A Year With Frog and Toad

This holiday season, Neptune Theatre in Halifax presents Arnold Lobel’s beloved Tony-nominated musical A Year with Frog and Toad. The magical, enchanting musical tells the story of a friendship that endures, weathering all seasons. Recently we spoke with co-star and choreographer Laura Caswell on what audiences can expect during the run.

What are your roots?
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Ottawa, Ontario (so was my fellow co-star Mark Allan by the way!). I grew up taking dance and putting on shows in my living room. I didn't even perform in my first musical until grade 9, in a community theatre production of "Anne of Green Gables" (I was Prissy Andrews. Always the character parts). Prior to that musicals, for me, where only things that happened in movies; I obsessively watched "Annie", "Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins" growing up.

How long have you been involved in theatre?
Like I said I didn't start doing actual productions until I was about 14. But I was always putting on skits with my friends or at family gatherings. I would do talent shows and always won the "choreography competition" at my dance studio. I was always bossy (or I guess I could say a leader, but really...bossy) and creative and even ended up directing my high school musical in my last year when the teacher who was supposed to do it took a personal leave of absence last minute. After that I went to theatre school in New York, and London UK. I really began my professional career in Toronto almost fifteen years ago. I have been blessed to have performed in Musicals and Plays all over the country and have also dabbled in choreography, directing, stand up, improv, cabaret and now writing and creating my own shows.

How did you get involved with this particular production?
Well there is one reason: George Pothitos. I auditioned for George back when he was running the Sudbury Theatre Centre in 2005. I wasn't cast. I was just starting out, had studied abroad and no one knew who I was. But then someone dropped out of the show, he needed a last minute replacement...he took a chance on me....and a partnership was born! I have worked on 16 shows with George as performer, choreographer and assistant director. We put on a beautiful production of "A Year with Frog and Toad" at STC. I know it was always one of his favourites. When I heard he was doing it this Christmas I immediately contacted him to ask him to work on it again. I was so excited to be back at Neptune with it's amazing cast and crew and some cast favourites on this stage, Heather McGuigan (Mary Poppins), Shane Carty and Mark Allan (Sweeny Todd) and newcomer Justin Goodhand. It has been so fun to add new life to these characters and choreography that I already adored. But really, how did I get here? George believed in me.

What are the challenges involved?
Personally the challenge has been "wearing two hats"; what I mean by that is being on the artistic team as choreographer and also performer (side note: I actually wear many more that two hats in the show! And they are gorgeous!! The costume department has done an amazing job). Anyhow, using my brain on two different tracks every day was sometimes challenging and draining. The cast was very patient with me when I needed a moment to clear my head and get in the right mind set, and also when I made a ton of mistakes in rehearsal as my brain was being pulled in different directions. The challenge with this show in general is in communicating to our audience and letting people know that this is not just a kids show!!! We had our first pay-what-you-can last night (the 24th of November, Sponsored by Bell Alliant) and the adults in the audience loved it! You could almost feel a sigh of relief in the opening number when they realized this was not going to be some condescending kids show. The kids adored it too, of course.

What are the rewards?
Well, I am no fool, and I have nothing but gratitude for being able to do what I love to do for a living. It is hard work, but when I arrive at the theatre with this great cast and crew and get to put on silly costumes, and dance around and bring joy to families...I mean really! It can't get much better than that. But to put it even more simply: for me, the biggest reward is really nailing that "laugh". Hitting the timing, tone and truth bang on...and when you really hit it, you feel it, and it's like this alarm goes off, "DING! That was it"...for me nothing can be more rewarding or immediately gratifying than that.

What can audiences expect during the run?
Well, an audience can expect to come to our show and be surprised at how much fun they have, at how relatable the stories and characters are and how much they enjoy the music (we have a completely live, acoustic band, and many of our musicians are playing more than one instrument in the pit).  They can expect stellar singing, acting and dancing. They will see beautiful, colourful costumes and sets. And most importantly they will leave wondering what will happen to these characters next. This show is based on bestselling books, and even though they were always simple stories, there is always a new adventure to be had. This is just "A" year with Frog and Toad. Who knows what would happen in the next year...?

What are your thoughts on the state of theatre in Canada?
Now that is an interesting question. I feel like I am a very appropriate person to answer that. This year alone, I have worked in four provinces (Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec). There are beautiful theatres all over this country, and a vault of talented and passionate artists and producers. No matter where I am, I try to see as much theatre as I can. But, I think the general theatre audience in Canada is confused about what theatre is and what it could be. It is so much easier to just sit at home and watch Netflix that people are less inclined to just go out and search for a live theatre event. People's lives are so packed that it is hard to book tickets too far in advance, but last minute can be too difficult to nail down. And if you haven't heard of it, it may not be worth wasting 50 bucks on. But, think about it... that used to be the joy of theatre: the chance. Not really being sure what you were going to see and whether or not it would be good. Cheer if it was, throw tomatoes if it wasn't. Now we would rather just "post" our opinion anonymously from the safety of our homes. The joy of a theatrical production is the gamble of it: we all assemble in this room and something is going to happen, but no one is really sure how magical it will be. Like a sports game. We should all gather together and wait in anticipation. But now people want to know what they are in for. They almost need a guarantee. And so do boards and producers when programming theatre. (for the most part). And there are only so many shows that are "guaranteed" that are actually interesting. I think there is so much coming at us through technology (I mean how many "events" do you have through your facebook alone today??) that it can be really overwhelming to go to theatre show, when you probably have something more important to do. And so people either don't want to take a chance or are bored by the safe choices or uneducated in what the interesting choices are. And on a personal level, although I love my job, it means that I travel eighty percent of the year. At the moment I have no true home base, and basically live out of suitcases. In Canada there are few artists who can really have a sustainable lifestyle working in the theatre. But at the same time, I cannot imagine doing anything else. And when you look out and see the pure joy and surprise that the audience has...you know that you are doing the right thing. Everyone needs a "break from reality".  I think theatre in Canada will always be alive because of that.

What is next on your creative agenda?
Well, that is always the question. Everyday, I am working towards that. My ultimate goal would be to do more directing. I am pursuing some companies for some jobs in this field in the summer. I always love a new challenge. I am running some workshops with Sarah Richardson and Maureen Batt, Master classes in vocal performance throughout December here in Halifax. I am also producing the "From Away Holiday Cabaret" at the Carleton on December 21st at 7:30pm. This will feature members of the cast, crew and orchestra of "Frog and Toad" as well many amazing local artists. All proceeds go to PAL Halifax. After that I will be returning to teach in Toronto, then "Shrek" at Neptune in the Spring. I will continue to work on my Carol Burnett Tribute Show and hopefully find opportunities for that in the near future.  I will be back on the east coast to tour the wonderful Cape Breton show "Tompkinsville" by Lindsay Kyte. The rest is a mystery at the moment. But that is normal for me...and always leads to amazing and interesting things.

A Year with Frog and Toad
November 24, 2015 - January 3, 2016
Neptune Theatre, Halifax
www.neptunetheatre.com