When Niko Bell was in Grade 12 in Nelson in 2008, he experienced a life-defining moment. He auditioned for the musical Annie Get Your Gun at the Capitol Theatre Summer Youth Program, directed (as it has been for the past 18 years) by Geoff Burns, music director Allison Girvan and choreographer Lynette Lightfoot. He got the part of Buffalo Bill.
“I went into that show as a shy, awkward teenager,” Bell says, “and in that show, right in the beginning, when the lights first come up, I’m on the stage talking to the entire audience. That was the most terrifying experience of my life. Allison and Geoff and Lynette put me in that part, and put all their confidence behind me to do it. I came out able to present myself to 500 people.”
Hundreds of young singers, dancers and actors Nelson have participated, sometimes many times, in the summer youth program, and many of them, now young adults, laud Girvan, Burns and Lightfoot as major influences in their lives.
Sadie Henschel, who grew up in Nelson and now lives in Vancouver, performed in several summer shows starting in 1998.
“Geoff and Allison and Lynette changed my entire life. I was going to be a teacher, and after I started the program I decided to study musical theatre after high school, and now I have an undergrad in theatre performance and that is solely based on them. I would be a very different person were it not for those three.”
Henschel, Bell and a dozen other alumni are back this summer singing in the chorus for this year’s production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, along with a full cast of Nelson youth age 12 to 18. Girvan, Burns and Lightfoot invited the alumni as a kind of celebration of the end of an era, because the three have decided to retire from the program. This is their last summer Capitol show after 12 years together, and 18 years for Girvan and Burns.
‘We get along shockingly well’
Why have they stuck together as a team for so long?
“Because it’s really fun and we get along shockingly well,” Burns says.
“We are able to get to produce amazing things with these kids because we work so well together,” Lightfoot says.
“The more we stayed,” says Girvan, “the more the program built on the shoulders of those who came before, so it is a very addictive thing: what we thought was the apex of what we were able to do actually can be built upon by subsequent casts. They are all benefiting from the casts that came before, and that is a great thing to watch as directors.”
Young actors, singers and dancers over the years have been intensely loyal to the program, many of them coming back year after year, perhaps starting as shy children in the chorus and eventually, a few years later, taking on leading roles. The program is known among Nelson youth (and their parents) for the sense of community it builds, not just within each production, but over years.
“They want to be here and they love being here,” Burns says. “When we did Godspell in 2004, because it is a religious piece and we were not focusing on the religiosity, it became a piece about community. That year we made explicit what had been implicit all along, which is building community.”
He says from then on they started talking to the students about community building and consciously fostering it.
“It was a revelation, and now it is so fundamental to what we do every year.”
Girvan says this community spirit — as well as the training in acting, singing, and dance — stands the youth in good stead for their future lives whether or not they eventually go into the performing arts.
“And we are now getting siblings coming in,” says Lightfoot. “They have seen their older brothers and sisters come in and learn and grow, so I think we are teaching a lot of families.
“One student said they felt safe and loved when they were working with us,” she adds. “I’m saying this with tears in my eyes.”
“I’d like to express gratitude to the theatre itself,” says Burns, particularly Margaret Stacey (former executive director of the theatre) for envisioning this and making this happen and seeing the value of engaging youth in the theatre and not just expecting they might figure it out on their own.”
Nelson’s youth at their best
The results on stage are legendary. The youth productions sell out several shows every year because Nelson residents know this is a showcase of youth at its best.
“We were speaking to an acquaintance,” Girvan says, “who said when she was contemplating moving here, the first thing she saw was a summer production, and she thought: if the quality of youth production is this high in Nelson, I want to live here.”
Then why are all three members of the trio leaving?
“It’s time to let go, time for others to step in whether it goes in a different direction or stays and gets built upon,” says Lightfoot. “It is time for that to happen and I am actually retiring completely from dance and teaching and theatre and going in a different direction.”
“Having worked together for so long it is hard to imagine working with anyone else,” says Burns. “But it is time for new blood, fresh ideas. You want to leave when it is flourishing, not when we have gone too long. We are feeling really good about the nature of this year’s production and we feel good about the opportunity to step away.”
Mutual respect and shared vision
The mutual love and respect between the three is palpable. The Star asked them to talk about each other.
Lightfoot on Girvan: “We can banter back and forth about a piece of music and develop something very special. There are never egos, we just work together. That is very special and she has a very raunchy sense of humour.”
Burns on Girvan: “Shared values, shared vision, and she has a deep love and care for the work and the kids and the community.”
Burns on Lightfoot: “Lynette keeps us grounded, it is wonderful, it’s like: wake up, Geoff, we gotta get this done. Lynette is the master of getting a group of people to do something together.”
Girvan on Lightfoot: “She has the same care for the people who have never danced before as for the ones that are really fantastic dancers. She manages to incorporate everybody in a way that allows them to shine their brightest.”
Lightfoot on Burns: “His compassion for everybody. He is really able to make these kids care for each other and that’s huge, to make that kind of community happen.”
Girvan on Burns: “Geoff taught me most of what I know about teaching well and being a good human being.”
Stepping off the Hunchback of Notre Dame rehearsal stage this week, Aaron Banfield, one of the alumni who moved away from Nelson years ago, says, “Without this program I would be a different person, and this team, Geoff and Allison and Lynette, the way they work with kids, is so cooperative. They respected us as small adults. Its really really cool to be back being part of it, being up on that stage again in this whole other chapter of my life. It is very gratifying.”