There’s a new leader at the helm of Tree House Youth Theatre, as the talented troupe gears up for an exciting new season of staging creatively-rich theatrical productions.
Nicole Leal, 34, a familiar name to many in the local theatre community, came onboard in recent months, and is excited about the adventures and challenges that await as the months unfold.
“I started shadowing (former artistic director) Matt Gould this past December,” she explains. When the New Year dawned, she really delved into the Tree House world, learning from Gould while beginning to shape her own unique leadership talents that much further. “I’m used to acting and directing, but to come in and run a new program from scratch really looked all new to me,” she said, adding how thankful she was for Gould’s guidance through the winter and this past spring.
“It was really, really great to get to know Matt – we bonded really well and worked really well together. So it makes me sad to think that I’ll be doing this without him eventually.”
But at the same time, she said they are confident about Tree House moving forward under Leal’s leadership which became official on Aug. 1st.
The program welcomes youth ages nine through to 17. “There are two programs – nine to 11 and then 12 to 17,” she said.
“I love to help create things with them, because their imaginations are so free,” she explains. “I love playing with the kids, I love theatre and I love being creative with them. I’m really childlike at heart myself. So it’s really nice to have that ‘excuse’ to be playful with them,” she laughed.
Meanwhile, as the fall sets in, rehearsals will begin for a Christmas show featuring young actors from the nine to 11-year-old program. “For the older guys, it’s going to be Into the Woods. They’re show isn’t until May of 2017, but they will start rehearsals the same time as the younger ones do.”
Leal is a talented actor in her own right, having completed theatre studies at Red Deer College back in 2013. She was featured in several shows, including The King is the King, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Pan.
“When I started there, I had gone through a really huge transition in my life – and so my confidence level was low. But going to RDC was a huge confidence booster for me. I learned that I was still able to create and to put work out there.
“My mentor Tanya Ryga and I really bonded as well. She later hired me to do Butt Ugly (a popular anti-smoking program that is presented to young students in the region). I loved it.”
In her earlier years, Leal, who was born and raised in Red Deer, knew she had a desire to, in some way, work with children. “I told my parents the whole reason I was going back to theatre school at the age of 29 was because I wanted to do theatre, and I wanted to work with kids – I work well with them.” She had another positive experience being a church youth leader, and that was also when it became clear she had a knack for connecting with kids. “I liked to help give them a purpose, and inspiring them the way that they inspired me, too.”
In her childhood, she was already well on her way to embarking on a journey into the world of theatre. “I loved being expressive,” she recalls. “When I was a kid, believe it or not I was shy. So when I did my first show, I was in Grade 6 – I was 12. And I remember thinking, wow, this is an amazing rush. I get to be this different person and it’s okay because it’s not really who I am. But I can pretend to be this other person – and it’s fun! That was the first seed that was planted.
“And I also loved the community that you build with the people you are in a show with.”
Tree House Youth Theatre was created in 1988 and was the brainchild of Richard O’Brien who was head of the Theatre Arts Program at Red Deer College. Tree House Productions ran during the College off-season using RDC theatre staff and students to support most elements of the production.
When O’Brien left both Red Deer College and Tree House, the organization moved into a new partnership; this time with Central Alberta Theatre (CAT). CAT continued to provide guest artists for several years, providing support and encouragement to the young performers.
With the hiring of Gould in 2005, Tree House entered a new era of exploration and creation, building a love of the theatre arts in the youth of Central Alberta. In 2009, Gould was instrumental in securing a rehearsal and performance space in the Scott Block downtown.
Over Gould’s years as artistic director he produced, directed (and in some cases wrote) over one dozen productions including, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2005), Fiddler on the Roof Jr. (2007), The Wind in the Willows (2009), Disney’s Mulan Jr. (2010), Sleeping Beauty (2012), and Red Deer River Stories (2013) among others.
Other production highlights include You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Alice in Wonderland, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd.
Tree House Youth Theatre is a not-for-profit charitable organization, ‘creating extraordinary theatrical experiences for young performers in Central Alberta.
“I love when a story has a message to it,” said Leal, adding she’s excited to get the students creating their own material as well. “I want them to know what it’s like to have an idea, put it on paper, practice it and show it to an audience. I also think that when the kids know that someone believes in them so much, they get this courage to help them triumph in anything that they do.”
For more about Tree House Youth Theatre, check out www.treehouseyouththeatre.ca.