WINDSOR, N.S. — Hot on the heels of reaching a significant milestone in its history, Mermaid Theatre is launching a new initiative that will benefit students from across the province.
Theatre Beyond Classrooms starts next week and through it, students will be able to watch live theatre at a fraction of the cost.
“That initiative is to allow schools to come here with their students to see our theatre for young audience productions either at a subsidized rate or free of cost to the school,” said Danny Everson, Mermaid Theatre's general manager.
“As much as Mermaid Theatre is well-known, I think sometimes money gets in the way of things and we don't want that to be an issue anymore (for schools),” he said.
On April 18, Windsor Elementary School will be the first to benefit from the innovative program. The students will be watching, free of charge, Manxmouse — a production from Kwatta Theatre, of the Netherlands.
Although the Windsor-based business already welcomes schoolchildren on a regular basis, they’re hoping Theatre Beyond Classrooms will increase that number — and introduce the fine arts to more children from areas like the Valley and Halifax.
Whether watching one of Mermaid Theatre’s beloved plays, or seeing an international performance in downtown Windsor, Everson said students reap the benefits.
“Eric Carle's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See and the Very Hungry Caterpillar are part of North American reading curriculum. It's really fantastic for teachers to have that as an outreach program that they can then teach the children the book inside the classroom and then see it represented visually on stage,” said Everson.
“It adds, I think, to their education tenfold.”
Reaching a milestone
Sara Lee Lewis, who co-founded the theatre in 1972 with Tom Miller and the late Evelyn Garbary, currently serves as the organization’s public affairs consultant.
When they were sitting around her kitchen table in Wolfville discussing forming the theatre, she said she never imagined the theatre would go on to reach so many people.
“We got a grant, we set up an office in my house and we took the first steps. We hired 10 of Evelyn's graduating students and we started the company,” recalled Lewis.
That group of students toured the province in a modified school bus.
The first school they performed for was in Aldershot.
“We started out doing an adaptation of a Gogol short story called the Nose, which Tom had adapted. It had lovely puppets and masks in it,” said Lewis.
“The masks and puppets allowed us to have a cast that was much bigger than our 10 people.”
They charged the schools they visited $15 that first year.
Since its humble beginnings, Mermaid Theatre, which is headquartered in Windsor, has grown to become a household name not just in Canada, but around the world.
“Now it's 46 years later, we've played to six million people in 19 countries, on four continents,” said Lewis, smiling.
The theatre currently has four touring companies on the road — each one performing a staple show for Mermaid Theatre: The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Classics; The Rainbow Fish; Guess How Much I Love You and My Little Storybook; and Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny.
The theatre troupe’s six millionth spectator was recorded in March when a Goodnight Moon company was at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, Somerville, New Jersey.
“That's a lot of children, families and individuals,” said Everson, who signed on as Mermaid’s GM earlier this year.
Mermaid Theatre also showcases live performances through its MIPAC (Mermaid Imperial Performing Arts Centre) lineup on its main stage.
- Up next is Rosie and the Riveters on April 14 at 8 p.m.
- Then, on May 4 at 8 p.m., Dylan Menzie will take the stage.
- Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny will take the stage on May 13 at 6 p.m.
- The Rainbow Fish will wrap up the 2017/18 season on June 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Mermaid Theatre is located at 132 Gerrish St., in Windsor.
Promoting a lifelong love of reading
“Because of the work we do, we're promoting literacy and a love of reading. All of our productions are drawn from storybooks. That enhances their interest and enthusiasm and going to the books,” said Lewis.
Lewis said they thoroughly enjoy interacting with the children at the conclusion of the show — there's a question and answer period — and said what the children have to say can be both funny and illuminating.
“The first time we did Goodnight Moon, which is a 65-year-old book, Jim Morrow (the artistic director) asked the kids, 'well, what do you think?' and one kid got up and said, 'well, the bowl of mush is on the wrong side of the table.' So Jim said, 'it won't happen again,’” Lewis recalled, laughing.
“We do a straight reading of the book.”
Lewis said children are so familiar with the characters that Mermaid’s adaptations have to be spot on.
“We find that our audience is often three to seven and they like an exact reading of the book. You make any changes... they're not happy because they're very familiar with the character and who says what when,” she noted.
As the books that they select to make into stage production are often published in multiple languages, Lewis said they are able to bridge many language gaps and tour the world.
“The books are published, sometimes, in 50 languages so we can do the story in that language by using a narrator who speaks that language,” she said. “That's how we're able to perform in Mandarin.”
Mermaid Theatre’s largest export market is the United States, with China coming in second. Lewis said the company generated 23 per cent of its earned revenue in China last year, and they anticipate similar results this year.
Lewis said Mermaid’s performers are often on the road for three to nine months at a time — they are flown home for Christmas — and get to experience a wide variety of cultures. Senior management also gets the opportunity to travel with the company.
“Join Mermaid and see the world. It's a wonderful opportunity, both personally and professionally,” Lewis said.
She said they also offer “puppetry instruction from cradle to career.”
Through the Institute of Puppetry Arts, which was launched in 1998, Mermaid Theatre’s puppetry experts offer both in-house and outreach workshops. They also operate a three-week hands-on instructional program called Animotion each spring.
Later this month, seven people will be participating in Animotion from Nova Scotia, plus two from Ontario and one from New Brunswick and one from Quebec. Through that program, Lewis said they often select apprentices for upcoming shows.
There's always great demand for Animotion so Everson said they’re currently considering expanding the program to be twice a year.
“We're also looking at doing the same type of program but in the art design and production studio,” he said.
With a solid base under them, Everson sees a bright future for the company to build upon in the years to come.
“We feel here at Mermaid that what we do and what we can bring to the local market is quite extraordinary.”
To learn about the latest shows at Mermaid Theatre, visit: www.mermaidtheatre.ca.