Q&A: Sheridan College's Canadian Music Theatre Project Presents Brantwood: 1920-2020

Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman on creating the largest production of immersive, site-specific musical theatre in Canadian history

Presented by Sheridan College's Canadian Music Theatre Project
Created and directed by Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman
Music and lyrics by Bram Gielen, Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson
Produced by Michael Rubinoff

Cushman (second row, second from left) and Tepperman (second row, fourth from right) with Brantwood cast. Photo by John Jones.

This season, Sheridan College's Canadian Music Theatre Project is presenting the world premiere of Brantwood: 1920-2020, a groundbreaking immersive musical theatre experience created and directed by Outside the March's Mitchell Cushman and Convergence Theatre's Julie Tepperman and produced by Michael Rubinoff, Sheridan's Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts. As the Toronto District School Board ponders closing several schools over the next decade, Brantwood is staged in a real-life GTA school slated for redevelopment. Featuring text and songs that span a century of different musical genres, Brantwood is performed by the 2015 graduating class of Sheridan's renowned Bachelor of Music Theatre Performance program. Rounding out the cast are talented professionals Suzanne Bennett, Claire Calnan, Ralph Small and Andrew Trithardt portraying Brantwood's teachers and principals.

In choose-your-own-adventure style, spectators decide which storylines to follow as they wander through classrooms and halls in a production featuring 100 characters (portrayed by 42 actors), 200 scenes, 40 musical numbers and unexpected dance sequences - with 15 scenes occurring simultaneously at any given time, orchestrated by a crew of 40 students from Sheridan's Technical Production for Theatre and Live Events program. Adding to the mystery and excitement of the evening are secret passage-ways, one-on-one encounters, treasure hunts and rewards for solving multi-media riddles hidden in plain sight.

Here, we chat with Cushman and Tepperman about their experiences working on the show.

Theatromania: Tell us about Brantwood: 1920–2020. What inspired this ambitious project?

MC: Nearly two years ago, Michael Rubinoff approached us about creating a site-specific piece for Sheridan’s 2015 graduating Music Theatre Performance class. Several months later we went on a tour of the Brantwood school, and we knew instantly that we had found the perfect home for our project.

JT: Agreed! The building was bursting with theatrical possibilities, and when we learned that the school had first opened its doors in 1920, our imaginations began to churn! High school is an incredibly exciting and emotionally charged time. We were curious to explore the inevitable loss of innocence that defines adolescence, and the ways in which teenagers unknowingly re-enact the same social dynamics, experimentations, transgressions and mistakes from one generation to the next, through their own historical lens.

MC: And so we decided to craft 11 different one-hour storylines, one for each decade in the life our imaginary Brantwood High—including a vision of the school redeveloped as a condo in 2020—The Chalkboard Lofts. This is a secret room that is purposely designed to be hard for the audience to find!

Theatromania: What are some of the challenges directing a production of this scale?

JT: Well, we decided early on to have each actor play multiple characters, separated by era, but not by spirit, and for the actors to transition from one character to the next in full view of the audience. Of course, this presents a multitude of challenges around costuming, and in particular timing, because if an actor fails to arrive on time to a scene, the domino effect of that is huge! So from the beginning, Mitchell and I have been writing the scenes to be very specifically timed in relation to each other and to the actors’ various tracks.

MC: Yes, creating moments of convergence where characters, stories and histories smash together has presented many challenges! From an experiential perspective, our goal has been to take “audience voyeurism” to a whole new level by giving people free reign to follow whomever they choose and explore any space at any time. The audience experience lasts three hours, but there’s a total of 15 hours of material unfolding simultaneously all over the building. The simultaneity of action allows the audience to follow whomever they choose through the densely interwoven narrative, and experience all new characters and storylines each time they return.

JT: I think it’s fair to say we’re both obsessed with creating immersive audience experiences, implicating the audience in the action, and pushing the boundaries of intimacy between performer and audience. We’ve worked very closely with our incredible team of designers to create a detailed and interactive space, and ensure that every nook and cranny of the building is active at all times, through action, scenic design, soundscape, and lighting.

Theatromania: How would you describe the music and dance in the show?

JT: We were very excited to explore the role that music and dance would play in fleshing out the characters, stories, and styles of each decade.

MC: When we began “song-spotting” and presented our list of musical requests to our brilliant team of composer-lyricists (Britta Johnson, Anika Johnson, Bram Gielen and Chris Thornborrow) we never in our wildest dreams could have imagined they would compose such an immense score and that it would so inventively chart the evolution of contemporary music over the last century. As a result of their music, we also have some incredible dance numbers inventively choreographed by Nicola Pantin.

JT: It’s so exciting to see musical numbers take place all over the building. Nicola has been so creative with her use of the space. The music has absolutely become the heartbeat of Brantwood.

Theatromania: What have you learned from this experience so far?

JT: In a way, it feels like everything we’ve each learned over the years from creating theatre in non-traditional spaces and exploring different forms of audience immersion has culminated with Brantwood and is being stretched to the limit. We’re really flexing our creative muscles on all fronts!

MC: As we throw open Brantwood’s doors to an audience we’re very eager to continue to learn all we can about the show and the vast many ways in which people will experience it.

JT: It has taken nothing short of an army to get this show up! Our ultimate dream and vision for Brantwood is that it will have a long-term future life, so that we’re able to continue to build on all that we learn from this premiere production, and so that audiences can continue to dive deeper and deeper into its story.

Theatromania: Any advice for the graduating students?

MC: As artists who often produce our own work, I think the best advice I would give any new theatre school grad is to create your own work.

JT: Agreed! Don’t sit back and way for other people to offer you work—be the person who offers other people work!

Brantwood: 1920-2020 runs from April 14 to May 3 (Tuesday-Sunday at 7pm nightly). Patrons assemble at the main entrance to Sheridan College, 1430 Trafalgar Rd, Oakville to get on the school bus transporting them to and from Brantwood School (221 Allan Street, Oakville). Parking at Sheridan College: $4 during the week, free on weekends. For tickets, call the Theatre Sheridan Box Office at 905-815-4049 or visit tickets.sheridancollege.ca.

Show Dates: 
Tue, 2015-04-14 - Sun, 2015-05-03


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