Footlight gives young actors a leg up

Port Coquitlam’s Jianna Ballard plays Frenchy (pictured with New West’s Dimitrios Stephanoy who portrays Sonny and Teen Angel) - PHOTO submitted
Port Coquitlam’s Jianna Ballard plays Frenchy (pictured with New West’s Dimitrios Stephanoy who portrays Sonny and Teen Angel)
— image credit: PHOTO submitted

When Footlight Theatre Company set out its five-year plan for success, director and choreographer Lalainia Lindbjerg Strelau pushed for not only bigger shows but better emerging talent to showcase.

Then, it had moved its productions to the Michael J. Fox Theatre, aiming to bring well-loved musicals to the stage such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.

Its formula proved right and now, audience-goers know to expect high-quality performances from Footlight each November, she said.

“We are really improving ourselves as a company as well as the name of the company every year,” said Lindbjerg Strelau, a Coquitlam resident. “And we have continued to raise the bar with our talent.”

For its 46th season, Footlight chose Grease!, a story that Lindbjerg Strelau said is known around the world and needs no interpretation.

In fact, the company was in awe when it came to open audition calls earlier this year: about 200 actors — most of them agebetween 18 and 23 — lined up to be part of the show, which opens on Friday.

“They just blew me away at the castings,” Lindbjerg Strelau said. “Grease! is an ensemble piece and every single person cast is so strong. If you pack them together, their energy can be overwhelming.”

Footlight will have 32 actors on stage for Grease! — twice as many as seen with other companies. “One of our goals is to do very large family-friendly musicals,” she said. “When you go to see a musical at the Arts Club Theatre, it’s going to be great but you’re going to have a very limited cast because they all have to be paid. It’s expensive but that’s how those companies succeed: cutting the number of actors.”

Rather, Footlight tries to highlight as many young actors as it can to give them a leg up in the industry. For Grease!, it’s only paying for one actor: Jennie Neumann (Rizzo), who is part of the actors’ union.

The other actors are volunteer and “are doing it simply because they want to do Grease!” Lindbjerg Strelau said, adding, “We get people who are just on the cusp and starting their professional careers.”

She cited two examples: Langley’s Kaylee Harwood, who played her first musical theatre role in Cinderella for Footlight six years ago, has since gone on to perform at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and on Broadway in New York City; and Coquitlam’s Jennifer Gillis, 16, who was cast as the Dorothy understudy last year for The Wizard of Oz and recently returned home after a stint on CBC’s Over the Rainbow.

Port Coquitlam’s Jianna Ballard, 18, said she was thrilled to be selected as Pink Lady and beauty school drop-out, Frenchy, for Grease!, which will be her fifth Footlight credit (she also worked on  Cinderella, Meet Me in St. Louis, Joseph and The Wizard of Oz).

“All the Footlight shows I’ve been in have been completely different, which is great as an actor,” she said. “You learn so much, and it has certainly helped me grow as a teacher as well as a performer. Meeting new cast mates who have the same passion as you is also really fun.”

• Footlight Theatre Company’s Grease! runs Nov. 9 to 24 at the Michael J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby, with Lucas Blaney as Danny Zuko, Alex Gullason as Sandy and Craig DeCarlo as Kenickie. Tickets are $19.59 through www.ticketstonight.ca. For more information, visit www.footlight.ca.




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