I’ve walked into the loudest rehearsal I have ever been a part of. The conversations and laughter of over 20 energetic children fill the space. It takes over 10 minutes to get the performers to quiet down and into their positions for the rehearsal to begin.
This is what every day is like for the people at Project Limelight, a charitable organization that provide youths ages 8–15 a space for performance and artistic expression. Today, the cast and crew at Limelight are working on their pilot production, Wonderland, a pantomime adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that will include audience interaction, music, comedy, and dance.
Like many arts organizations, Project Limelight is dependent on support from the community, and so far it has been met with overwhelming generosity. The Vancouver Opera and Playhouse have donated props and costumes, and SFU is lending the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre for their upcoming production. Cory Monteith of Glee fame has also come onboard to speak on why this free theatre program is so important to youths.
“Everybody is on board,” said director Paul Belanger. “I think it is the idea that you are giving kids a voice. They learn about themselves and you can’t give that to somebody in any other way than theatre.”
Belanger is the visionary force behind Wonderland, and has been working with Project Limelight for the past two months. From decades of experience working with them, he knows that when it comes to kids, you need respect. The crew, who are all volunteers, have to remember that everyone is on the same plane. “The little guy that doesn’t focus and talks in the corner has the same right as the glorious A+ student that listens and does everything perfectly.”
And the respect is mutual. “The kids come to us and ask us questions about life. That is priceless”.
Within a four-hour rehearsal, there are bound to be times when kids are less focused, but that’s part of the learning process. “We try to instill a respect for theatre into them. It doesn’t happen the first time, but I think any program that we are doing we have to work way harder in the beginning to get the nucleus together to all be on the same page,” said Belanger.
But there are times when everything falls into place, and that gives Belanger some peace of mind. “I know that in front of an audience, when you get 200 or 300 people in front of them, they are going to come to life. And it is that one time in rehearsal that I see it work, and I go ‘Oh, thank goodness for that!’”
During the process, the kids, who come from different schools around Strathcona and from different family backgrounds, have grown into a strong ensemble. Those that were dismissive at the beginning, or didn’t want to play with others, have become comfortable and confident in showing their true selves.
“A lot of kids with confidence in themselves and respect come out of arts programs,” Belanger claimed. “I have taught for many years and the one thing that always comes back is that they get a sense of self; they learn to love themselves.”
For Belanger, the youth in the program have reaffirmed that it’s not about being perfect, but the journey. “What we’re here for is to give the kids a time where they are allowed to be themselves and to have fun. If they don’t have fun doing this, then what’s the point?”