatre has definitely played a great part in her development and growth as an artist. “As a performer, I have been able to work with some incredibly gifted directors and creative teams, and worked on very challenging and rewarding scripts which have helped make me realize the boundlessness of the possibility of creativity” explains Michelle, “to be able to have had an opportunity to now work with them as a director has elevated my skills to new heights, and greatly increased my confidence as an artist.”
One mentor that stands out throughout her journey is director Paul Gélineau, who’s Keyano credentials include success productions such as Into the Woods and Cabaret. “I would often attend rehearsals I was not called to, simply to watch Paul work,” says Michelle, “he is able to produce intelligent, meaningful, honest productions with the highest levels of artistic integrity. Paul is a master not only at working with actors to get their most honest and powerful performances, but his true genius is his abilities as a storyteller.”
Her main stage debut The Other Side of the Pole is written by Canadian playwright and theatre artist Stephen Heatley. The family-friendly holiday show tells the story of five elves working in Santa’s workshop, as they try to teach a newly hired elf about the true meaning of Christmas. Heatley’s vision of the play is for people to see it and fall in love with the magic of Christmas all over again. It’s a piece that is filled to the brim with humour, heart, beautifully written original music and just the right touch of Christmas magic. “I wanted it to be a mix of contemporary and classic visions of the ‘most wonderful time of the year’” says Michelle, “making the audience feel as though they are sitting in a horse-drawn sleigh in the middle of a snow globe, drinking hot cocoa and devouring candy canes with loved ones while chestnuts roast on an open fire.”
Over thirty talented local performers auditioned for the piece, making the final casting decision tough for Michelle and her team, as the play only has a cast of six actors. “I was looking for highly animated, energetic, warm individuals to play each of the elves” Michelle elaborates, “I also required six exceptionally strong singers, who could sing straight from the heart”. Having had a great pool of local talent to choose from made it possible for her to assemble a very strong cast as well as a solid crew to work with her behind the scenes. “I think are really going to blow the socks off of this show!” she exclaims. Opening on November 25, The Other Side of the Pole is sure to become a favourite holiday story for the theatre-going community of Fort McMurray.
Costume sketches by Set & Costume Designer Stacey Beach