Cylla von Tiedemann
"This is actor Thom Allison’s first effort as a director, but you would hardly know it from his assured work, guiding his production."
"Thom Allison’s production of Seussical walks the walk of this commitment to inclusion on multiple levels"
Thom Allison’s got a Seussical state of mind
Thom Allison’s got another hit on his hands.
Posted on November 26, 2016 by Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya.com
Only this time, he’s directing it.
His production of Seussical, a musical based on the books of Dr Seuss (primarily Horton Hears a Who, Horton Hatches an Egg and Miss Gertrude McFuzz) is currently on stage at the Young People’s Theatre (YPT). For YPT, Seussical is an audience favourite . . . and a bit of an awards magnet. Two earlier productions, both directed by Artistic Director Allen McInnis, played to sold-out houses and earned the company several Dora Mavor Moore Awards. This year’s revival is significant because it’s a brand new production — plus it marks Allison’s first foray into directing.
When Allison and I speak, I’ve just returned from an early-morning optometrist’s appointment. My pupils are dilated, and the brightness of the sun is making it especially difficult to keep my eyes open. So I give in to the inclination to keep them closed, which makes it all the easier to concentrate on his words – which tumble out with enthusiasm and abandon. I ask how much time we have, and he readily replies, “however long you need.” So I settle in for our chat, focussing solely on Allison’s mellifluous voice, warm candour and ready laugh. I understand better than ever why he’s experienced abiding success as an actor and singer – on screen and stage – across Canada and on Broadway. And why directing is a logical progression in his already distinguished career.
Erin Breen and Jonathan Tan in a scene from Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Erin Breen and Jonathan Tan in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
This production of Seussical is a departure from the previous two, Allison insists. And the difference is rooted in a “kooky but sophisticated” sensibility, shaped by TV shows he watched as a kid: “I grew up with Bugs Bunny and The Muppet Show…Those shows weren’t aimed at kids. Adults could watch the show with their kids and laugh and get all these jokes.” Even as a kid, Allison knew that he didn’t understand all of the jokes. “But it was okay,” he says warmly, “I enjoyed (the show) for what it was. So I approached this show in the same way, like I’m doing a play for adults in terms of trying to be as smart as possible, and not talking down to anyone…and then my own kooky take on it. In terms of the design, it’s my sensibility of what made me laugh, what appealed to my eye as a kid.”
While Allison has attended to the many “bright, colourful and funny” opportunities within Seussical, he has also placed equal emphasis on the multi-layered themes that lie beneath. He feels the musical’s messages of friendship, inclusion and acceptance resonate keenly in the uncertain social climate created by the recent US election. For him, Sour Kangaroo’s line, “someone’s thinkin’ different than us” reverberates outside the play, even as it sets in motion much of the plot within the play: “In that one statement, she explains to us why everyone is against Horton, and she explains exactly the problem that we’re all facing right now, in the world and what the world of the show represents. She’s mad that he’s walking away from what is the norm, what he’s supposed to think about other people and about other things.”
Grace McRae, Arinea Hermans, Robert Markus, Jeigh Madjus, Mike Jackson, Claire Rouleau, Jonathan Tan, Jahlen Barnes, Jacob MacInnis and Erin Breen in a scene from Seussical™ at Young People’s Theatre; Cylla von Tiedemann
Grace McRae, Arinea Hermans, Robert Markus, Jeigh Madjus, Mike Jackson, Claire Rouleau, Jonathan Tan, Jahlen Barnes, Jacob MacInnis and Erin Breen in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Thematically, the underlying suspicion of what is “different” is precisely the attitude that Horton’s recurring line – “a person’s a person no matter how small” – counters. Allison calls it the show’s “mantra,” which embodies the challenge of diversity: “If you replace the ‘small’ of that statement, with ‘no matter how black’, ‘no matter how gay’, ‘no matter how short’, ‘no matter how female’. . . Put anything in there, and you have basically most of the problems in our modern society, on a world scale. It’s a metaphor for everything!”
In the show, no one can see the Whos, and Horton’s the only one who hears them. Again, for Allison, the point is metaphorical. If you don’t see someone’s worth, you don’t see them… so you certainly don’t see all the ways that they are the same as you: “Then it’s a ‘no…I don’t believe you because I don’t see your point of view.’ And we all want to be seen . . . We all want to be heard.” Warming to his point, he emphasizes how Seussical provides “this message for kids, so beautifully and simply told to the people who see everything in the most clear terms. Children see without all the prejudice that we’ve loaded on them until they learn how to dislike, to disapprove.”
Allison realizes the responsibility of conveying this sober complexity – underlying the bright and “costume-y” fun – to the impressionable sensibilities of young people . . . all in a lively and economical 75 minutes. And the headiest part of it all? The fact that, as director, every decision on how to accomplish all this is his: “That’s the part that made me go ‘holy cow!’ I have to be on my game all the time. That’s the big ‘wow’: it’s all me. They’re all coming to me to say ‘yes?’ ‘no?’ ‘black?’ ‘white?’ ‘yellow?’ ‘leaves?’ ‘green?’ ‘chocolate?’…. Every kooky decision is up to me.”
Jeigh Madjus and Jonathan Tan in a scene from Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Jeigh Madjus and Jonathan Tan in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Though the scope of the experience is huge, he has very much appreciated the “invitation to rise” to the challenge. To give himself permission to take time to consider a request before acting on it. And to make a new choice when something doesn’t work. In fact, he sees this as his most “interesting” takeaway: “I’ve learned to trust myself, whether I’m right or wrong. The world doesn’t stop if you’re wrong,” he says wryly. “It just means that you’ve changed your mind.” Overall, this directing experience has been a “joy,” particularly given YPT’s awareness of its diverse audience. YPT knows “they’re speaking to everyone,” and they do their utmost to “reflect whose stories they’re telling on stage.” Allison is keenly grateful for YPT’s commitment to bringing his ideas to life, and for the dedication of a fiercely talented and diverse team. Each is “perfect for the role” they’re in – and all are unanimously “game for the ride.”
As my chat with Allison draws to a natural close, I realize that another famous Seuss pronouncement “you’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut” has not applied to me and my dilated pupils. I didn’t see Allison . . . but in spite of this (or maybe because of it), after our conversation, I find myself especially attuned to what he’s said about the pertinence of Seussical, given the resurgence of bigotry after the US election. It’s important to make the effort to understand what you doesn’t necessarily see, and to listen when “someone’s thinkin’ different than us.” In fact, it’s urgent to do so. In this light, reviving a musical imbued with optimism, compassion, and a celebration of difference is altogether appropriate, even curative. And if YPT can extend the show run beyond the December 31 finale, even more people can experience Allison’s “kooky sensibility”–a dynamic and sensitive “thinkiness” that I feel confident Dr Seuss himself would get behind.
Seussical Is Back With A Brand New Director
ByBlacks – Written by Camille Dundas
Dr. Seuss has been “one true friend in the universe” to millions of young readers for generations and Seussical™ brings back these ethics based stories in the form of a musical.
An all-time favourite with little audience members, this fantastical musical reminds us all that “a person’s a person no matter how small”.
The show has a new director, the wickedly smart Thom Allison. He’s a career actor (most recently appearing in Kim’s Convenience), originally from Winnipeg. He stood out early on when he became the youngest student admitted to Ryerson Theatre School at age 17. And this is another first for him; he has never directed before. We sat down with Thom to find out more.
Q. What do you look for when choosing a project?
A.- Certainly an interest in the story is the first factor. If I’m acting, then it’s about the role and the character’s journey. Also, I have a very visceral instinct that I’ve learned to listen to. If it’s good for me, my solar plexus feels very open and light. If it’s a bad idea for me, my solar plexus tightens as soon as I’m offered the show.
Q. Why did you decide to make the jump from actor to director?
A. – Even at theatre school, I was interested in directing. I directed a show each year I was at Ryerson Theatre School – just independently as a lunch time show at school. But then my career took off and I’ve been lucky enough to have that very rare thing of a constant career as an actor. In the last few years, I started to realize I wasn’t as hungry as an actor. I wanted to be responsible for more of the storytelling. I think I always thought I would come to directing eventually but it is a little sooner than I expected. I don’t think I’m done performing but a new door is definitely opening, thanks to Allen MacInnis, YPT’s Artistic Director.
Q. And what about this play attracted you?
A. – I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a cartoon in my heart. I grew up with Bugs Bunny and The Muppet Show. Two shows that where the real comedy was geared toward intelligent adults. I knew, even as a kid, that I wasn’t getting all of the jokes but I also knew I would grow into them and I appreciated not being talked down to. Seussical is so smart. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) gave children very big, grown ideas to mull over and didn’t give them easy answers. He encourages them to ask questions and have empathy. The musical does that too. I like that.
Q. What was the directing experience like for you? What did you learn? And were there any moments you wanted to jump in and get on stage?
A. – I’ve had an amazing time directing the show. I have to say, every day was joyful and a new learning experience. I’ve learned a lot about trusting your team. I’ve learned directing can’t be about ego. The joy of it is letting everyone play in the playground and the best idea wins. I’ve also learned to trust my instincts and that no idea is too small. I have to say, I didn’t ever really feel like I wanted to be in the show. I’ve loved being inside it but not having to do it. Not to indicate that it’s been a “relaxing” alternative to performing. It’s just as exhausting – simply because there really are no breaks. The director is always working out something new or planning or re-planning with the choreographer or chatting with wardrobe or lights or something. It appeals to my anal-retentive side.
Q. What was your own experience with Dr. Seuss as a child?
A. – I actually wasn’t really exposed to Dr. Seuss as a child. I did know How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I would watch the animated television special every year. . . still do. But we didn’t have the books at home. My dad is from the woods of Nova Scotia and my mother is a 1st generation Canadian whose parents were German-speaking Dutch Mennonites from Russia, so Dr. Seuss wasn’t naturally in their spheres of cognition.
Q. Why should parents make sure their kids don’t miss seeing this musical?
A.- The world seems constantly full of reasons to find our way back to understanding and acceptance. It can be a minefield for our children. Seussical reassures children … and parents. . . that being a good person, though not always easy, is always going to be a worthwhile achievement. Plus, it’s a hell of a good time.
Q. Two of the performances are geared towards young people with autism. Where did this idea come from? And can you tell us if that impacted how you directed the play? Are there additional challenges?
A. Many theatres are adopting this wonderful program. I’m thrilled that it is something people have gotten onboard with. My best friend’s son is autistic. She’s also a theatre professional so it’s exciting for him to experience what she does for a living.
The program doesn’t impact how I’m directing the show in terms of it’s conception. I still fill the show with all of the ideas and concepts that the show sparks in my imagination. But as far as creating challenges goes, it actually doesn’t make challenges, it makes great opportunities to share the show with a wider audience. It simply means that by softening some of the lighting and effects for those two shows, we have the opportunity to engage these children in a theatre experience that is gentle enough for them to enjoy without being overwhelmed by too many bells and whistles.
Seussical™ opens to the public on Friday and runs til December 31st. Recommended for ages 5 & up.
YPT will offer two Relaxed Performances during this run, one for school audiences and one for families, each geared toward young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder but good for anyone who finds traditional theatre experiences somewhat of a challenge.