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A quest to re-discover the magic of theatre, starting in a high-school drama studio

High school drama
The cast of Lakeshore Collegiate's Les Misérables basks in a curtain call. (All photos: Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)

After a decade of writing about the art form he loves, critic J. Kelly Nestruck found himself in a moment of crisis. Theatre, it seemed, had grown elitist and out of touch with the country it was supposed to entertain. To renew his faith, he went back to where it all began: high school. But can a group of teens enduring their own struggles prove that theatre is still worth fighting for?

“This is the real thing, right? Okay, guys?”

Greg Danakas, the drama teacher at Toronto’s Lakeshore Collegiate Institute, claps for attention, runs his hand along his bushy chevron mustache and begins rallying his troops for opening night of Les Misérables.

The high-school show’s 34 cast members gather around him in a circle – costumed in formless grey tops and black pants and skirts for Mr. D’s dystopian, Hunger Games-inspired and non-musical take on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck authors an eight-part series: a quest to discover the future of theatre by immersing himself in a dramatic production at Lakeshore Collegiate Institute.

The complete series:

“From last year when I announced the play, from our first rehearsal back in February…,” Mr. Danakas begins. “It’s like a big pyramid that’s wide at the bottom and gets pointy at the top. All that stuff, it’s building and building and building to one little point. And that’s today.”

Mr. D’s speech builds and builds, too – the 50-year-old teacher has been giving opening-night speeches at Lakeshore for 17 years and has this performance nailed.

His voice gets louder, more insistent, more emotional as he implores the student actors to put aside distractions – to forget, for the moment at least, exams and prom on the horizon, exes in the audience or even on stage, bullies and bad grades, and parents fighting cancer and financial difficulties at home – and focus before heading into the green room.

“Everything has to be perfect today,” Mr. Danakas says, getting close to the top of his own pyramid. “Live every moment. Live every emotion. Every moment has to –”

The drama studio door flies opens unexpectedly.

“Hello, Mr. Easton.”

Allan Easton, Lakeshore’s principal for less than a year, wades into the sea of students, who are in the midst of transforming into French townspeople, prisoners, innkeepers and factory workers, and beams out a big, if slightly bemused smile.

“Hello!” he says, brightly, with a chipper wave. “I just wanted to stop by before I go into the show and say: Good luck, everybody!”

“NOOOOOOOOOO!” the assembled – teens, once again – scream at their principal.

Mr. Easton looks slightly stunned, not understanding that he has just jinxed their production by saying “good luck” instead of “break a leg.” Is opening night doomed?

BACK TO SCHOOL

Like Mr. Easton, you may be looking around the Lakeshore Collegiate Institute drama studio in mild confusion. Why was The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic watching teen actors warm up for opening night of Les Misérables on May 27, instead of covering the Stratford Festival like those at other newspapers?

Last fall, approaching my seventh anniversary at the newspaper, I was in crisis about the art form that I had loved since I, myself, was a teenager.

Hilliary Lyn, Grade 12: Cosette

before
after

Swipe to reveal the student in character.
(See all 32 before/after cast portraits here.)

Watching plays at Stratford, or in Toronto, or in Calgary upwards of 200 times a year, I had begun to worry about what I was seeing in the seats around me and on the stages in front of me.

I worried I was writing about an art form still dominated by white directors and playwrights and performers in a country that increasingly was not.

I worried that theatre was becoming an elitist art form whose major institutions were increasingly out of reach of even the middle class, that the core theatre audience was staying white and getting older – and that my profession was swiftly becoming as idiosyncratic and outdated as a mechanic for penny farthings.

Most worrisome of all: I began to lose faith that theatre was worth fighting for. I wondered if the “magic” I had always ascribed to live performance just was a myth I had bought into, and whether more complex and better-told stories – ones that reflect and engage with and interrogate the country and the world we live in – could actually be found on Netflix for a fraction of the cost.

So, when The Globe’s arts editor sat me down and asked if there was a big project I’d like to work on – I said, suddenly, unexpectedly, that I’d like to go back to high school.

I wanted to return to the place where I fell in love – to rediscover the roots of my fascination with theatre.

What I didn’t expect to find over four months of visiting Les Misérables rehearsals, however, were many of the root causes of the problems that affect professional theatre in Canada today.

But the Lakeshore students taking on the roles of actors, stage managers, set builders and costume makers – and, just as importantly, those that didn’t take part – taught me a lot about who from what economic and cultural background ends up in similar positions, as well as in the audiences, at places like the Stratford Festival.

Many off-stage dramas affected what made it on stage on opening night – students who had to find ways to balance part-time jobs, personal struggles and family demands with their love of theatre; teachers trying to weigh a desire for inclusivity against a thirst for artistic excellence; and administrators diplomatically dancing around union contracts and student-safety worries. Then there was a group of a middle-school teachers afraid of the play’s potentially objectionable content.

That Les Misérables made it to opening night at all, despite it all – on top of what one student called “the worst dress rehearsal I’ve ever been a part of” – is perhaps a miracle.

Bradley Plesa, Grade 12: Jean Valjean

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after

Swipe to reveal the student in character.
(See all 32 before/after cast portraits here.)

But – spoiler alert – it was all worth it to watch these students transform on stage: Former cadet Bradley Plesa into the parole-breaking prisoner Jean Valjean; drama-club president Hilliary Lyn into the sheltered, innocent Cosette; wild and wiry Grade 12 Stefan Bechler into a creepy, cackling clown version of the innkeeper Monsieur Thénardier; and dues-paying minor niners like Reiana Ramdeen and Jonathan Khan into would-be revolutionaries.

And to observe the teenage transformations that occurred backstage, too – as one young woman changed from a self-described “little pixie girl” into a “badass,” a trans boy found his creative calling behind a lighting board, and a young man who had been in and out of foster care much of his life discovered an unlikely inspiration for reinvention in Jean Valjean.

REAL TALK

My journey began when, like Mr. Easton four months later, I blundered through the door of Mr. Danakas’s drama room on a blizzardy day in February – late for a high-school class for the first time since the 1990s.

It was Groundhog Day. Many area schools were closed due to the snow – Mr. D’s young son and daughter, off for the day, were hanging out in his office in the corner of the studio – and the streetcar ride from my downtown apartment was a disaster.

Despite the conditions outside, however, almost every student was in attendance at what’s known at Lakeshore as “the Acting Class” – a daily 75-minute period dedicated almost entirely to getting Grade 10 to 12 students ready for the spring Main Stage show. As I learned, neither snow nor rain, nor struggling grades stayed those dedicated to Mr. Danakas from their appointed rehearsals.

“Thank you for letting me into your class,” I said, trying to find a comfortable and cool way to sit on the floor as an adult in my socks. (First rule of Mr. Danakas’s drama room: No street shoes. I quickly understood his love of Crocs.)

I briefly explained to the teens – who were eyeing me with equal parts curiosity and suspicion – why I was there: I would be following Lakeshore’s production of Les Misérables and writing a series of articles about the students that would run over the summer in my newspaper.

Jesse McCormack, a student stage manager who would also be playing the Prosecutor, raised his hand. “What does that mean: A series of articles?” he asked, apologetically adding: “I haven’t really read much newspapers.”

How to explain to a generation that never lacked the Internet?

Jesse M. – for he must be distinguished from Jesse T., the graceful Grade 12 playing Marius – hazarded a guess: “Like a documentary but on paper?”

A booming, self-assured voice, not mine, answered this time. This was Bradley Plesa, the large, friendly future Prom King who I would get to know most of all. “Like a reality-TV show,” he said. “Like a reality-TV show on paper.”

Murmurs of excitement from around the room for the first time.

THE DIVERSITY TEST

One of the things that bothered me about contemporary Canadian theatre was also visible in the Lakeshore drama studio as I looked around the circle of students that day: A lack of diversity.

Earlier in the year, I had scouted out multiple Toronto-area high schools, looking for one that met the following criteria: It would be rehearsing a big spring show over the winter; it would be a “regular” public school – not a magnet school for the arts; and it would be a school that was reasonably representative of today’s demographics in the city.

Lakeshore Collegiate Institute, a South Etobicoke school formed following the amalgamation of three local schools in the early 1980s, seemed like the perfect candidate.

Olivia Costes, Grade 12: Citizen #1

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after

Swipe to reveal the student in character.
(See all 32 before/after cast portraits here.)

Greg Danakas, a proud Greek-Canadian with a thick mustache and large-framed glasses, was all-caps enthusiastic when I e-mailed him. He even had a DVD, created by the third-year students of Lakeshore’s arts and technology program, about his drama program. Animated curtains parted to show testimonials from present and former students including one known well for her work on Toronto stages – Anusree Roy, the actor and playwright behind the Dora-winning play Brothel #9.

As a critic, I was impressed that Mr. Danakas’s Acting Class only rarely delved into William Shakespeare and never into musical theatre. Indeed, in Mr. D’s 17 years at Lakeshore, he had directed The Trojan Women, a Greek tragedy; The Man of Mode, a Restoration comedy; and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, a seminal 1960s Canadian play about the oppression of aboriginals, by George Ryga.

This year they were to tackle a little-known stage adaptation of Les Misérables by Tim Kelly – rather than the famous, blockbuster musical – and move it out of its historical setting into a dystopian society inspired by 1984, The Giver and The Hunger Games, no less.

“Our kids can create theatre that’s as good if not better than the Etobicoke School of the Arts,” Mr. Danakas told me the first time we talked over the phone, referring to a nearby magnet school that boasts a starry list of alumni – and which he seemed to view as a rival.

When I walked through the hallways of the school that sits on Kipling Avenue, just a block north of Humber College’s lakeshore campus, Lakeshore Collegiate, too, looked exactly like the multicultural Toronto I knew existed – but was only rarely seeing on the city’s stages or in its theatre audiences.

Like the city itself, Lakeshore was a place where the term “visible minority” sat on the cusp of meaninglessness. When the last student census was done in 2011, 51 per cent of students self-identified as “white” – almost exactly the percentage that did in Toronto at large in the National Household Survey that same year. The rest of the Lakeshore respondents ticked others boxes – with 22 per cent identifying their racial background as either South Asian, East Asian or Southeast Asian and 9 per cent identifying as black.

And so, the look of the Acting Class at the first day of rehearsals was a bit of a surprise: The room was almost as uniformly white as the snow piling up outside.

LA GRANDE GESTE

Lakeshore’s Acting Class’s first meeting began with a bonding exercise that helped students learn (or relearn) each other’s names. Each would say his or her name and then make a strong gesture; then the next in the circle would do the same, after repeating the names and gestures of all those who came before.

If only all newspaper assignments began like this – the drama game helped me quickly memorize everyone’s name and get a glimpse of their personality.

Mr. Danakas, clearly filled with glee at starting another semester, demonstrated how it would work with enthusiasm. “I AM GREG!” he bellowed, pounding on his chest like an ape.

“I am Stefan!” said Stefan Bechler, the tall, talented class clown who’d be playing Monsieur Thénardier, pumping his hand up and down in the air in a gesture calculated to be equal parts awkward and funny.

Jesse Thompson, Grade 12: Marius

before
after

Swipe to reveal the student in character.
(See all 32 before/after cast portraits here.)

Hilliary Lyn, Lakeshore drama’s student president for the second year in a row and our Cosette, was next; she turned her back to the circle, leaned over and pointed to her bottom – a reference to a famous pair of sweatpants she wears emblazoned with the word PRESIDENT across the butt. (She owns another pair that says DRAMA QUEEN in the same spot.)

Jesse Thompson, the young man who would play her love interest, Marius, followed with a Trudeauvian pirouette. As the semester progressed, I would discover Jesse T. was the best twerker in the class – a talent left unexploited in Mr. Danakas’s dystopian take on Les Misérables.

Olivia Costes, cast as Citizen No. 1, Girl No. 1 and a nun called Sister Simplicity, did the grandest gesture of all. Costes, who was home-schooled until Grade 11, bowed as if she had just finished performing a violin concerto in front of the National Arts Centre orchestra.

As for Bradley – the future Jean Valjean, indeed the reason that Mr. Danakas had chosen to stage Les Misérables that year – he hooked his thumbs around invisible suspenders, pulled them out from his chest and then did a little box step. It was a reference to a song from the musical Chicago, Mr. Cellophane, that he likes to sing – a curious choice, since in the drama class, he is anything but see-through.

RISK AND REWARD

The students in Mr. Danakas’s class would later describe themselves to me as “Scottish and French,” “some Croatian,” “strictly Italian and Austrian,” “Filipino and Irish/English” – and, when a number of Grade 9’s were added into the production a month later, Les Misérables’s cast became more colourful.

But the company still never looked as diverse as, say, Mr. O’Hare’s set-construction class – which I would visit and see a young woman in a hijab and a young man in an afro working side by side to drill the barricades together.

Why did Lakeshore’s Acting Class not look like the school at large? I put the question to Mr. Danakas a number of times over the course of rehearsals.

Jonathan Kahn, Grade 9: The Policeman

before
after

Swipe to reveal the student in character.
(See all 32 before/after cast portraits here.)

The drama teacher wasn’t sure why more students of colour weren’t interested in acting class, but he did tell me about his own experience – as the son of immigrants who had moved from Greece to Canada after the civil war that followed the Second World War.

Mr. Danakas only got into theatre after his high-school drama teacher, Laird Evans, approached him – “a working-class Greek kid with a lot of personality” – in the hallways of his Ottawa high school.

“Mr. Evans said, ‘Oh my god, you [Greeks] invented theatre,’ ” Mr. Danakas recalls. “He made me proud to be Greek.” He had hitherto mainly been interested in music – playing the violin and fronting a band called Greg the D and the Mirthmakers – but quickly became a teenage theatre obsessive.

Mr. Danakas had supportive parents as he pursed his passion on to university – but he didn’t, and doesn’t – feel that support is common in the larger Greek community. A Greek-Canadian friend who wanted to go to the National Theatre School for playwriting, for instance, was dissuaded by his parents. “A lot of Greeks in Canada are into business, into restaurants,” says Mr. Danakas, who lives in Brampton and teaches Sunday school at the Greek Orthodox Church where he met his wife. “Few Greeks relate to that artistic side of Greece.”

While the number of Lakeshore students whose parents are immigrants is unknown, in the last student census, about 20 per cent of the students said they themselves were born outside the country.

Anusree Roy – Lakeshore’s most successful theatre graduate, if you don’t count professional wrestler and three-time WWE “Babe of the Year” Trish Stratus – was one such student, arriving at the school as an immigrant in 1999. She has fond memories of Mr. Danakas, who encouraged the then thick-accented teen to continue performing as she had in India. “When people win awards and thank their high-school teachers? Mr. Danakas is that person,” says Roy, whose Lakeshore senior drama award still sits on her parents’ mantle.

As with Lakeshore’s drama club now, Roy was an anomaly in terms of her skin colour. “There weren’t that many diverse student in drama at that time,” she recalls. “Mostly they were in the math club and in the chemistry club – as much as that was a stereotype, that was the case.”

Reiana Ramdeen, Grade 9: Young Woman

before
after

Swipe to reveal the student in character.
(See all 32 before/after cast portraits here.)

Like Mr. Danakas, Roy can only speak about her own community – the one that forms the biggest non-white group of students at Lakeshore – when talking about why more students of her background aren’t involved in student theatre. “The lack of stability of a career is something that’s a huge problem for new [Canadian] South Asian parents – and South Asian parents in general,” she says.

That Canada is a nation of immigrants who moved here looking for a better life is a cliché – but it’s worth remembering that most new Canadians moved here specifically for a better economic life and, especially, for a better economic life for their children. Is it any wonder, in a country where arts are chronically underfunded, that new Canadians would not be encouraging their children to pursue theatre?

Roy remembers Mr. Danakas sitting down with her mother and convincing her that theatre could be a viable career in this country – and encouraging the young Anusree to enroll at York University, his own alma mater, which she did. When Roy later toyed with switching to the National Theatre School, however, it was too much. “My mother said ‘National Theatre SCHOOL?’ ” Roy recalls with a laugh. “‘You are going to university.’ ”

AND … SCENE

During my time at Lakeshore, I came to appreciate the more subtle diversity that was slower to reveal itself – it took time to see how much Mr. D’s students varied in terms of class, learning abilities, sexuality and gender, and, most of all, personality. In that first rehearsal, I learned a little of the latter as I said every student’s name and tried to perform their gesture, too.

“I am Olivia,” I said bowing. “I am Jesse,” I said twirling. “I am Bradley,” I said, stretching my invisible suspenders.

After the bell rang, ending this first class, Mr. Danakas came up to me with a glint in his eye, rubbing his hands together, then smoothing out that mustache of his – a gesture I soon discovered accompanied his most mischievous moments. “I have one of my crazy ideas,” he said to me.

“Victor Hugo.” He pointed to me. “I need a Victor Hugo. What do you think?”

What do I think? How much do I really want to go back to high school?

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