Gotta sing, Gotta Dance

Richard Ouzounian • Spotlight: Toronto • December 12, 2006

For almost 40 years, this school has been turning out the most skilled of performers: the triple threat.

“Gotta sing, gotta dance,” isn’t just an empty showbiz mantra for the students in the Music Theatre program at Canada’s Sheridan College — it’s their academic goal.

And don’t forget to add “gotta act” as well, because this three-year course of study is intent on turning out what’s known as the “triple threats” — performers whose dramatic and movement skills keep apace with their musical ones. It certainly seems to be paying off. Whenever you open a theatre playbill in Canada (and increasingly, in the United States), you’ll notice the phrase “graduate of Sheridan College” next to a lot of the more promising young names.

Tina Maddigan, who created the role of Sophie on Broadway in Mamma Mia!, played it for two years, and is currently in The Wedding Singer, lists Sheridan as her alma mater. So does Michael Therriault, who recently earned unanimous rave reviews for his performances as Leo Bloom in the Toronto version of The Producers as well as his Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, which he’ll be recreating in London next summer.

Sarah Cornell, who played Ulla in the Broadway and Toronto productions of The Producers, Jennifer Stewart, the Penny of Toronto’s Hairspray, and Jeff Lillico, the juvenile star of both the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper Theatre companies, are more of the recent graduates who are drawing rave reviews.

And all of this hard work happens in a totally non-glitzy environment. Sheridan College is about 40 miles from downtown Toronto in suburban Oakville, and there’s nothing in its series of ordinary-looking low-rise buildings to indicate that the Patrick Wilsons and Kristin Chenoweths of tomorrow have been honing their craft inside since 1967.

But that’s just what’s going on. At any given time, a total of 120 students are enrolled in the three-year program, working with a faculty of 35, all of whom are experienced professional practitioners.

Greg Peterson, the program coordinator of music theatre performance, has years of experience as a director, including time at the Stratford Festival and other major Canadian regional theatres. His colleagues often alternate teaching their classes with appearing in major musicals playing in Toronto, which is exactly what Peterson intends to happen. “Students learn to understand what it is to be a professional by working with professionals,” he explains. “None of the work we do here is theoretical. It’s all practical.”

When asked what he thinks makes Sheridan’s program uniquely successful, Peterson has no hesitation in answering. “It’s the evenness of the split in the three different fields: dance, acting and singing. A lot of other programs concentrate mainly on how to sell a song. Our graduates know how to do the dance numbers and act the scenes as well.”

In addition, Sheridan places a great emphasis on the practical side of the business: no ivory tower syndrome here. There’s a rigorous series of classes devoted to auditioning, as well as time spent on how to perform in commercials, microphone technique and other essential tricks of the trade. “By the time they come out of here, they’re prepared for anything,” says Peterson proudly. “And that’s what we want them to be.”

In the first year, students divide their time between studying four disciplines: acting, voice, dance and music. There’s also a commercial performance course, as well as time devoted to stagecraft, a survey of theatre history and computer skills. The second year begins by intensifying the study of the four disciplines, with more specific applications, as in scene study, music theory and dance performance. There’s also the first of two courses on the history of musical theatre and room for a general education elective.

In the latter half of the second year — the midway point of the program — actual performance becomes a major part of the curriculum, with the first of three full-scale musical productions the students are all involved with. These are presented in Theatre Sheridan’s Macdonald Heaslip Hall, a well-appointed 300-seat space that allows them to present full-scale versions of the classic Broadway musicals.

This season includes She Loves Me, Candide and West Side Story. Roles are often double-cast, so that all students get a chance to perform in a significant role. There’s also a “Bold Strokes” program each year, which presents semi-staged productions of original Canadian works as well as “Catch a Rising Star,” an annual revue in which the students can showcase their talents.

In the program’s third and final year, the emphasis is increasingly placed on making the transition to the professional world, with audition techniques, performance and production coming to the foreground.

By the time they graduate, the Sheridan Music Theatre students are expected to (in the words of the department’s mission statement): “Act, sing, and dance applying a range of healthy vocal, physical, analytical and emotional techniques; collaborate effectively; behave professionally; prepare and present appropriate audition material; utilize the inner and outer resources of a performer; practice self-assessment; employ strategies for personal and professional advancement.”

Virtually every student finds their first job in the professional theatre within a year of leaving the program, and the career arc of some recent graduates, as noted, is indeed impressive.

Yearly tuition is approximately $5,000 (US) for Canadian residents and $14,500 for students from outside the country. Scholarships are available, both at an entrance level through the college itself and within the department once the students are enrolled in the program.

It may be 45 minutes from Toronto, rather than Broadway, but Sheridan College is certainly doing its best to shorten the distance between their students’ dreams and the Great White Way. For more information about Sheridan College, visit www1.sheridaninstitute.ca/theatre/.

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