On Sunday, December 8 at 2 pm, students from MTYP’s theatre school will be performing as part of the WSO concert called The Snowman. The students will participate in Brother Heinrich’s Christmas. The show also features the Winnipeg Boys Choir and, of course, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. We asked theatre school director Kent Suss to tell us a bit more about the project.

How did this project come about?

I got a call over a year ago from the WSO’s VP of Artistic Operations, Jean-Francois Phaneuf. I really like JF’s approach to community collaborations, and former MTYP staff Laura Lindeblom is the WSO’s Production Manager, so I jumped at the chance to work with both of them. Our students performed Babar the Elephant with the WSO nearly 20 years ago, and it seemed like enough time had passed; it was time to work with them again.

Tell me about the music and show?

Brother Heinrich’s Christmas is a medieval fable set to music. If you know the story of Peter and the Wolf, it’s kind of like that, with different instruments representing different characters. For instance, Brother Heinrich is the oboe and Sigismund the donkey is the bassoon. Composer John Rutter does a great job of making the musicality of the characters integral to the story. Heinrich is struggling to remember a carol he heard angels singing, to teach it to the monastery choir, and Sigismund’s musical “hee-haw” is exactly the right melodic interval to complete the musical puzzle. It’s very cleverly done. The story captures the good feelings of the holidays and has the positive message that even if you’re not very powerful (like Sigismund the donkey), you can still do good in the world.

I thought it would work well as a theatre performance if we were to divide the text between four narrators, add an ensemble of actors to play monks, angels, and the donkey, and include shadow puppetry sequences, which are pre-recorded and will be projected onto a large screen above the orchestra. I hope that with all the design, music, and action elements coming together, it will capture the exciting, festive feeling of participating in a pageant.

What do you think the theatre students will learn by working with the WSO?

I hope the experience shows them how rewarding it is to invest their creative energy and effort into something, and opens their eyes to the many great things happening in our community. Doing a project like this is a fun way to kick off the holiday season, and I’m glad we were able to offer it to our students free of charge. They even receive a free ticket and group discounts so they can bring along family and friends.

How many students are involved?

I am working with four narrators, all teens in MTYP’s Native Youth Theatre or Theatre School. My amazing colleague Theresa Thomson is directing 12 actors age 9-12 in the action sequences. In addition to these 16 performers, dozens of students, interns, and staff are connected with this project as visual artists, makeup artists, and puppeteers. Add the WSO orchestra and staff and the Winnipeg Boy’s Choir, and you’re looking at an event with over a hundred people working to pull it off.

Are you planning more projects like this?

I’m in talks with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra to plan something for next season. We always have our ear to the ground for opportunities for our students to perform. I hope people will come see our advanced students onstage at MTYP this spring in Peter and the Starcatcher (Peter Pan’s origin story) and the musical Urinetown, and learn more about all the opportunities to experience theatre at MTYP.