Travis Seetoo, actor and instructor for the Shaw Festival Niagara Region High School Monologue Derby, feels fortunate to have had a chance to work with the five young aspiring actors who participated in the two-week program.
“They range from 13- to 17-year-olds, all with a keen interest in theatre,” Seetoo says. “They’ve been so wonderfully enthusiastic, and prepared and hard-working.”
Shaw first offered the monologue derby in August, 2021 as a chance to learn and perform for high school students whose opportunities to participate in theatre were curtailed due to the pandemic. Though many schools were able to mount live performances since last summer, Seetoo and senior manager of education Suzanne Merriam saw great value in the program’s continuation.
“We view ourselves as part of this community and we want to support young people in theatre,” says the 33-year-old Seetoo. “They got to meet lots of company members, tour the building, have lunch with actors in the green room. I know from my own experience that it can’t be oversold how getting to meet experienced actors is such a thrill.”
Students participated in workshops by Shaw actors Kiera Sangster (movement), Julie Lumsden (voice and accents) and Kristopher Bowman (improvisation). As well, actor and associate artistic director Kimberly Rampersad led a session that encompassed auditioning, how to get into theatre school and what Shaw is looking for in young actors.
“You would pay a lot of money for a session like that anywhere but here,” Seetoo says. “It was extremely beneficial for them. We can’t thank Kimberly enough for being so giving of her time.”
They also had a chance to attend five different Shaw plays in a way that most theatre-goers don’t get to experience. Seetoo led pre-and post-show talks, often with some of the performers from those plays, where the participants were able to dig more deeply into the meaning of the texts.
“We were pretty amazed at how these plays, which are usually for older audiences, really resonated with this younger group,” Seetoo marvelled. “All of these students are overachievers. We had some of the best conversations about these plays that I’ve ever had, with insightful things I never would have thought of.”
At Friday afternoon’s culminating derby performances, the five participants all said their favourite of the Shaw plays they saw was Everybody. That, coincidentally, is the one play of the five that is currently starring Seetoo himself.
After some entertaining warm-up improv exercises performed in front of mostly family members at the Court House Theatre, the first performer Friday was Teodora Vekovic of Niagara Falls, delivering a monologue from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.
The grade 12 student at St. Michael Catholic High School, who is planning on studying acting at university next September, took the stage with the presence and poise of a professional. Her movements, her facial expressions and her voice combined to nail the wonder and fascination expressed by the play’s character, Cornelius.
“I chose it because Cornelius talks about recently discovering his love for women,” Vekovic told the Local. “I find that, emotionally, it’s very much the same way I feel about theatre. Until recently, I hadn’t realized how much I love theatre. Through this program I’ve come to love it more, and feel enthralled about it, the same way my character feels about women.”
Vekovic was followed by Hannah Evans, who is starting grade 10 at Laura Secord next week. The St. Catharines student was part of the school’s production of Mamma Mia last spring and has also been involved with Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Yellow Door Theatre Project.
“I love that the Shaw is putting out these opportunities for young people like myself,” Evans said about the monologue program. “I want to work at the Shaw one day when I’m older. I love that I can get all of these experiences. It’s truly fantastic.
Evans bravely chose to tackle a monologue from Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s The Stronger, a one-act play in which Madame X speaks to a silent Mademoiselle Y.
“We all got these pamphlets with all types of monologues to choose from,” Evans, who delivered Strindberg’s challenging lines with great confidence, said. “This one just really stuck out to me. It’s a really emotional piece, the longest of them all. Something about it just resonated with me.”
Grade 12 Eden High School student Tayler Denbak took on the persona of Joan of Arc from George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan for her performance. This was Denbak’s second year in the monologue derby and her self-assured delivery spoke to her experience with the program.
“I’ll be able to use the skills here, like puppetry and improv,” Denbak said backstage. “I’ll be able to pull those skills from my toolbox. It gives me confidence to have more conversations with people, too.”
Carly Greavette and Jaya Holland were the two youngest participants this summer, both just recently having graduated from Wheatley School in St. Catharines. The pair have been close since grade six and were excited to be spending two weeks at Shaw together before moving on to high school.
“We as a group have gotten very close,” Holland said. “There’s only five of us. I feel like this has really brought us all together.”
Greavette added, “what’s stuck out the most for me has been how close we’ve all gotten with our instructors and our classmates. We’re not wanting to say goodbye.”
The sheer joy on Greavette’s face while delivering her monologue from Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple was clearly evident. She told The Local that the passage stood out for her as a different and unique piece from what she would usually do, especially with the final line, “long live the Devil”.
“That’s so fun to do on stage,” Greavette enthused. “We worked on it every day and I just fell in love with it.”
Holland also presented a monologue from Shaw’s oeuvre, this one from the playwright’s 1933 comedy Village Wooing, about a man and woman meeting on a cruise.
Following the final monologue, the five young participants gathered on stage to surprise Seetoo with a song and dance to thank him for his hard work over the past two weeks.
“We are continuing this, we’ll be doing it again next year,” Seetoo said. “It’s extremely valuable for young people to come and work on some of these difficult texts, Shaw, Wilde, Thornton Wilder. Our expertise at the Shaw is those kinds of plays with beautiful and complex language. We want to impart that to young actors.”