The High School Project at 25: A Look Back at the Grand Theatre’s Renowned Youth Theatre Program
“How do we get more students interested in the arts?”
This was the question posed 25 years ago to the Grand Theatre’s then Artistic Director, Michael Shamata, by a high school teacher on the Theatre’s Education Committee. Never one to shy away from a challenge, or the needs of a community member, the Artistic Director immediately set his mind to the matter – collaborating with a drama teacher from Westminster Secondary School, John Douglas.
It was during a brain-storming session at The Ceeps that a radical thought quickly took shape. What if the Grand were to stage a fully professional production, created by and featuring local high school students, who would be mentored by some of the country’s top theatre talent at the Grand? Stirred by the idea, the High School Project (HSP) was born.
Although the 1997/98 Season was already planned and budgeted, Shamata was keen to get the first Project on its feet within the year. While there were some disagreements in the early days, there was one central element that everyone agreed on: The mission, which was to involve as many students as possible in a production on the Grand Theatre stages, at no personal cost to the participants.
With this guiding light in the forefront, work quickly began on creating the first HSP performance, Broadway hit: West Side Story. And, with this major title in place, also came the workings of a major production.
“From the get-go, Michael ran the High School Project like a main stage show,” remarked Andrew Petrasiunas, the Project’s first Musical Director. He elaborated: “Actually, I don’t think any of us treated that show differently than any Grand production; we all had high expectations for these students.”
Indeed, the students delivered beyond expectations. Between 36 students on stage and 32 working in production, on May 7th, 1998 West Side Story successfully snapped its way on to the Spriet Stage. With its fresh young cast, innovative set, and strong direction, the production dazzled audiences – holding a nearly sold-out run.
Shannon Bull as Maria and Mark Uhre as Tony in West Side Story.
With enormous pride, and some admitted relief in bringing this ambitious project to the stage, Shamata relayed to the student company: “You’ve exhausted us, energized us, made us laugh, and made us very, very proud!”
Following the triumph of its first show, the High School Project became an annual Spring tradition for the Theatre, until 2005 when an additional Fall production was programmed – a benefit for students, families, and schools alike. Fall and Spring HSP productions continued until 2017 when September’s Evita began a new tradition of Fall-only musicals.
A box office success, HSP productions have welcomed tens of thousands of new and returning audiences year-after-year since its first show. Yet, it’s the students that are truly the mark of the Project’s success.
Since its inception, the Theatre has seen almost 2,000 students graduate from the Project. With no financial barriers in place, these students found a safe and inspiring environment to develop as theatre artists and as global citizens. Many of these students also went forward to pursue a career in the arts, like: Grand Theatre Head Scenic Carpenter, Craig Pearson; go-to arts videographer, Mallory Brown; directors and choreographers, Cameron Carver and Thomas Alderson; and notable actors: Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, Aiden deSalaiz, and Mark Uhre – who will star as Willy Wonka in the Grand’s 2023 holiday production: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Clearly, what started as a way to immerse students in the arts, has turned into one of the country’s top incubators of young theatre talent. And, it’s nowhere near done yet.
In September 2023, the Theatre celebrates its 25th anniversary of its signature program with Broadway’s longest running production, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
Loaded with a complex musical score and intricate scene work, The Phantom of the Opera is a challenging production for any theatre to mount – let alone a student company. But, Director Andrew Tribe knows that London’s students are up for the challenge. After all, over 300 students from across the region applied for performance, orchestra, and production roles – some hailing from as far as Petrolia and Woodstock.
The cast of The Phantom of the Opera in the rehearsal hall.
With one of the largest application pools in the Project’s history, the London-born director, HSP alumnus, and three-time HSP director – along with his Artistic Team – were delighted, yet given the painstaking role of casting only a select few. In the end, 48 students were cast in performing roles; 23 working in wardrobe, props, scenic art, sound, stage management, photography & marketing, backstage and lighting; and an additional three in the orchestra.
As the High School Project now looks to its next 25 years, there is no saying how it may evolve and what future Canadian stars will have their start at the Grand. One thing that is abundantly clear is that thanks to the unwavering support of the London community and generous sponsors, the Project will only continue to flourish. And, more than this, it will remain inimitable anywhere else in the country. And, why? Because, as Tribe says, “It’s because London kids are special. That’s all there is.”
For more information on the Grand Theatre’s 25th Anniversary High School Project: The Phantom of the Opera, running on the Spriet Stage from September 19th through October 7th, or to reserve your seats, visit: www.grandtheatre.com/event/phantom-opera