Director-choreographer Donna Feore searched the country to find a superstar who could take on one of the toughest roles in musical theatre.
She needed a triple-threat actor with top skills in ballet, the stamina to lead a 2½-hour musical and the ability to portray wonder, love and anger with unflinching honesty.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of all: she needed someone to do all of that at just 11 years old.
She found the star of Stratford’s Billy Elliot the Musical in Vancouver, B.C.: Nolen Dubuc, who built his budding career on a dream of playing this very role.
He was only four when he first saw the musical and told his parents he wanted to play Billy, the coalminer’s son with a passion for dance.
Nolen Dubuc (Billy Elliot) and Colton Curtis (Older Billy) perform the Dream Ballet at the dress rehearsal, a moment of huge significance as Billy Elliot was a formative musical for them both at an early age.
Director Donna Feore helps Nolen Dubuc inhabit the title role in this summer’s musical Billy Elliot the Musical at the Stratford Festival. “It’s a huge role for an 11-year-old,” she says. “Dancing, singing, acting – he’s on stage for almost every scene.”
Just as the community created by Lee Hall and Elton John rallies to help young Billy make the most of his amazing talent, the company of veteran musical theatre artists at the Stratford Festival has helped give Nolen everything he needs to shine.
“This part is huge – with singing, dancing and acting,” says Feore. "He’s on the stage in practically every scene.
"He’s got to have physical stamina to do it – and there’s a Geordie (Newcastle) accent to learn.”
(The story is set in the North of England, near Newcastle, during the struggle between the miners and Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.)
Feore has a flair for working with children, recently directingThe Music Man and The Sound of Music at Stratford.
She also directed Oliver! in 2006, featuring a memorable Artful Dodger, played by a young Scott Beaudin, who returns as an adult performer to play Billy’s brother, Tony.
Nolen Dubuc looks to Blythe Wilson, who plays his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, as the cast gets a first taste of singing with the orchestra at the sitzprobe rehearsal.
Nolen Dubuc with Scott Beaudin, who plays Billy’s union-activist brother – and, as a boy, played the Artful Dodger in Feore’s Stratford production of Oliver! “It helps that he’s been where I am,” Nolen says.
“Nolen brings focus, maturity and sensitivity far beyond his years, and the demands of the role far exceed what I was tasked with all those years ago,” says Beaudin.
“I get frustrated when people hyperbolize the word ‘epic,’ but that word might just fit for this performance: multiple lengthy dance solos, flying, fighting, tapping, a very tricky accent, plus very heavy and emotional material – that’s all just the beginning of Nolen’s Stratford journey and it’s a pleasure to watch this young man find his light.”
It’s been encouraging for Dubuc to work with Beaudin, who is living proof that child actors can go on to have successful careers. “It helps that he’s been where I am,” Dubuc says.
Feore too was once a young dancer. She started at age seven, moving from her hometown of Dawson Creek, B.C., to Vancouver, to join the Pacific Ballet Theatre School.
“I was on stage at Nolen’s age,” she says. That experience has had an impact on how she works with children, and Nolen in particular.
“We all need to be aware of him being a boy still. I never want a child to join a show as an 11-year-old and leave it feeling 35.”
Nolen Dubuc and Dan Chameroy, playing Billy’s Dad. “He’s this trickster in rehearsals,” Nolen says of Dan. “But he can be serious, too.”
Nolen Dubuc rehearses Angry Dance. “He’s on the stage in practically every scene. He’s got to have physical stamina to do it,” says Director-Choreographer Donna Feore.
But becoming Billy has taken time and effort. After taking voice and dance classes, Dubuc won regional competitions in both disciplines, and then landed roles in Vancouver musicals, including Michael in Mary Poppins and John Bechdel in Fun Home.
Taking on a role at Stratford carries with it a massive workload. It started in January with “Billy Bootcamp,” where Dubuc was able to get an overview of what was ahead of him – including learning how to “fly” – crucial for the production’s dream ballet.
Dubuc and the other 16 children in the production get a tremendous amount of support, but a lot is expected of them as well.
“We support them, but also set boundaries – as I did for my own children,” says Feore. “Most obvious: you’re on time, you’re ready to work for rehearsals.”
And those rehearsals are demanding. The children, like all of the cast members, work with what Feore affectionately calls an artistic SWAT team of experts: assistant directors and choreographers, vocal and dialect coaches, dance captains and singing coaches, all helping the performers meet the exacting standards that have made Feore the country’s leading director-choreographer.
Dubuc gets it: “She’s funny. But, yeah, she makes you work hard.” Feore says the learning hasn’t all gone in one direction. “When we’re trying to figure out what an 11-year-old boy might do in this situation, well, the great thing is, there’s an 11-year-old right there. We ask him.”
Nolen Dubuc and Blythe Wilson, cast as Billy’s exacting dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. “My primary job is to be as solid as I can as Mrs. Wilkinson so I can fully support Nolen in his journey,” she says.
Nolen Dubuc, Vanessa Sears (Mum) and Emerson Gamble (Michael) steal a moment at the “sitzprobe,” the first day singing with the orchestra, a highlight of the rehearsal process.
For Feore and Dubuc – and all of the dancers in the production – there are parallels between Billy’s story and their own: they started working hard to make dancers of themselves while still in primary school. But there are differences, too. “Billy didn’t have the support that I’ve had,” Dubuc says. “My parents, everyone’s been behind me throughout. The same here at Stratford.”
Says Feore: “This show is about a small town ultimately coming together around a young boy, helping him to realize his talents. What’s happening on stage – that’s been happening in the rehearsals. In this show, Nolen’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, and everyone’s working to help him bear it with grace and confidence."
More images below ...
Nolen Dubuc and Dance Captain Bonnie Jordan walk through one of the dance numbers as they get a first chance to sing along with the orchestra in the sitzprobe rehearsal.
During the 2½-hour musical, 11-year-old Nolen Dubuc showcases ballet, tap, contemporary street dance, gymnastics and flying in this once-in-a-lifetime role.
Nolen Dubuc finds a still moment in Stratford’s iconic Festival Theatre, during an on-stage rehearsal for Billy Elliot the Musical.
Nolen Dubuc and Starr Domingue rehearse a scene from Billy’s Royal Ballet School audition.
Nolen Dubuc learns from Director-Choreographer Donna Feore, who like Nolen studied dance from a young age. “We all need to be aware of him being a boy still,” she says. “I never want a child to join a show as an 11-year-old and leave it feeling 35.”
In an early on-stage rehearsal, Nolen Dubuc propels himself off a balustrade in a move from Angry Dance.
In an image captured from backstage, Nolen Dubuc rehearses one of the final moments of the musical.
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