On a Monday night, I find myself surrounded by a group of enthusiastic and energetic kids dressed in spandex, masks, and capes. One kid has a green mohawk, another wears a futuristic computer costume, there’s a vampire in the corner, one kid has told me about an invisible cow, and I think I just glimpsed a small child in a Wonder Woman outfit dashing around a corner.
No, I’m not at a comic book or cosplay convention. I’m at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall in downtown Millbrook for the dress rehearsal of Funfolk Theatricals production of Calling All Sidekicks!.
Written and directed by Cavan resident Shan McFadden, Calling All Sidekicks! features 24 young performers ranging from the age of six to 16 in a fun-filled superhero epic created for the very young — as well as the very young at heart.
Calling All Sidekicks! is Funfolk Theatricals 12th annual production created in time for March Break. At only $5 a ticket, Calling All Sidekicks! is a fun and alternative way to entertain kids during the March Break, and affordable enough for the whole family to attend.
A writer of children’s audio books, Shan McFadden has been leading the group of kids and a band of loyal parent volunteers in creating colouful children’s theatre since his first play, The Princess and the Plumber, in 2016. Since then, Shan has created five shows for the group.
“Funfolk was started 12 years ago by Loraine Scott and Jackie and Dave Franco as a means of bringing affordable theatre to the community,” Shan says. “When Loraine retired from the group, Pat Barr took her place as co-director, alongside Jackie Franco.”
“Eventually the group was passed on to me and I took over as writer and director, writing and directing original plays such as ‘The Princess and the Plumber’, ‘Tabitha and the Almost Impossible Quest’, ‘Two Kids, a Robot and a Time Machine’, and ‘The Horrible, Terrible, Pirate King.'”
What makes Funfolk Theatricals unique compared to other youth theatre groups in the area is that the company is a collective that maintains its actors year after year, only opening its ranks to new performers when a member leaves the group. Capping their cast at 24 performers allows Shan and his team to help their performers grow year after year, while maintaining a tight-knit family atmosphere.
“If you are a Funfolk member, you stay a Funfolk member until you choose to leave,” Shan explains. “So, if you were in the last production, you are guaranteed one of the 24 roles in the next production. Another spot only comes available whenever a performer decides they aren’t coming back for any given reason. This year we had four open spots for new kids to join.”
“The goal has always been to get kids to come in young with a small part, and every year to push them a little bit more every year into bigger roles. We have a girl who was in my first production at the age of four, and is nine now. In my first production she had one line, and now she’s a lead. So it’s a progression, guiding them to build their confidence and start to be more comfortable. We keep it small, but it works for us.”
In Calling All Sidekicks! Shan takes the ultra-popular superhero genre and flips it on its head by not only creating 24 uniquely identifiable characters, but also playing on themes of heroism, sibling rivalry, loyalty, friendship, vanity, and the dangers of social media in a play that has important messages but is still imaginative and fun.
“In our story the superheroes are vain and lazy and don’t really do anything heroic,” Shan says. “They like to have their pictures taken, be on social media, and be famous while their sidekicks do all the work. It’s more a young generation versus old generation story being told.”
When I visited with some of the young cast members in the show, they helped flesh out Shan’s story.
“In this play the superheroes have lost their way,” says Shephira Curtain who, dressed in a long flowing cloak, plays the mind-reading heroine Mystico. “But the sidekicks don’t care about fame. They want to help people and want to create a better world, but they don’t have that much power.”
“The superheroes come in at the last minute and say they did everything,” adds Caoimhe MacQuarrie, who plays a feral character named Bearcat.
In the show, Shan has created an entire universe of superheroes, supervillains, and sidekicks of all shapes and sizes. What keeps the show entertaining is that each of the characters are uniquely individual, which allows each cast member to have his or her own moment in the spotlight, no matter the size of the part.
“All of the characters are based on, one way or another, stereotypes of existing superheroes,” Shan explains. “We have Kid Lightning who is sort of like The Flash, Paragon who is a little bit like Robin, and a character named Sparky who is like Cyborg. We also have a number of different characters who work into the story.”
While Shan was the mastermind behind creating the characters, he has allowed the actors to create their own origin stories for the characters.
“Everybody has a different idea of superheroes,” Shan says. “The younger kids have a friendly idea of superheroes, like Spider-Man, while the older kids have seen the darker superheroes and more action-based superheroes.”
“So in this play, different kids get to interpret their ideas about superheroes in different ways. Some of them are into the fame, while some are into service to the community. It’s fun to see the kids look at the different ways of being a hero.”
When asking the kids about their origin stories, I was struck by just how much thought they put into the stories, often pairing up their origins with other characters in the play.
“Bearcat’s parents were superheroes that were a bear and a cat,” Caoimhe says. “But she also had a sister who had a genetic disease and a birthmark that looked like a snake on her hand. While I became good like my parents, she turned evil and became the Baroness, who is played by my friend Zoe. When we were growing up I kept telling her the snake was a disgusting animal, which is why we are arch rivals now.”
“Mystico and Paragon are sisters, but Paragon is the bossy one and is always telling me what to do,” Shephira explains. “One day when Paragon was ordering Mystico to clean her room, my character knew her sister didn’t (clean her own room), and that’s when she found out she could read minds. Mystico joined the sidekicks to try to prove that she was better than her sister.”
When six-year-old Riordan MacQuarrie, who plays the villainous Foghorn, got tongue-tied while telling his origin story, his older sibling Saoirse, who helped him write it, helps him out.
“You were doing an experiment on fossil fuels, and you accidentally used the wrong ingredient and then got the superhuman ability to make disgusting loud burps.”
While the superhero genre has dominated the movie box office for the last 20 years, superheroes have been a perennial favourite with kids for generations through cartoons and comic books. Thus, the colourful characters in Calling All Sidekicks! will appeal to kids who continue to marvel at the adventures of costumed heroes.
“Superheroes don’t just fight bad guys,” points out Saoirse. “They work hard, and that’s how they win.”
“People want to be superheroes,” adds Danica Cowen, who plays the social media addicted hero Whirlwind. “So people like them because they want to be like them.”
“It’s fun for people of all ages to watch because they like the action and the fighting and seeing the good guys win,” Caoimhe points out.
That spirit of fun is exactly what watching Calling All Sidekicks! is all about. During my first visit with Funfolk Theatricals, I was impressed by how Shan and his team have created a safe and positive environment filled with a sense of fun and comradery between kids both young and old. With their high energy and bright spirits, the kids were still focused and disciplined and put pride and a sense of ownership into the production they were creating.
While fun for all ages, Calling All Sidekicks! has been especially created for families of young children. The show opens at the Millbrook Royal Canadian Legion Hall (8 King St. E. Millbrook) on Sunday, March 15th at 3 p.m. and continues on Monday, March 16th and Tuesday, March 17th at 2 p.m., with one evening performance on Monday night at 6 p.m.
Tickets are $5 (free for kids under three) and can be ordered online at www.funfolktheatricals.com or by contacting Christine by phone or text at 705-772-3502 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. A limited number of tickets are available at the door, subject to availability.