Winter is coming to the Peterborough Theatre Guild as director Charles Shamess presents an all-new version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Snow Queen, this year’s annual family show at the Guild.
Charles and his team have been working with a group of talented kids between the ages of 10 and 15 to put together a very different kind of show filled with heart, fantasy, humour, and subtle messages that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.
Returning to the Guild for a second time after his successful sold-out run of Babe last December, Charles wrote his own adaptation of The Snow Queen for this production.
Based on the original story first published in 1845, Charles has updated it to make it relevant for today’s youth by not only setting the story in familiar parts of Ontario — including numerous references to Peterborough — but also by adapting the characters and themes to make subtle commentary on subjects relevant to today’s youth, including popularity, social media, and celebrity culture.
The Snow Queen tells the story of a girl named Gerta who goes in search of her missing foster brother Kai, who has been kidnapped by the evil Snow Queen who has put a spell over the world by placing shards of glass in the hearts and eyes of her victims. Along the way, Gerta meets numerous colourful characters and affects their lives through her examples of loyalty and compassion. The Snow Queen is a story about positivity and love over negativity and cynicism.
As Charles explains, the messages in the show haven’t gone unnoticed by his young cast.
“Adolescence often has that pessimistic and positive pull,” Charles says. “The moral of the story is that Gerta, through her integrity and her passion and her drive to find Kai, succeeds through the courage in her heart. Many of the kids we are working with are looking inside of their own selves as we work through the show. Most of them may not know that they are, but you can see the lights go on.”
Although Charles has a team of dedicated adults supporting him in the process of putting on The Snow Queen, all the performers on the stage are under the age of 15. Unlike many family shows that combine adult and kids together in the cast, Charles’ approach to putting on a family show is not only unique, but allows his young performers a chance for the spotlight instead of getting overshadowed by more experienced adult performers.
“This is our young company at the Theatre Guild,” Charles says proudly. “They are getting turned on to theatre and to art in general. Without adults in the show, the kids are on more of an equal playing field.”
“The 14 year olds have a little bit more experience than the 10 year olds but there isn’t much of a hierarchy,” he adds. “Instead, the younger kids look up to the older kids instead of the whole cast looking up to the adults. It makes for a better chemistry between the company. They support each other and they start to explore the emotional overtones of the show together.”
Mikayla Stoodley, who takes on the role of The Princess in the show, supports Charles’ philosophy.
“It’s fun to work with people my own age because you get to connect with people about how they feel about the play, where the adults are a lot more experienced,” she says. “It feels like a family. I get to know everyone, and have the time to talk to everybody.”
Charles and his company started work on The Snow Queen in September. However, the end goal isn’t go just to put on a show. It’s about giving these young actors a very real theatre experience in a safe and friendly environment. And it’s not just about putting kids on stage and telling them what to say. Together, Charles and his team have been working with the kids in discovering character motivation, emotions, movement, and voice.
“This is as much about supporting kids in their growth and their adolescence as putting on a show,” Charles explains. “There are ways to do that with kids which I think is better than the traditional approach to theatre.”
“We do a lot of teaching and building their confidence, getting them to understand who their character is,” he adds. “Most of the time they haven’t had that kind of experience yet, so having them understand what that experience is like is a big part of the process.”
For actress Sam Weatherdon, the process of understanding her character was unique in the fact that she plays the role of Kai — who is a boy. But this isn’t the first time she has played a male character.
“It’s very rare I play a girl,” Sam says. “It’s difficult to understand a boy, because I’m a girl. It’s difficult to figure out how a boy thinks, or how a boy moves. But it’s second nature that I can do it.”
Sam also tells me that it’s not just about trying to discover how a boy thinks or moves, but also in discovering the bond between characters, such as the unique bond she had to make with actress Katie Oickle, who stars as Gerta.
“It was very important that I had to find a lot of emotions with Gerta, so I can understand why she would go on this quest to find me,” Sam explains. “We have to show that bond in the first scene. It was difficult at first, but once you get it you just fall into it.”
One of the greatest strengths of The Snow Queen is that it’s a smart production that gives kids something to think about. Although it’s filled with the fun needed in a family production, unlike many family shows The Snow Queen is neither a comedy or a musical. It’s a story with three-dimensional characters and a struggle between good and evil that can often get very dark and very real.
Charles says that putting the darker aspects into the production is very important to the show.
“That is deliberate,” he admits. “I want kids to understand that there is death, sadness, heart break, and poverty as well as the fun and lighthearted side of theatre. They need to understand because it’s part of life.”
“Adolescence can be a very frustrating and upsetting time,” he continues. “But it can also be very invigorating, liberating, and a time where you learn so much about who you probably are going to be in the world. What’s really interesting about this show is that the kids involved are between 10 and 15 years old. Most of them are going through adolescence, and this show is about going through adolescence. You can actually see them begin to understand and reflect on their own adolescence and what that’s like.”
Charles’ version of The Snow Queen character isn’t anything like Disney’s popular heroine Elsa from Frozen. The Snow Queen, played by Irelande Farrell, is an uncompassionate villainess set on world domination. But, as Ireland says, playing a character who’s irremediable can be the most fun.
“Villains are the most exciting to play because you don’t get to be evil in real life,” Ireland says. “All the things that you never get to say to people, you get to say on stage. You can do so many things when you do the evil role.”
Actress Evelyn Fisher, who plays the wise-cracking flower Daffodil, also finds the importance of not playing a character liker herself.
“My character isn’t like the real me,” Evelyn says. “But when you’re acting like someone else, it’s much easier than trying to act like yourself. It’s just weird trying to act like yourself.”
However, Evelyn also understands how her character is important for some of the needed humour relief in the show.
“The Snow Queen is rough, and everything is stressful, but I’m the one who tries to lighten it all up,” she explains.
Some of the lessons being learned backstage have been helping some of the performers beyond the theatre.
“Theatre has helped me in speaking in front of people,” says Katie Oickle, who stars as the show’s heroine Gerta. “At school I’ve gotten much better at doing presentations in general. It’s made me a lot more confident.”
Irelande explains how Charles has instilled into the group that every person in the company has their unique part to play.
“In any show, from the title role to the ensemble, everybody has an equal amount to do,” she says. “Charles is very good about letting everybody know that every role is important.”
But what about opening night jitters? How will the kids deal with performing in front of an audience?
“I get nervous right before I go on stage, but the moment I get on I forget about it,” says Jack Freeman, who plays rock n’ roll slacker Raven in the show.
In putting together The Snow Queen, Charles and his team haven’t just put on another smart and thoughtful production that will connect with audiences of all ages, they have helped develop the future of Peterborough’s theatre community by giving these kids an experience that will keep them coming back to the stage.
Through respect, dignity and trust, they have given our next generation of stage actors something to be proud of.
“I love acting,” says Mikayla. “I improv all the time. I make videos of me acting so I can see how I’m doing. I want to keep doing this, because I just love it.”
The Snow Queen runs from December 8th to 11th with shows starting at 7 p.m., and December 12th and 13th at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5, but order your tickets soon. The Peterborough Theatre Guild family show always sells out, and at this writing tickets are only available for the December 9th, 10th and 11th shows.
All photos by Sam Tweedle / kawarthaNOW.