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Grand Falls-Windsor high school bringing "Mamma Mia" to its stage

The Exploits Valley High Musical Theatre Program students, front, from left, Josie Sheppard, Shannon Ivey, and Matthew Taylor; back, from left, Aaron Collins and Nick Winsor, and approximately 75 other students, are busy preparing for the upcoming production of "Mamma Mia". It's set to take the stage at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts on May 8-10. KRYSTA CARROLL/SALTWIRE NETWORK
The Exploits Valley High Musical Theatre Program students, front, from left, Josie Sheppard, Shannon Ivey, and Matthew Taylor; back, from left, Aaron Collins and Nick Winsor, and approximately 75 other students, are busy preparing for the upcoming production of "Mamma Mia". It's set to take the stage at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts on May 8-10. KRYSTA CARROLL/SALTWIRE NETWORK

No one imagined the growth and impact a musical theatre program could have on staff, students, school and community. But the Exploits Valley High musical theatre program is proof that music brings people together.

The group, re-formed three years ago, has not only grown in numbers, but has showcased many talents the community holds.

Staff Dawn Oldford, Scott Simms and Sandra Goudie, along with 10-12 students, presented “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in 2018.

Last year when Jennifer Clarke became music teacher, she joined in for “Rock of Ages.”

This year the group is taking on ABBA in “Mamma Mia.”

“We had an open call at the beginning of the year,” Clarke said, adding more than 80 students attended.

“It’s gone from 10 to 12 (students), to almost 40 last year, and now we’ve doubled that again,” Oldford said. “It’s good that there is so much interest.”

Shannon Ivey, currently completing Grade 12, is one of the ‘originals.’ She has been in the program since it started again three years ago.

“It’s amazing how much we have grown,” Ivey said. “I remember our first year I was in Grade 10 and it was just an idea. It was just talks. There were 10 to 12 of us and we would just go to Ms. Oldford’s classroom and all of us could just sit around one table, it was just dinner time.”

She assumes people must have seen how fun it was because the growth since that first year is tremendous.

“It’s just amazing what our teachers have done for us, to give us all the opportunity to do that and have the experience before we go to school, to do the backstage managing, being able to organize a band, or our public speaking, or getting out of our comfort zone to get in front of people, it does a lot for all of us.”

Ivey said she didn’t like public speaking, especially reading, and now, she’s for it all.

“You see other people grow as well, which is great,” she said. “And we all get new friendships and we talk to people who we don’t usually talk to around school or even outside of school. The next thing you know we are having sleepovers, or we are going to the movies, a hockey game together, or bowling."

And the positive outcomes don’t stop there.

“It really shows there is such a wide demographic in the school being involved,” said Grade 12 student Aaron Collins.

“I love playing music and being on stage, it kind of re-energizes me, but to act is not my thing. So it creates an avenue for people like myself, who wouldn’t typically be involved in that, to kind of jump in and take some ownership of the play.”

Ivey added everyone is talking about the upcoming musical, and it is having a positive impact on the school.

"It gets people involved and gets lots of people together,” she said. “You can walk into a classroom some day and all of us would be eating lunch and we are probably all singing a song together and people are poking their heads in, people who aren’t even in the musical may sing along. It brings everyone together, not only the people who are involved but it gives everyone the chance to say ‘my school did this,’ or ‘I was involved with this.’”

Collins, a Grade 12 student and this year’s band leader, admits he is not a shy person, however, he has seen a lot of shy people involved in the productions come out of their shells.

“These are people who if you walked past them in the morning and said good morning it would be a job for them to look up and say anything to you,” he said. “But they are people now if they see me come in, or another person who was in the musical, their eyes will light up and they’ll say ‘hey, how are ya?’ and you’ll get into a conversation.”

He said the band believes they have grown leaps and bounds musically as well.

“The personal growth and musical growth that I’ve seen in myself and in the band, that’s just amazing and I’m not sure if there are many avenues you can get that from,” Collins said.

He added it is great to see a different variety of people, and role models involved.

“It’s showing, especially younger guys in the school, that the arts are very much something that you can get involved with,” he said.

“I think Grand Falls-Windsor is unique as well as there has always been a culture of placing importance on the arts.”

"Mamma Mia"

Everyone who signed up has a part, in one way or another, in the "Mamma Mia" production.

“We like for everything to be student led as much as possible, give them ownership of it,” Clarke said.

There were 11 main roles in the cast, and they added another to make it 12.

“There was so much talent,” Clarke said.

Plus there’s an ensemble on stage, a core group of dancers who will lead everyone else. There are parts for villagers, beach goers, travelers, wedding guest, a seven-member live band, backstage crew, and the list goes on.

“It’s a huge production so there is lots to be done,” Oldford said. “Many hands lighten the load for sure.

“The time and dedication that these kids put into this stuff, we are talking many hours a week,” Clarke added.

And the youth couldn’t be more excited.

“I love music, acting and 'Mamma Mia' is one of my favourite musicals,” said Ivey, who is playing Donna. “I can’t wait. I am so excited.”

Matthew Taylor, a newbie to the group, is playing Sky this year.

“Last year after I saw (the production), a bunch of us got together who went to the show and we were like ‘we gotta do it,’” Taylor said. “You see people on stage who are shy, and they were out yelling their lines and dancing around. It was like ‘I got to be a part of that.’ It’s something different. I don’t usually do this stuff.”

Clark said Taylor told her last year if they were doing "Mamma Mia" he wanted to be in it.

"I’m a big fan of 'Mamma Mia',” Clarke said. “My nan (Isabel Galutira, from the Philippines, living in Grand Falls-Windsor) liked ABBA so she would line dance to Super Trooper and all the songs. She would take us when we were younger to line dance and it just grew when 'Mamma Mia' came out, and then 'Mamma Mia 2', and that was it.”

Josie Sheppard, an ‘original,’ was the lead in last year’s performance, and took a different direction this year. It's providing her with a new experience and background as she heads into a theatre program post graduation.

“I’m stage manager this year which is totally out of my comfort zone,” Sheppard said. “I’m used to being on stage and acting but this year I’m kind of backstage. It's really cool watching people who are new to theatre get the hang of blocking and stuff like that and getting to work with them, trying to help them develop their character. I find it really awesome being on the other side of it, like how Ms. Oldford and Ms. Clarke were working with me last year, now I get to work with other people. Each year the musical group brings a new challenge to everybody that’s in it and it’s just amazing.”

Collins leads the band, which consists of three keyboard players, a drummer, a couple of guitar players, bass, some auxiliary percussion like kettle drums. Clarke is on a keyboard, and the rest are played by students.

“Last year was my first year involved with the musical,” Collins said. “Myself, Ms. Clarke and an intern teacher said we were going to take on a live band and it was the first time that any of us had ever done it. I spent a lot of time playing smaller bands, never in a musical theatre thing, so it was a big shift for me to take on such a big body of work. This year is even more so, there’s a lot more instrumentation involved. But I’m just blown away at the talent that’s in the school to do all that.”

Want to see that talent in action?

Shows take place at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 8; Saturday, May 9; and Sunday May 10, as well as a matinee Saturday at 2 p.m.

The Saturday afternoon show will be different.

"This year since we had so much interest and talent we decided to try running with two casts,” Oldford said. “Not everybody has a double or an understudy but some of the main characters have a different person who will be performing Saturday afternoon. I think that is going to be a really fun element.”

Tickets are $25 adults, $20 seniors and students, and are on sale at the Gordon Pinsent Centre box office, or online at

They are going fast, the teachers said.

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