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Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy’s Footloose production lets high school students cut loose, both on- and offstage

January 15, 2024

Footloose at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse gives high school students a unique taste of professional theatre as they work alongside Drayton Entertainment mentors.

Sharon Nwoko, Kira Panda, Evie O'Toole, Mackenna Van Massenhoven and Ronan Hayes with a Footloose logo and a Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy High School Musical Production logo

From left: Sharon Nwoko, Kira Panda, Evie O'Toole, Mackenna VanMassenhoven and Ronan Hayes are some of the high school students who are participating in Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy's production of Footloose.

David Connolly was bitten by the performance bug at an early age while attending schools in Waterloo region, and he subsequently graduated from Sheridan College in the ’90s with an Honours Bachelor Degree in Musical Theatre Performance. He is the first – and still only – male amputee to have performed on Broadway.

Connolly is now Drayton Entertainment’s Associate Artistic Director and an award-winning director/choreographer who has helmed over 30 of the company’s productions, including Kinky Boots, Mamma Mia!, The Prom and their ever-popular pantomimes.

With an arts career that spans three decades, his lived experience makes him the ideal founding Director of Education at the Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy in Waterloo, which opened its doors to future generations of performers and production creatives in 2022. 

“I grew up two blocks away from the Youth Academy. When I was in high school, we lived in an apartment just down the street,” he says. “I was lucky enough to find Kitchener-Waterloo Musical Productions under the direction of Canadian legend Alan Lund, which gave me both my identity and a clear career path. It was the first opportunity I had to grow with like-minded, empathetic people. The High School Musical Program is in honour of that experience, those mentors, and of Drayton Entertainment's commitment to creating generational change.”

In 2023, Connolly directed the High School Musical Production Program’s inaugural show, Legally Blonde, with a company of performers made up entirely of high schoolers. Students also filled the prominent offstage roles, too, working alongside Drayton Entertainment’s professional personnel.

The same opportunities are available in this year’s sophomore production, Footloose, which "cuts loose" at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse from February 14 to February 25. In 2023, participants came from 16 different high schools; this time, that number has grown to 20, including homeschooled students.

Dave Horner, Drayton Entertainment’s Director of Production, assists the academy with programming and coordinating the technical theatre aspects of its shows. 

He says, “For the interviews that we did, I was completely impressed by the wardrobe students who brought costumes they built and (their) portfolios. That always amazes me, students who balance what they’re trying to get done in their classes with these amazing hobbies. There's a narrative that says that teenagers sit in front of their screens and do nothing but that, and then you see these wonderful students come in with a long list of things that they’ve done. It's really quite rewarding to see.”

Drayton Entertainment’s Associate Artistic Director David Connolly

We want to destroy barriers that have traditionally existed to arts education, including financial barriers.

David Connolly, Director of Education at Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy

The youth academy is receiving wide-spread community backing that makes its initiatives possible, says Connolly.

“We have enthusiastic support from both of the school boards in Waterloo Region. We also have wonderful corporate and private sponsors who are making this financially possible, allowing us to offer the program entirely free of charge to anyone participating.”

That’s a huge benefit, says 16-year-old Eastwood Collegiate Institute student Sharon Nwoko, Footloose's assistant director.

“It means a lot to be able to do this for free because I come from a low-income background. It can be hard to find opportunities like this for cheap. The fact that it’s focused on high school students makes it so much more accessible to people. I really want experience in an actual theatre environment. I’ve only done school shows, and I want experience from real mentors.”

Even applying to join a professional production can be a confidence booster, says Kira Panda, 14, who attends Rockway Mennonite Collegiate and is a member of the show’s running crew.

“The more things you try, the more of a chance (you have) to get in, and the more experience you’ll have doing interviews. Sometimes, just the first step, signing up, is the hardest one, but it’s really worth taking it because it’s a lot of fun to be part of things.”

The biggest thing that you need to bring to auditions and performing is to be yourself. You are you for a reason, and that’s what people want to see.

Evie O’Toole, who plays Ariel Moore in Footloose The Musical

Evie O’Toole, 17, played the role of Elle in Legally Blonde, and now she’s the Footloose female lead, Ariel Moore. She praises the academy’s welcoming audition process.

“I think that the approach that casting and the director took with these auditions was kindness and open-heartedness, and just to be accepting of everyone,” says the St. Michael Catholic Secondary School student. “It makes people feel comfortable and able to share their abilities and their love for performing. The biggest thing that you need to bring to auditions and performing is to be yourself. You are you for a reason, and that’s what people want to see.”

A fellow Legally Blonde alumnus, 16-year-old Mackenna Van Massenhoven, who attends H.B Beal Secondary School, takes on the role of Rusty. She hopes her enthusiasm for performing is infectious.

“It means spreading the love to other people,” she explains. “I want everyone who comes to a show that I’m in to really feel how much I love it, and I want them to take that and put it into something else that they have in their lives. I think that that’s really the entire point of performing in general.”

Being on stage is exhilarating and requires courage, says Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute's Ronan Hays, 18, who plays Ren McCormack.

“It’s very thrilling, kind of like skiing. You’re freaking out at the top of the hill, or backstage, and then you’re going ‘Oh, my God, the wind’s in my face, I feel great, I’m doing this thing that I love.’ But it’s still scary, so it’s thrilling.”

He jokes, “Performing is actually a lot safer than skiing because you’re not going to break your arm if you mess up – probably!”

Although Hays has appeared in shows elsewhere, this role came after his first audition with Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy.

Connolly says that the Drayton Entertainment chose Footloose for this year’s student production because of its incredible song list, likeable characters, and the theme of how young people can change small-minded thinking through honest, heartfelt communication.

“It's a great story of what it means to be a family, of what it means to be a friend, and what it means to conquer adversity and loss through love. This musical teaches us that anything is possible, and that change is sometimes necessary to get us to the next level of acceptance for ourselves and each other.”

Helping young people prepare for the world they live in is part of the academy’s mandate, he adds.

“It’s as important that you work on your craft of singing, dancing and acting as you work on the life-skill sets of acceptance and tolerance, and amplifying people’s dreams. We’re making sure that everybody leaves every rehearsal feeling better, lighter and more empowered than when they came in.”

Footloose is proudly sponsored by Brad Carr and Susan Wagler of West Montrose. The 2024 Season Sponsor of all Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy Programs is the Heffner Group of Companies.

Footloose in the news

February 9, 2024

Footloose Behind the Scenes: Rehearsals

Photo: Joe McGinty/CambridgeToday
High school students from all over the region rehearse Footloose on stage at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse

February 8, 2024

CambridgeToday: Cambridge students set to cut 'Footloose' on Drayton stage

Local high school students get put through the ringer learning what it's like to be a professional theatre actor.

February 12, 2024

Meet Ronan Hayes from the Company of Footloose

February 8, 2024

Meet Christina Kulikov from the Creative Team of Footloose

January 22, 2024

Footloose: Introducing the High School Musical Production Program

January 24, 2024

Footloose: Meet Dave Horner, Director of Production

January 30, 2024

Footloose: Meet some of the Technical Theatre Students from the High School Musical Project

February 7, 2024

Meet Evie O’Toole from the Company of Footloose

February 6, 2024

Meet Mackenna Van Massenhoven from the Company of Footloose

Learn more about Footloose