There are those special people who just have a way with today’s youth – they can really connect with them, and even help to strongly influence them in a range of positive ways.
Matt Gould, 58, is one of those people. He’s been at the helm of Red Deer’s Tree House Youth Theatre as artistic director for 10 years, and has decided that at the end of this spring’s production, it’s time to move on.
Tree House Youth Theatre was created in 1988. The aim of the program is to build theatrical interest and foster skills in the young people of Central Alberta. Gould, an accomplished and multi-talented artist in his own right, came onboard in 2005.
“I understand that they have a great affection for me, and it’s reciprocal,” he explains of his faithful band of actors and crew members. “I totally love the kids, and I know that I deal with them really well.” There’s no question of that – several return season after season to sign up. Much of that is no doubt due to Gould’s obvious ability to connect with them and gently – but firmly – challenge them in terms of their acting abilities.
But he also knows it’s the troupe as a whole that also wields such a impact on these young lives.
“They’re also interacting with a set of other kids, and this set of other kids becomes a family to them and becomes connected to them.”
Over the years, Tree House has produced many compelling shows, running the gamut from renditions of classics such as Sleeping Beauty, The Wind and the Willows and Fiddler on the Roof to others equally engaging that have been penned by Gould himself. Whatever he has selected for a given performance, there is always much that is unique about it – Gould has a way of injecting a raw originality into pretty much anything he puts his hand to. “I get in there and do my work with my quirky sense, I carry whatever energy I can to the room – my expertise, my ignorance and my love for putting on shows and telling stories,” he adds with a smile.
Teresa Neuman, community and program facilitator of performing arts for the City, first met Gould about 10 years ago when her daughter became involved with Tree House. She also served on the board for a time as well.
“What was really noticeable right from the beginning was that all of a sudden, there was a real elevation in the quality of the work that Tree House was doing,” she recalls of Gould’s arrival. “It has always been an excellent program, but the expectation that Matt brought for those kids to rise to was something I hadn’t seen in my time there up to that point.
“What was also special is that Matt has such a diverse set of skills – he’s a visual artist, he’s a designer, he knows about textiles and costuming, he’s an actor and he’s a musician. So he brought everything to the table in one package, which I think is going to be a challenge to even begin to replace in that kind of a mentor.”
Neuman said she also has noticed Gould’s approach to productions has been different in that it is often quite minimalistic in terms of costuming and set. “What had to come through in order to make the production work were the performances, and the allowance of the audiences to use their own imaginations to get there,” she said. “I think that’s what we began to see – not only were the actors challenged to rise to the expectation, but the community was challenged to become more engaged in the productions because they had to bring their own imagination to it. I found that really exciting right from the beginning.
“I also loved that he really involved the actors, and this became more prominent through the years in writing scripts themselves, and bringing their own experiences to those scripts. So they did quite a bit of original material – his own writing, but my impression is also that the young actors had a role in adding to material with their own personalities and experiences as well.
“I’m always amazed and come away thinking, how did he get those kids to do that? Whether it’s the edgy material that they are taking risks with or something like Sweeney Todd which is incredibly difficult music for anyone of any age to hang onto. They persevered and they pulled it off. Youth love to be challenged and they will rise to that. I think that’s why they respect him so much.”
As for Gould’s own journey into the artistic world, it stretched back to his earliest days.
“I’ve been singing, performing, teaching and learning, exhibiting and writing for essentially 50 years.”
Originally from Edmonton, he recalls consistently feeling that desire to create. Much of that started with musical performance, then his gift for acting surfaced in later years.
After high school, Gould studied radio and television at Toronto’s Ryerson University. But there was a problem. “I’ve been a technophobe all my life,” he laughs. So then he headed to Sheraton in Oakville to study animation. It wasn’t the right fit either.
Next up, he took a closer look at painting, which proved very successful with exhibitions and even illustrations utilized in publications. He moved home in 1985, continuing with music and visual arts. He later relocated to Vancouver to study filmmaking. He returned to Alberta, met his partner Keith McPhedran in 2001 and they settled in Red Deer in 2003. The City proved a welcoming, close-knit environment for him to flourish. “A friend of Keith’s cut out an ad about Tree House Youth Theatre needing a director for Beauty and the Beast.” And a brand new creative chapter was launched. “My coming here and connecting was really significant for me.”
Looking ahead, Gould’s last show will be a kind of retrospective – Let the Play Continue will be his last major main stage spring production with Tree House. It’s a fitting selection.
“It’s a series of scenes and musical numbers from all the shows; there will be scenes from Last Known Position, Red Deer River Stories, Mulan, Fiddler on the Roof, Beauty and the Beast,” he said, acknowledging how the preparation has brought about many memories for him and the youth. “I think it’s really fun.”