Kevin John Saylor never forgot the feeling he had performing in a play when he was in sixth grade. “It was the best time of my life. I’ll always remember it. It was fun – not only fun, it was exciting. And it made us feel good,” he said, adding it had also helped boost self-esteem and confidence.
Theatre is something he describes as magical, and as the founding artistic director of Turtle Island Theatre, it’s a meaning he hopes to impart on the next generations of young actors in the community.
Last week, he directed the first show for the children’s summer program since 2013 – an adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in collaboration with the Kahnawake Youth Center (KYC).
“It creates this family that supports each other and helps each other… it creates this family of cooperation,” said Saylor.
For the past six weeks, the youth at KYC put their skills on set to the test. Some took the stage for the very first time, while others had already gotten a taste of it.
“It was very exciting, I was nervous at first, but it was mostly exciting to show the community what we’re doing here and possibly encourage other people to join us and help us out too,” said Bella M. Deer, who played the role of the baker.
She’s no stranger to the stage, having already performed in a number of plays and a couple of movies, too. “With Disney movies you’re playing a more colourful character,” she said, adding that art and theatre are, to her, an outlet to express her understanding of the world around her.
“Everything like we’ve worked for, it’s all leading up to the show. And that’s the best part, when we get to actually perform it,” said Scout Marquis, who played the role of Belle.
Even behind the scenes, the excitement is palpable.
“For me, theatre is food for the soul,” said choreographer Dylan Stanley.
“I’m proud and I almost have to contain my emotions every night. It’s just like, wow, how beautiful art and theatre can be for a group of individuals. It’s such an intimate experience,” he said.
In his approach to this production, he found that keeping things simple was the way to go, especially when working with a cast of 36 kids.
“Once you perfect simplicity, then you can add layers onto that.”
“I love working with kids,” said musical director Kirk Elsmore. “I think kids are very awesome. I think we underestimate them. And especially when they’re on stage, they really prove their worth,” he said, adding that the entire production process and the final result are both equally fulfilling.
Children’s playfulness and creativity – a trait he finds is eclipsed by inhibitors in adults – is an element Stanley also found fascinating.
“There’s no filter to them. There’s no stopping their imagination,” he said. “You say, ‘be a cat,’ and there’s no hesitation,” he said.
As Turtle Island Theatre is now out of their old location, getting used to their new space – which included rebuilding the entire stage setup – was a challenge.
Saylor explained that they’re used to having changing rooms and a dedicated rehearsal space but now everything is condensed into one main room.
“To figure out how to keep everyone on task, to keep everyone entertained, to keep everyone, you know, focused, is a challenge,” he said. The cast rehearsed from Monday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to noon for six weeks, and the team behind the curtains would continue their work into the afternoon.
With decades of experience behind the curtains of stages big and small, Saylor has worked with actors of all ages, and mingled with crowds involved in theatre one way or another.
The biggest misconception he’s heard over the years about the artform – from youth and adults alike – is that you can throw it together in a couple of days and that it’s easy. This production was a testament to the hard work, hurdles, and hustle that it requires to put on a show. And in the end, as Saylor predicted, the work paid off.
From the sold out shows back-to-back and the crowd’s support, one thing was clear to Stanley: “It seems everyone is hungry for more,” he said.
So much so that they added an extra afternoon showing of the play after selling out their previous shows.
“We really enjoyed it and we’re really happy. It’s a great show,” said Falen Jacobs, who came to watch the show with her two sons, both of whom were seeing a play for the very first time.
“We’re so excited that theatre is back in the community. It’s been quite a few years,” she said.
For Saylor, bringing back the kids’ portion of Turtle Island Theatre has been particularly fulfilling since there’s a whole generation that missed out on it. Their next show is planned for December.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, August 18, in issue 32.33 of The Eastern Door.