A cast of teenage actors stand in the wings as the curtain rises and the first notes ring out. A call of “places please, three minutes to curtain.” Waiting for their cue, they are confident and prepared, ready to entertain another audience doing what they love.
Who knows, maybe the next Canadian star is among them? None of them would be here without the woman who started it all.
Andorlie Hillstrom started Do it with Class Young People’s Theatre two decades ago. This past season marked her last year in the director’s chair for the youth company. She announced her retirement this spring after spending months battling breast cancer while continuing to pursue her passion of teaching young people.
“These are never easy decisions for anyone to make, I founded the organization, it was my brainchild whether for good or bad,” Hillstrom laughed. “I went through several health issues this year and I think I was on a bit of a treadmill.”
While she takes a step back to focus on her health, Hillstrom certainly doesn’t plan to leave the theatre scene entirely. She is very confident leaving her long-time friend and teaching partner, musical director Robert Ursan at the helm.
Today the youth theatre company has a constant stream of young actors, singers and dancers ages 9 to 19. For those students, Class Act studios becomes like a second home. Filled with music, it’s a place where they build confidence and lifelong friendships along with the skills to succeed on the stage and in life.
Robert Ursan running a rehearsal at Class Act Studios. Photo submitted
Hillstrom has lost count of how many productions she has worked on over the last 21 years in Regina, often in partnership with Ursan. Between launching ‘Do It with Class’ and directing shows for Regina Lyric Musical Theatre and Regina Summer Stage, her name runs synonymous with musical theatre in the queen city, often with Ursan’s name in the same credits. Many of those productions have been done hand in hand with Ursan, including the latest spring production of “Fiddler on the Roof”. In 2009 they started Golden Apple Theatre as a professional company in the city.
But it is the youth theatre company that gave many local actors their start on the stage.
DO IT WITH CLASS ALUMNI SHINE ON STAGES AND SCREENS
Many of the pair’s former students have actually made it in show business. They perform on stages across Canada, starring in productions for the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival. Paul Nolan is now playing his second lead role on Broadway in ‘Once’. This season Regina-born actress Tatiana Maslany has graced the red carpet at award shows being recognized for her role in the hit television series ‘Orphan Black.’
Kyle Golemba is one of the former Do it with Class theatre alumni currently rehearsing for a show in the Shaw Festival Theatre at Niagara on the Lake. Looking back on his first audition for Hillstrom and Ursan, he laughs thinking about how bad it must have been. But they gave him a chance. He credits his success to what he learned from Hillstrom.
“She encourages young people in a way that’s so beautiful and she gets people excited about theatre and keeps that going whether or not you want to do it professionally,” Golemba said. “Even beyond those kinds of stage etiquette or stage craft skills, she also taught us about respecting each other and about respecting ourselves and believing in ourselves.”
He says the experience he gained in Do it With Class set him ahead of others when he went to theatre school. Golemba added that he wouldn’t want to imagine a universe without this youth theatre company. Beyond the fact that he and some of his fellow alumni have gone on to careers as actors, he says most of his best friends and best memories growing up are from his time with that group.
Golemba says above all else, he is grateful for the support Ursan and Hillstrom have given him throughout his career.
“If I have bad auditions every once in a while I’ll text Andorlie and she’ll be the first one to call me and tell me how much she believes in me,” he commented. “You are good enough to be doing this and we absolutely believe in you 100 per cent and we always are supporting you from back home. It is really tough. So to have somebody saying that in the back of your mind is really important.”
TWO DECADES OF TEACHING MUSICAL THEATRE IN REGINA
For her part, Hillstrom admits she didn’t even want to come to Regina 21 years ago. She is originally from a small town near Lanigan Saskatchewan, but when she had to leave behind teaching and performing opportunities in the cultural hub of eastern Canada, she expected it to be a momentary pause. The first year she started Do It with Class in Regina, she had nine students who performed at music festivals. But with help from Ursan, the group grew into a top level youth company that now produces three full-length musicals per year.
Hillstrom says sometimes when she looks back on the hundreds of students she has taught she is amazed at how many continue to be involved in the arts. While some, like Golemba, Nolan, Maslany and Regina actress Amy Matysio, have gone on to professional careers, many others have become music teachers themselves, passing on the love for musical theatre to their own students.
“I feel really blessed that I was able to provide some of that to those young people,” she said.
Hillstrom originally had her own career on the stage, but she says she was drawn more to helping young people. Looking back she knows they changed her perspective.
“You can never, ever take anything for granted with young people, with youth. They walk in the door with incredible potential and you either see that or you don’t right away,” she explained.
“In the back of your mind you’re going ‘no, this is never going to work out,’ and yet those kids are the ones who end up achieving the most and that you’re the most proud of.”
20th ANNIVERSARY SEASON COMES FULL CIRCLE
While directing a special production of ‘Titanic: the Musical’ to mark the company’s 20th Anniversary this January, Hillstrom already knew it would be her last show with ‘Do it with Class’, but she hadn’t announced it yet.
“It will be one of my all-time favourites and there have been many, many shows, I’ve never counted how many we’ve done,” she admitted.
Working once again, side by side with Ursan, Hillstrom says this time it was like watching a culmination of their work over the last 20 years, and that’s what made ‘Titanic’ special.
“It was so heartwarming for me to have that stage shared by our newest newbies and by individuals who are professionals who arranged to set aside time to come back and perform in that show. That has been so inspiring for those kids,” she said, noting that the former students often become mentors for younger ones. “This very much felt like several generations, and it felt like family.”
This spring Hillstrom and Ursan chose the shows for the coming season together for one final time. Auditions are already underway for the junior production of ‘Dear Edwina’ set for October
, along with Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ for the senior students in February. The full company production of ‘Peter Pan’ will take place in March.
In addition to the massive Titanic production, Hillstrom acted as a producer for the professional production of ‘Venus in Fur’ for the Golden Apple Theatre this season. She also directed ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ for Regina Lyric Musical Theatre in May. It might sound like a pile of work, particularly for someone undergoing chemotherapy, but Hillstrom says those rehearsals were a source of energy.
“This past year all of those things gave me not only energy, but incentive, drive and provided me with the inspiration to keep going.”
When asked what’s next, Hillstrom says things are up in the air right now. But she is determined to keep working through the Golden Apple Theatre and at the studio level because she says she will never stop having ideas.
She might be the teacher, but Hillstrom says her students have taught her the most.
“They taught me to never give up.”