Get ready for a holiday treat! This week, host Phil Rickaby chats with Katie Kerr and Matthew Stodolak, as they share the behind-the-scenes details of their new holiday musical, “Chris, Mrs.”, a delightful fusion of elements from The Santa Clause and The Sound of Music. We also discuss their unique musical backgrounds and how their differences complement each other perfectly in creating a heartwarming musical experience.
Venture with us as we examine the journey of creating a new Christmas musical in the era of COVID. We highlight the importance of human connection and family traditions during the holiday season and how the pandemic inspired the focus of our musical. Discover how the limited number of original Christmas musicals opened up an opportunity for us to contribute to new holiday traditions. We also share our personal experiences with theatre and Christmas, including our sources of inspiration for the songs in the musical.
The final part of our conversation provides insights into the business side of theatre production, which is often overlooked. Our guests share their experiences with fundraising, balancing creativity with business, and the challenges they faced along the way. We also talk about their collaborative journey in adapting the novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” into a musical, highlighting the importance of audience engagement and maintaining the dramatic force of the show. Tune in for a captivating look into the creative and business aspects of theatre production, and get ready to be swept away by the holiday spirit!
Katie Kerr is the Program Manager for the inaugural season of The Nation Centre of New Musicals at Theatre Aquarius. She is also a producer of Boldly Productions. Her professional theatre career spans over a decade, performing in theatres from coast to coast. Theatre credits include: 8 seasons at the Charlottetown Festival, The Grand, Drayton Entertainment, Theatre Aquarius, and Western Canada Theatre. From staples like Anne of Green Gables to new works like Come From Away, Katie continues to make her mark on Canadian music theatre with the world premiere of Chris, Mrs. She has her degree from Sheridan College and has been active as a writer and director for years.
As a musician, Matthew Stodolak has been active as the Music Director at Canada’s Wonderland and a keyboard player for a number of productions at Drayton Entertainment and Theatre Aquarius. He is a Producer at Boldly Productions, and the Founder Boldly Media marketing agency. Prior to this he was the Digital Marketing Manager of the Toronto Star and currently is a Professor of Marketing at Seneca College. He holds a Masters of Teaching from the University of Toronto and Bachelor of Music from McMaster University. He currently sits on the University of Toronto Alumni Association Board of Directors.
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0:00:04 – Phil Rickaby
I’m Phil Rickaby and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years, but I’ve realized that I don’t really know as much as I should about the theatre scene outside of my particular Toronto bubble. Now I’m on a quest to learn as much as I can about the theatre scene across Canada. So join me as I talk with mainstream theatre creators you may have heard of and indie artists you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be Stageworthy. If you value the work that I do on Stageworthy, please consider leaving a donation, either as a one-time thing or on a recurring monthly basis. Stageworthy is created entirely by me and I give it to you free of charge, with no advertising or other sponsored messages. Your continuing support helps me to cover the cost of producing and distributing the show. Just four people donating $5 a month would help me cover the cost of podcast hosting alone. Help me continue to bring you this podcast. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, which you can find in your podcast app or at the website at Stageworthy.ca.
Now onto the show. Katie Kerr is the program manager for the inaugural season of the Nation’s Centre of New Musicals at Theatre Aquarius. Matthew Stodolak has been a music director at Canada’s Wonderland and a keyboard player at Drayton Entertainment and Theatre Aquarius. They joined me to talk about Christmas, a new holiday musical that they wrote together, which you can see at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto from December 5th to 31st. Here’s our conversation. The show is Christmas. That’s great. As a self-avowed Christmas nerd my favourite season of all of the seasons I love all things Christmas. Before we get into what this show is about, can you each tell me what your Christmas? How was your relationship to Christmas like?
0:02:30 – Matthew Stodolak
Oh, yeah, oh yeah, that’s the story there. Katie and I actually met during the Christmas holiday season. We were kind of ships passing in the night for a little while. We met first doing Elf the Musical, and it wasn’t until the second time that we were doing it together. Katie was on stage playing Jovi and I was in the band playing the keyboard. It wasn’t until the second time that we had done the show that we were Back to back years.
Back to back years. Yeah, we were really able to start our relationship, but it really was the background of us becoming a couple.
0:03:08 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, I think for both of us, Christmas separate and apart from meeting, which kind of just is the cherry on top Christmas has always been my favourite season across the board. It was always a really big event in my house. It still is. My mom is definitely the queen of stocking stuffers. Those things defy gravity. They should not be able to hang. They’re like the rocket clown car. That stuff just keeps coming out of them. I definitely have a special place for Christmas in my heart, right from my childhood, all the way to meeting Matt Just so happened to be at Christmas. It really is the most magical holiday in my experience.
0:03:59 – Phil Rickaby
Matt, let me guess you hate the season, right?
0:04:03 – Matthew Stodolak
No, I love it. I’m really going to Imagine I know, yeah, it’s all been a con. No, I’m really going to. I don’t know. I’m one of those people who, once the calendar really turns to December is when I’m really like, okay, it’s Christmas time. I’m not like a Halloween over, switch everything over right away. But man, when I’m in it, I’m in it. I’m watching, what’s it called? It’s a wonderful life. Christmas Eve crying. I’m in it, absolutely, sir.
0:04:34 – Phil Rickaby
As far as the show goes, Christmas is. What is the show about? Tell me everything.
0:04:49 – Katie Kerr
The show is. It’s sort of, I think, the Santa Claus meets the sound of music. It’s got sort of all those elements of your favourite Christmas movie, but a lot of the exciting sort of sweeping grandness of sort of classical musical theatre. So in our story we have a widower named Ben. He’s got three kids, a teenage daughter and two twins named Samuel and Samantha and they are going to their family cottage Sorry, they’re going to their family cabin for one last Christmas.
Ben has decided he’s going to try and sell it, but his brother still runs it. So he’s going to go there to try to convince him to sell. And he decides to bring along his socialite girlfriend, who the twins do not get along with. And when they find a ring in his suitcase they think all hope is lost and so they forgo all of their Christmas presents and write to Santa to help intervene to stop their dad from proposing to this woman. So they go to the lodge and, as luck would have it, there is a woman who just happens to work there, who loves Christmas and seems to be the perfect fit for their dad, and so we’ve got sort of a parent trap, love triangle with the kids and their dad and a whole lot of family holiday fun along the way.
0:06:12 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, it really is. You know, kind of in terms of the musical. It’s a musical structure. It’s most akin to that of a musical comedy, but it really walks in modern clothing and the music reflects that as well.
0:06:26 – Phil Rickaby
It sounds like it checks all of the all of the boxes for both like a musical and a Christmas story, so sounds perfect. How did you decide to write this show?
0:06:42 – Katie Kerr
That’s a great question. We decided we wanted to write when we started dating, and it was something neither of us had ever done collaboratively. It’s something we each done sort of on our own, in our own path, and mine was much more lyrical, based and sort of, you know, very simple, not a lot of orchestrations, and Matt would write a lot of music without any words. And so when we were sort of starting to date and sort of you know, covid happened and so we were playing around with showing each other some things that we had written and things we’d worked on, we decided to sort of blend our talents together and take a stab at writing something collaboratively. And so we started initially not with a Christmas, this Christmas show, but we started with just some exercises taking works that already existed and finding a moment in a novel or in a movie that we could turn into a song, and sort of experiment with a world that had already been built and working within those parameters and just taking a moment in that novel or that movie and and making and bringing it to life through music. And then, when we did that a few times, we started to get a lot more comfortable and sort of breaking out into a world where we decided we would build our own sort of universe and and not taking from any existing IP, and just write it sort of from the ground up.
And because it was during COVID, something that was really important and really obviously lacking in that first year was that sort of human connection, what our traditions, what our family means to us and how it has sort of shaped our lives, and that really became an undercurrent in the show that. That really sort of permeates almost more than you know the Christmas aspect of it. It’s really more about the traditions and the times that bring us together, rather than you know, the Christmas tree and Santa Claus in particular, just really looking at those sort of pivotal moments in our lives, when, when we all come together, and what happens when we, when we don’t.
0:08:45 – Matthew Stodolak
And the reason also is that in there we, in terms of a Christmas musical, there’s, you know, there’s certainly many, many musicals, but there aren’t that many that are Christmas musicals. You have your white Christmases, your holiday ends, and shows that have moments of Christmas, and then, like Annie, so we recognize that in the canon there isn’t that many Christmas musicals, nevermind modern Christmas musicals, nevermind, nevermind Canadian Christmas musicals. But we thought, well, this really has been done, but there seems to be an opportunity here and people who are interested in the type of content, so let’s get away to go.
0:09:21 – Phil Rickaby
Well, there’s also I mean, in addition to all of that, there’s I mean, there’s the neverending productions of a Christmas carol that seemed to happen every year, which some may be musicals I’ve seen musical versions of that, but there there’s not original Christmas musicals and there is a. I think that that there is a hunger for the next Christmas tradition, right, like, what is the thing that I’m going to see this year, that it’s going to be a thing that I want to see next year, you know, and any time a new Christmas thing comes along, it has the potential to be that thing that we do next year to and the year after that, you know, is that something you’ve considered for this show?
0:10:03 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, I mean we, we, we haven’t set out to write something that you know stays in Toronto and is a staple in one location every year, but definitely something that, this holiday season in particular, people come to and remember and enjoy and, whether or not the show happens again in Toronto or, you know, at other regional theatres or other theatres across the country, that people will recognize it and seek it out because of the the memories that were created this year and the experience that they had this year.
0:10:35 – Matthew Stodolak
And what’s great about theatre is that you know the final collaborator is the audience. So it really isn’t up to us as much as we might hope or one of that it might be a Christmas tradition, for it really is up to the audiences Telling us that they would like to come see it multiple times. Yeah, absolutely.
0:10:51 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely. There is also the fact that there’s there’s no Panto in Toronto this year, that that tradition ended last year with the big, the final production there, um, and this sort of like presents an opportunity for, first off, that theatre is now available for this sort of show, but also, um another, an opportunity for a family, a show for a family to go to, because I think a lot of families Introduce their children to theatre during Christmas, whether it’s the Panto or something else. Um, out of curiosity, when you were younger, each of you did you get taken to theatre at Christmas.
0:11:37 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, absolutely regional theatre. I’m from Hamilton, so theatre Aquarius was my, you know, regional theatre. I like to say I grew up there. Um, so certainly, it was definitely Something I was introduced to many times.
0:11:50 – Katie Kerr
I, um, I grew up in Windsor, so we’re right across from Detroit. So, uh, when I was young, probably about eight, my mom took me to see the Rockettes and that you know sort of what is the be all and end all of Christmas spectacle. Um, and I was, fortunate enough, my parents are very supportive of the arts and I was in a lot of community theatre when I was growing up. So the community theatre in Windsor, windsor light opera, and they run a Christmas show and a spring show. So I was in a lot of theatre around the holiday season where, when I grew up, um, but also those those sort of classic movie Christmas musicals, our staples in our house for sure, whether it’s, you know, going going to live theatre or or watching those movie musicals.
0:12:38 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, it’s a tradition. Yeah, yeah speaking of, of those old classic movies, musicals or not. You mentioned that, as you were starting to work On on creating a musical, that you found moments in some of those old, old movies, those old stories, and created songs Around them. What, what, what were you looking at at that time? What were the shows or or stories that you were looking at, that that you were that sort of formed, the early versions of, of songs, that event that that that became a show like this?
0:13:09 – Katie Kerr
Sure we, we weren’t looking specifically at Christmas when we started that experiment. Um, the groundwork was really, uh, we sat down enlisted sort of 10 novels and 10 films that really had an impact on us as individuals and tried to find the pieces that cross referenced, if there was any Books or movies that we had both seen or we had both.
Uh, you know, you know, enjoyed you know that really resonated in a way that that we felt could be useful in an exercise like this. Um, so the the, the major one we we wrote a couple of songs for, was extremely loud and incredibly close. I had read the novel in in high school and and then we sat and watched the film again together and sort of watched it and and picked out moments as we were watching it. That, um, that would make for really great um musical storytelling.
0:14:03 – Matthew Stodolak
And theatre too, right, drama church, which could be adapted in a way that was interesting.
0:14:07 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, taking the extra mile, yeah and that that story in particular, um, it’s very interesting. It jumps sort of perspective and it, uh, it deals with a grandfather who doesn’t speak, and so we were also kind of looking at how, uh, creatively things like that could be presented on stage and sort of multimedia, that use of Of storytelling outside of just music.
0:14:31 – Matthew Stodolak
So the north star that really we pulled from that piece too, um was the theme of family. Uh, because, as you said, he has a grandfather who there’s communication Um and and a mother.
0:14:43 – Katie Kerr
they lost their father, so Exactly.
0:14:46 – Matthew Stodolak
So that was kind of like oh well, this theme of family is so Right, there’s so much to be, you know, gleaned mind extracted from it.
0:14:53 – Katie Kerr
And it’s universal right? Yeah, absolutely. It’s a very broad topic that becomes very granular and very personal for each person as they experience it.
0:15:06 – Matthew Stodolak
Everyone has a parent who you think, though, doesn’t understand you. You know, these are very relatable things. And then I think it was the holiday season was turning and it just all kind of eclipsed in the right moment. Well, let’s try and write a Christmas show about family.
0:15:22 – Phil Rickaby
So you started to write this show and it was during the pandemic that everything started to come together with this. And I know that you wrote the show in Matt’s basement, the basement of Matt’s parents’ house. And as far as writing a show like this, writing a musical before you even get to production, what does that look like? Is it just sitting in the basement in front of a piano and just banging out stuff?
0:15:53 – Matthew Stodolak
The hardest thing I would say in writing a musical is finding an answer that stands up when you ask the question does this need to be a musical? That’s the hardest thing, that’s the most important thing you have to be able to answer, and it’s a very tricky thing to answer alone. Having collaborators helps, because you have to justify that this needs to be a musical. Or you just have songs you like and you’re trying to form them around some type of narrative structure. So that’s the most important thing that a person or creative team, I would say should figure out, and I think we’ve done our best to figure out.
0:16:30 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, we sat down definitely Matt at the piano and myself with a whiteboard and sort of sketched a roadmap of the character’s journey, Rather than looking at where does the show as a whole go, who’s our main character, what is their journey and how do they relate to the other characters that are involved and where do they intersect. So we really built it based around our characters and then looked at pivotal moments where there’s conflict, where someone has the upper hand or where that sort of like rug is pulled out and who it happens to and when and how that structure in a two act musical sort of flows. What do you do right before the act break and how do you end the show and how do we get there in a way that’s satisfying, that doesn’t feel like fluff until the big moment.
0:17:20 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, and then also continue on what I said before too, that not only does this need to be a musical or does now you have to answer that question 20 times Does this moment need to be a song?
0:17:31 – Katie Kerr
0:17:33 – Matthew Stodolak
Right. So yeah, it’s this constant game of you know. Does this make sense? Is it serving the plot, is it serving the character, what’s it telling to the audience, what is it not telling to the audience? And it really is a game of collaboration. Music, musical theatre, writing, composition is all about collaboration. Because it’s such a beast, there’s so many perspectives audience perspective, characters, perspective composers that you have to kind of talk things out. That comes down to collaborators. And you know, I’m lucky that my is my roommate.
0:18:01 – Katie Kerr
Just your roommate and my wife.
0:18:04 – Phil Rickaby
Someone’s in trouble Now that that you mentioned those important questions you know should how? What’s the? What can this moment be a song? Should this moment be a song? That’s sort of the. But the bigger question, the, you know, does this need to be a musical? How do you find the answer to that question?
0:18:25 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, it is a long, laborious process and usual. It sounds cliche, but the the the way you answer it is actually just by starting. You know, trying some song sketches, trying to as you mentioned Katie, you know mapping out the bones of the plot, and again things will reveal itself to you about oh, this isn’t really working, or I’m forcing this, or I have to go back and rethink my structure. So it’s just by by by doing.
0:18:55 – Katie Kerr
You will either succeed or fail, as with most most things in life, but I would say that the more you do it, the more your instincts become attuned to what might be fertile ground, they’ll cut you off earlier and really tell you like, yes, there’s, there’s room to explore here, Cause really, when you look at music and dance, they are heightened versions of reality, heightened emotion and and so there are certain stories that just that just don’t call for that and and you can, you can tell when you see them that like didn’t really need to be a song, or this one decision maybe didn’t need to be five minutes, so it’s. It’s really trying to catch people, catch characters in a moment of conflict or in a moment of discovery, and keeping the, the thoughts engaged and keeping the audience engaged to, to want to follow that thought process and that journey for each of those characters.
0:19:52 – Matthew Stodolak
It’s a difference between the show and the concert.
0:19:55 – Katie Kerr
0:19:55 – Matthew Stodolak
Right. What’s the dramatic driving force?
0:19:58 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, the dramatic through line, of course, is one of the most important things. Things to find. I imagine, as you were creating this show, that you wrote songs that you eventually had to say goodbye to. Are there songs that you really loved, that you, that you had to throw away?
0:20:19 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, absolutely From a production. It’s interesting because for this we’re, you know, wearing the hats of the creative team, but also the producers, so there’s no producer saying we’re not doing that because it’s too expensive. We’re having that conversation ourselves. So one really good example of that from our show was a song called Take Care of Yourself which was sung by our. I guess we call her a villain type character. She’s not really a villain, no, she just. She’s just very opportunistic the way a Captain Hook might be opportunistic, and she had a song called Take Care of Yourself. Really fun number, you know, kind of taking the cliche Instagram kind of, you know sometimes, mindfulness, wellness quotes and kind of flipping them on their head about what’s the point between taking care of yourself could actually become selfishness and how do we lie about ourselves, lie to ourselves about it. The number took place in a spa which involved the whole set, involved a whole bunch of props and, you know, special effects. Yeah.
0:21:19 – Katie Kerr
And we don’t have an opportunity in a stage version to ever come back to that location. And when you’re talking about building sets and costume pieces and everything for something like film, which you know for a section of this journey, when COVID was happening, film was the only industry that was doing any, you know, having any productions go through. So we sort of put our theatrical script on hold and looked at a more sort of conventional film script and that song really serves a great purpose or has a really great life on camera especially. But when it comes to the logistics of an onstage musical with you know set, dressing and costumes and everything else, the more you can come back to the same location or avoid like a single location area, especially something that would be as complex as a spa with you know different treatment areas and different things happening, it’s harder as a producer to justify the expense for a single scene, and so we also realized it was a.
0:22:26 – Matthew Stodolak
It was Isigan and Cookie for this character. Yeah.
0:22:28 – Katie Kerr
0:22:29 – Matthew Stodolak
I think people will walk away with this character of Vicki as their favorite character and she she literally just had too much to do in the show. It was becoming her show because I think it was probably the third song she had.
0:22:41 – Katie Kerr
0:22:42 – Matthew Stodolak
We’re like. Well, you know what. This is something we can afford to let go of.
0:22:46 – Katie Kerr
And really just kind of cover in dialogue and other things. It was more just a fun sort of transition. You know spa scene that works great on film but not necessarily in the stage version.
0:22:58 – Phil Rickaby
You mentioned the character sort of threatening to take over this show, which is often the problem with a really juicy character, right Like I think there’s lots of shows that sort of have that character that you could just keep giving stuff to, but they’re not actually the main character and so you have, as much as it is fun to write them, it’s not, it’s not their show and you have to sort of like hold yourself back. Was it difficult to hold yourself back with this character?
0:23:25 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, Vicki is fun, she’s like it’s very. You know, Corella Deville meets Ursula like just sort of a boss, unapologetically sort of herself, to a fault of course.
0:23:40 – Matthew Stodolak
But you totally see her point of view, you almost roof her too.
0:23:44 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, it’s hard, it’s it’s. It’s hard to hate her. Even though she is unlikeable, it’s hard to hate her.
0:23:53 – Phil Rickaby
And who who has the joy of playing that role? Who is the the performer? Because I want to get into the cast of this show as well.
0:24:01 – Katie Kerr
Absolutely so. It is a new member to our company, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane. She is just coming off of a run in Stratford doing rent and we are so thrilled to have her. We did a short sort of like teaser trailer with her and we can’t wait to get in the room and really let her Vicki sort of unleash.
0:24:24 – Matthew Stodolak
She’s a powerhouse and the rising star in the.
0:24:28 – Phil Rickaby
Canadian theatre scene. Absolutely Tell me about the rest of the cast that you’ve assembled for this show.
0:24:33 – Matthew Stodolak
Well, where our show is is led in the role of Ben Criss by a gentleman named Liam Tobin, very accomplished Canadian musical theatre performer, who has made quite a wave on Broadway and across North America leading the Book of Mormon National Tour. He was also in Beautiful, the Carol King Musical. What else do we have?
0:24:57 – Katie Kerr
And alongside him playing Holly, is Danielle Wade, who is a Canadian staple, winning the Dorothy over the Rainbow show and going on to do the Wizard of Oz across Canada and and then Starring in Mean Girls on Broadway. So our two leads are both Canadian but have both had success on both sides of the border and and we’re so lucky to have them leading this company. But, you know, on top of the two of them we have just a plethora of Incredibly talented people that it seems almost unfair. We’ve got 17, all Canadian cast members, plus two swings and an extra set of kids. So it’s it’s a big company. Other names that that would jump out that have been sort of in the especially the Toronto theatre scene Kale Penny, aj Bridal, sarah Strange, henry Firmstone, like Andrew Broderick. It really is an incredibly talented, well-rounded cast and we also have the opportunity for four young people to make their sort of stage debuts Alongside this incredibly accomplished company.
0:26:14 – Matthew Stodolak
A lot of them. I think some of the kids you know they’ve done, you know kids, chorus parts, everybody starts somewhere. But I think for some of them it is their chance to really step into a role and not just a role that’s you know, been done before, that they can, you know, just kind of mimic those who come before that. They actually get the chance to come from a young age, at 10 years old, to make a part their own, which Doesn’t happen to the actor very often at all. No, absolutely.
0:26:39 – Phil Rickaby
In Canadian theatre we tend to Take roles that have been created by somebody else, so it’s a really rare opportunity to to create a character and to be the first person to perform it. You mentioned being the producer, so you’ve written this show, you’re producing the show. What does Writing and producing a musical look like in Canada right now?
0:27:08 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, I mean I would say that we we’ve looked a lot at least said, in Canada. We’ve looked a lot who’s done before? You know the Howl princes, the, the Rogers and Hammerstein that you know they, they were producers of their shows. They were also involved creatively In Canada. There really does seem to be a hunger for new content. Actually, you could maybe speak to some of that.
0:27:33 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, there’s I mean there’s a lot of really amazing programs. Specifically in Ontario, the National Center for New Musicals at Theor Aquarius is is having its like a novel season this year and I have the opportunity to be the program manager for that. So it’s been really exciting to see the intake and the the, like you said, hunger for development and and opportunities to look at and and to Continue to further the process of of new works. Musical stage company has the Aubrey Dan fund. There’s lots of programs not only in Ontario but across the country that that offer these opportunities, which are really beneficial because it is a long process and a financially cumbersome process to Not only be able to find the time to write in your daily life outside of your you know, your regular work hours, which is something obviously being married and being in the same house I definitely have it has its benefits.
Sometimes there can be like we can’t talk about the show right now, but it also just it eliminates the need to say do you have time, can we talk? I have an idea scheduling meetings with partners that don’t have quite the proximity that we do, but also the stage beyond Yourselves where you need to get it in other people’s bodies and and see it living outside of yourself, and that can be expensive if you don’t, especially with a company. A lot of new works are very small companies, for mostly financial reasons, and you know, dictates what’s made workshops and and even you know, premiers and productions.
The smaller your cast, the cheaper it is to do, and so something like this show is definitely ambitious and and I think it it can be daunting for for new writers to step into the space without the support of some of those programs Through theatre companies or the government. You know there are grants, but it is definitely a long process and a process that we have found our personal connections within the industry to be instrumental. You know, being able to call up, you know some of these people and just ask them to have a look at the script or, if they’re available, to do a reading or even a zoom call and look at some music and have a sing through it and see what they think. So being in the industry has definitely been a benefit to us.
0:30:13 – Matthew Stodolak
I would say the gestational period of a musical to getting a full-fledged production is at least three years. I think we’re at about three and a half technically, and that’s just three years or so of making sure the script and score work. That’s all well and good, but then after that it has to actually materialize and translate onto stage in terms of set, costume, props, lighting and sound. So, you know, recognizing that we are new producers to this game, we knew that we had to assemble a production team around us who had experience and, you know, knew when to hold our hand when we needed it or slap our wrist when we didn’t know what we were doing in some specific realm. So we’ve been very blessed in terms of our collaborators who, you know, not only is it a gig to them, they’re also passionate about new theatre, which speaks back to that point. Yeah, there is a hunger for new content, I think, particularly post pandemic as well.
0:31:17 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I certainly think, I certainly feel that that desire for new, for new content and new Canadian theatre. I think, as we leave, as we get away from from sitting in front of our televisions or computer screens for three odd years watching video, the experience of theatre is something that is is really desirable, and it’s a perfect time to to sort of people who maybe haven’t been to the theatre because they think it’s one thing or another. It’s a great time to get them in so they can actually realize what, what theatre and that experience is.
0:31:54 – Katie Kerr
Absolutely, and I think that was a goal to for us with, with sort of the hallmark in tones of our piece, that it does offer that sort of comfort and nostalgia of being at home watching those, those films and sort of the, the, the, the mathematical sort of nature of how those movies play out, and and they’re they, you know, they’re very comforting, you sort of know what’s going to happen and so taking that formula and making people feel like it’s something they recognize, while offering them something that they don’t get during that experience, which is the spectacle of live song and dance, but also that sort of more communal audience experience. Most of the hallmark movie watchers are are doing it by themselves or with just their immediate family. So it is an opportunity to have a similar experience but but on sort of a grander scale.
0:32:53 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, like theatre is kind of a it’s all living organism to right, like everyone in that room is breathing together, experiencing the exact same thing in a synchronized fashion, much like the Rockettes.
0:33:05 – Katie Kerr
And something that only exists once. Right, it varies night to night where, something like you know, your hallmark movie, your Christmas movie, is going to be the same thing every time, and while that is very comforting, there is something very magical about seeing and really feeling the energy of a live performance.
0:33:24 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely, it is the idea, the fact that the production of the, the experience that you had in the theatre that night, will be different from the experience that somebody had the night before, the night after or at any other point, is is is quite magical, because something may happen that night that nobody else will ever see, and that’s exciting too. You mentioned the fact that a lot of shows that get news, a lot of new shows especially, suffer from the need financially to have a small cast and that that is is what keeps them small and the financial aspect of that. And I do think that that’s one of the reasons why we don’t see with some, a few notable exceptions, a lot of Canadian musicals that sort of like go on and sort of like reach a full production and go on. There’s only, you know, come from away, the Jersey chaperone or two that I think of off the off the top of my head, and really those may be the only ones that have.
Remember, when I was in theatre school, there was a. Everybody was talking about this new Canadian musical about Napoleon, and nobody can understand why it was a new Canadian musical about Napoleon, but that’s the last. That was the first time I heard about a Canadian musical, and then, since that, we’ve had some other ones. The challenge, though, of having a larger cast is one that you know it’s financial, largely right, and so and I don’t want to get crude and talk about like money, but like that that’s a challenge, and so one that has to be surmounted. So how do you surmount that particular challenge?
0:35:10 – Matthew Stodolak
Absolutely. I think I’ll say one thing we had going for us was it’s Christmas and you know people’s hearts and sometimes wallets will open when it comes to that particular holiday and time of the year. But yeah, we did have to go through a formal fundraising process that Katie and I you know led and that meant, you know, talking to people, writing a business plan. What can we expect in terms of not to get crude? You know returns. So it’s it’s not as easy, as you know, just picking up the phone and asking people for investment. We really had to draft up. You know what’s the landscape, what’s the landscape post COVID? How are other people doing? What is this business? What is the machine that drives theatre? You know where the levers, what are the marketing things you have to have in place. So it’s just a formal business plan and pitching in terms of fundraising process, much like, you know, people on Silicon Valley might go through the same kind of process.
0:36:11 – Katie Kerr
And it really it can be difficult to change, interchange those hats, because you put your creative brain on, you spend all day writing and you write to your heart’s content and then you end up with a number that happens in a spa that you can’t afford. So so it’s it’s hard to not have that sort of big bad producer saying you can’t do that, we have to police ourselves and go. We can’t do that. So it’s hard. You have to have a lot of self control and you really have to always play the game of what’s the cost versus what’s the game. You know, what does it do for the storytelling, what does it give to the audience? And so it’s a balance, for sure.
And and it’s it’s hard because you want to look at theatre like it’s only this beautiful, creative, artistic world, but there is this outer shell of a business world and it’s it’s a totally different mindset, it’s a totally different set of skills, and that, that, I think, is difficult, especially to do alone.
But it’s difficult because you know you’ve either gone to business school or you’ve gone to theatre school and you might not necessarily have all of those tools within your arsenal to be able to tackle those things yourself. And if you don’t, then you run into, we pay someone to do it and then and then it just sort of balloons from there. And I think that that we have found really beneficial is that within our team, within ourselves, we have these sort of extraneous skills that other teams may need to pay for. Matt has a background in digital marketing, so he acts as our digital marketing manager, so something that is definitely instrumental in a new show, getting it to market and getting it on social media and really getting it into people’s homes, having to pay that person a separate wage or having to explain your concept to someone who might not get all the nuances of it. It’s been really beneficial for us that that’s Matt at the helm of that.
0:38:16 – Matthew Stodolak
Yeah, and I would say you know, 50% of your time should be devoted to marketing, and I don’t mean to. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Our marketing team has been working five months now. They started in July yeah, started in July for a show in December and you know our designers. I’ve been working maybe you know a month or two now and the cast will start when we start rehearsals.
0:38:43 – Katie Kerr
0:38:44 – Matthew Stodolak
And so just to kind of illustrate the time and effort that goes towards, you know, the business side of marketing, Because, yeah, we have to make sure people know about it.
0:38:54 – Phil Rickaby
And then come you mentioned that conflict between the artist and the business and I think a lot of times a lot of artists have this visceral reluctance to consider the business aspect. I don’t know if you guys came up against that as you were trying getting this process started. What was it like for you to for the artist to come head to head with the need for business knowledge?
0:39:21 – Matthew Stodolak
0:39:21 – Katie Kerr
It’s hard, it’s humbling. Yeah, it’s definitely. It’s easier when there’s two of you. Very rarely do we both find ourselves in the same exact headspace and so we’re able to have conversation and discuss sort of how to find a resolution.
0:39:40 – Matthew Stodolak
We both went to. You know, our post-secondary educations were both in the arts. Like I went to school for yeah, no, you have to share it in music, theatre, so that’s where our journey started. So we’ve learned the business side of things along the way and, yeah, there has been we can call it a, you know, we can call it a conflict within us, but I think it’s more of an appreciation for the business engine that runs theatre.
0:40:05 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, We’ve both been entrepreneurial outside of our sort of creative lives and I think that has really helped in terms of you know business plan, bottom lines, how do you spend your money, how do you run, you know either your own team or yourself and how to collaborate. So that’s been really instrumental for us. Things that have happened in our lives outside of theatre that have now kind of really helped in the process for sure.
0:40:35 – Matthew Stodolak
But just go back to the artistic to make sure we’re not just saying no, it’s all business. I would say also, you know, I think we’re we’re. A huge benefit of wearing both hats is that I think we feel very confident about the product, the show, and you know, without feeling excited about the show and really eager to have people see an experience, that I think that makes you know the work on the producer, the business side, all that much more easier and also enjoyable, the same way you might enjoy the artistic side. So it kind of dovetails.
0:41:08 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, much easier to to devote a lot of what can be TDs work to something that you’re really excited about.
0:41:17 – Katie Kerr
And we made sure when we wrote it that we were writing without expectation and without guardrails and really looking at just the artistic merit of the piece and you know, without thinking how many people and what’s the budget and what are those things, and really just writing the story for the story and then re approaching it in a way that goes well, do we need to come back to the spa? Do we need this secondary sort of B or C storyline? Can those characters be folded in and become more than one person? And so the initial sort of process was strictly creative, without trying to look at it from a producer’s point of view at all. And then coming back and going, what can we adjust without changing the core of the piece and any time it did? Then that’s where we like, you know, that’s where we stop without sacrificing anything inside of sort of that initial artistic writing. That’s that sort of boundary that that we just don’t cross.
0:42:23 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely yeah, yeah. Now, one of the things that I love to talk to artists about is is is what got them started? I love theatre origin stories, so I love hearing how people got into this business. Kate, you, you mentioned Katie, you mentioned some Christmas shows and things like that in the past, but what for each of you? What started your theatre experience and what made you continue it?
0:42:51 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, I think my earliest theatre experience, again, was movie musicals, not on stage, but my grandparents had the entire Shirley Temple collection and that was the only thing they had, and so I was determined to grow up to be six year old, shirley Temple, like I thought that was the goal, and so that really was what inspired me as a child to think like I can perform, I can do that, shirley Temple can do that, annie can do that. So I really did get into theatre through those movies when I was really little, and then, just you know, entertaining my mom’s Tupperware party in a clown wig, singing the Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow, she got the hint that maybe I wanted to be in theatre and and my mom’s a piano teacher, she’s also very musical. So my childhood was spent doing theatre with my mom and and she would, you know, she would accompany me in all my music things, but she would also be on stage with me in certain shows, and so it was really fostered in in our house to be creative, my brother plays violin. It was just a very musical, safe, creative space and so it was always sort of, you know, it was always allowed to be. There was never a. You know artists will never make money and there was never that pressure of get a real job, and so I think that was really supportive and helped continue my journey.
But I would say what really got me into new works and working on new musicals, while that foundation of loving theatre and being involved in community theatre all through my childhood really happened to Sheridan, in my final year. There was the main stage productions and the G basement productions. So it was one of the first years of the Canadian Music theatre Project and the main stage was going to be Chicago and I had my heart set on Chicago. That’s how I wanted to spend my final year, and when the list went up and I was in the G basement, I was like who has ever heard of come from a way, I don’t want to be in that show, not like just I did.
I wanted to be in a show but it was just like, compared to Chicago, which has this whole aura and, you know, existence around it, something that nobody’s ever heard of. And so I was pessimistic for sure. And you know it was my last year and it was like, ok, I’ll go into the basement, and it completely changed the trajectory of my career. It was the most magical experience to be in a room where things change all the time, where characters don’t have you know, I can’t go on YouTube and see the 10 best Val McKellies, this doesn’t exist yet and so it was really just an incredible organic experience that that began in that, in that basement, and come from away and in theory of relativity, which was another Canadian music theatre project I did in my final year and and, like you know, as cliche as it is, really amazing, things can happen in the basement you know that’s good, let’s come to you.
0:46:18 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, that was really nice.
0:46:23 – Matthew Stodolak
Say my musical origin is interesting. I was that kid who did not want to practice the piano. I was that kind of myself, a brat. I can do that now with some humility behind me. But my parents got less than they made sure. You know, my brother and I we took music lessons and we were consistent with it. And it wasn’t until I was in high school and I remember you know grade nine music. We watched the hairspray movie with John Travolta and I was just I was hooked. I couldn’t believe it was something that hooked me so much. And just the, the layering of you know the story the hairspray is a fun show the story and the songs, everything just kind of coming together. That choreography of all those elements coming together just Set something off in me and then that was it. I was hooked from there. You know dove to wick in and fell in love with the music of Steven Sondheim. And then you know, decide about my life to music when I studied music. And how is it?
0:47:30 – Phil Rickaby
And how did your? Because some people go to music, you know they do music and they’ll like join an orchestra or they will. You know they’ll join a band or something like that, but musical theatre for a musician tends to be a very anonymous experience. Is that what were you drawn to? The anonymous experience of being a musician? Or? Or how did you decide that, or how did you find that that being in like bands for musicals was part of your career, career trajectory?
0:48:02 – Matthew Stodolak
Well, yeah, awesome, awesome question. I really just appreciate the art form in the way that musical theatre music shifted, changed character moment to moment in a way that was different than pop music did, but in a way that was a little bit more explicit on the surface than orchestral. You know what we call classical music did. You know, I was really lucky. I went to Mohawk College and did my diploma of music there, but while I was there I was kind of moonlighting as the music director over at McMaster University. It’s a production, it was a student production.
I was able to do a student production at the University at the time of Filder on the Roof and that was my very first show I ever music directed. And yeah, that, just like you know, took my love of the art form tenfold. You know, I had a band of maybe 15 people. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that again. Nowadays bands are shrinking but that was really it for me and I really learned to love also, you know, working in bands, working in band orchestras, whatever you want to call them. Just, it’s the collaborative nature of it all. You know, very often music directors appear as though they know everything, up there with their baton and they are the the arbiter of what is true, but nine times out of 10, they’re learning from the musicians in front of them to have a better understanding of you know bowing, or you know what a brass passage might be articulated as. So I just I love the collaborative nature of bands for sure, but, like I said before, music theatre is the collaborative art form.
0:49:33 – Phil Rickaby
Thank you both. Now, as I believe you, you haven’t started rehearsals yet Sunday. So, like, like, as we record this, you are about to start rehearsals. But, as you know, you’ve done work, you’ve done workshops, you’ve done a whole lot of this whole lot that goes into a musical like this. But as you approach this production and this, this final version, what are you most looking forward to?
0:50:06 – Matthew Stodolak
I think I repeat myself, but it’s the audience. I really believe they are the final collaborator and you know we’ve done work in terms of what we think the song should be, with the lighting cues you know will be, but it’s not really until they’re in there that we really know what the big moments are with, the big laughs are or what might still be missing.
0:50:28 – Katie Kerr
Yeah, I would say the same. I know, you know from my own experience how magical being having an experience as a gift, especially in live theatre, what what that means and sort of how that has imprinted on my experience as an artist who, you know, many moons ago, was a child in an audience, very similar to that, and so to just see that sort of to see the show land on families. It is a multi generational show. We have, you know, adult relationships, we have teenage relationships, we have, you know, eight year old relationships and how they all sort of intersect with each other and that none is really, you know, invalid and that there’s experiences across the board and I think seeing multi generational families absorbing the show and letting the show hit them in different ways and and creating this sort of bonding experience as as a unit, I’m excited for that for sure.
0:51:33 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, that’s incredible. That’s incredible. Well, Matt Katie, thank you so much for joining me. I can’t wait to see this show, and I hope that everybody else who might be listening or watching also can’t wait to see it.
0:51:48 – Katie Kerr
Thank you so much, so much. We had such a blast. Thank you for having us. We can’t wait to see you there.
0:51:57 – Phil Rickaby
This has been an episode of Stageworthy. Stageworthy is produced, hosted and edited by Phil Rickaby. That’s me. If you enjoyed this podcast and you listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating, and if you listen on Apple Podcasts, you can also leave a review. Those reviews and ratings help new people find the show. If you want to keep up with what’s going on with Stageworthy and my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe. And remember, if you want to leave a tip, you’ll find a link to the virtual tip jar in the show notes or on the website. You can find Stageworthy on Twitter and Instagram at StageworthyPod, and you can find the website with the complete archive of all episodes at Stageworthy.ca. If you want to find me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at Philrickaby and, as I mentioned, my website is philrickaby.com. See you next week for another episode of Stageworthy.