Derrick Chua talks Festivals and Fingers

Can any one person be the heart of a vibrant cultural community in Canada’s biggest city? Probably not. But we’d hate to imagine Toronto theatre without producer Derrick Chua, who answered a few of our questions while in town for his annual pilgrimage to the New York Musical Theatre Festival:

Bridge: First off, we have to know: between this year’s Toronto Fringe, SummerWorks, and Edinburgh Fringe festivals, how many pieces of theatre did you see in July and August?

DC: I saw 61 shows at Toronto Fringe, 25 at SummerWorks and 28 in Edinburgh, in addition to a couple of things at Shaw/Stratford/Dream in High Park, etc in those months. So I guess I saw about 120 shows in those two months.

Bridge: You’re the President of the Board of the Toronto Fringe. How did this year’s fest match up to years past? What shows stood out to you?

DC: This year’s festival certainly stood out in many respects from other years. The most prominent change was the new partnership with Mirvish Enterprises and the Randolph Academy, which allowed us to shift the Fringe Club, from the Tranzac where it had been for many years, to its new home in a tent in the parking lot behind Honest Ed’s, and to move the Advance Ticket Box Office and create three new venues within the Randolph Academy across the street. As a result, we had a central hub of activity which saw more traffic (and more beer sales) than any other previous Fringe.

As far as the shows go, this year’s group of shows certainly matched up well with those of years past. There was a terrific mix of strong shows from both returning and new artists. T.J. Dawe, Keir Cutler and Chris Craddock are three Canadian Fringe veterans who brought wonderful shows, as did international returnees Die Roten Punkte, Jonno Katz and Barry Smith. Local talent who returned with shows that stood out included Morro and Jasp, d’bi.young, Anita Majumdar, Anne-Marie Scheffler and Brett & Racheal McCaig. Then each year some people come along that I don’t know or know in a different context, who bring amazing shows to the Festival. This year that group included long-time performers Steven Gallagher (with his first play) and Brenley Charkow (with an adaptation of a novel), and a musical group I was totally unfamiliar with called The Stagehands. From the dance shows, Dance Animal and Femme du Feu stood out, then from KidsFringe, Fairy Tale Ending is a family musical that turned into the best-selling show in the history of KidsFringe and will be remounted at the Next Stage Festival in January, 2011.

Bridge: Bringing us into the present, your latest production, Logan Medland’s Fingers and Toes – which just opened at Urban Stages and has already been extended – marks your fifth foray into the New York Musical Theatre Festival. From a producer’s perspective, why is NYMF so attractive?

DC: Despite the rising cost of participating at NYMF, it still provides one of the best and most cost-effective opportunities for a musical to receive the right kind of exposure. Although NYMF itself does not fund or produce these musicals, it does provide an infrastructure, economic and marketing support and a community which allows these shows to be presented and discovered by an audience which includes industry professionals and producers, who can move it forward to the next level. At this point, its reputation speaks for itself in the sense that, for a festival only in its seventh year, to have seen two shows go to Broadway and 15 more go off-Broadway in addition to further productions around the world for many other shows, is a tremendous achievement. Having produced a show here every other year since its inception, and attending the festival even in those years that I haven’t produced a show, it’s thrilling to see the quality of productions that are being presented and the audiences that come to see those shows. Because the musical theatre industry recognizes the importance of this festival and quality of work that emerges from it, I think it keeps a close eye on the shows that participate in the festival, which is exactly the kind of exposure you want for your new musical.

Bridge: Both you and Mr. Medland are based in Toronto, yet you’ve assembled a cast and crew of (mostly) New Yorkers with Broadway and West End credits. How did it all come together?

DC: Since NYMF has achieved the level of popularity, prominence and legitimacy that it has, you don’t have to “sell it” to potential cast or production team. Any professional musical theatre artist in New York knows what NYMF is. Obviously you still do have to sell them on the quality of the show you are producing, but even there, the fact that a show is in NYMF at all already gives you a bit of a head start, since it’s a juried festival. Our show is very specific as far as its casting needs, with the true triple-threats that are the heart of the show. The character of Fingers has to be pretty much a concert-level pianist, while both Toes and Molly have to be able to tap like nobody’s business, and all three have to have strong acting and comedy chops. Because of the quality of the material, and our individual industry connections, we were able to attract Broadway veteran director Matt Lenz and choreographer Shea Sullivan, then casting director Benton Whitley was able to put together a short-list of candidates with the necessary skills to audition, and we were tremendously fortunate to get three amazing performers in Leo Ash Evens, Stephanie Gibson and Jonathan Monro.

Bridge: The Next Stage Festival recently announced its 2011 line-up. Is there a production or two you’re particularly excited about?

DC: Next Stage is a juried festival, and I was involved along with Fringe Executive Director Gideon Arthurs in selecting the shows, so I can honestly say that I’m tremendously excited about each of the productions, and that we could have chosen twice the number and I would have been equally excited because there were so many strong submissions.

Bridge: What’s next for Derrick Chua post NYMF?

DC: I’m really excited that Studio 180 (a theatre company that I co-founded and still work for, which is mandated to do socially relevant theatre, and past productions have included the Canadian premiere of The Laramie Project and Stuff Happens, The Overwhelming, Blackbird and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook) is producing its first musical, PARADE by Jason Robert Brown, which starts December 30, 2010, and stars Michael Therriault and Tracy Michailidis as Leo and Lucille Frank. I love that musical, and we have a tremendous cast which you can see at www.studio180theatre.com

Fingers and Toes runs through Sunday, October 17th at Urban Stages, as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Click here for tickets.



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