Excitement is building for Mecca performers who are set to return to the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium for the first time in more than 18 months this coming November.
Life without the ability to perform and unite during COVID-19 has been a challenging and isolating time for the Mecca team, said performer and stagehand Tiana Vasconcelos. The group’s latest production, All Together Now, marks a welcomed return for the cohort of performers and friends.
“This is our fun passion project we come here to create with each other,” Vasconcelos said. “That really took a hit last year.”
Prior to COVID-19, Mecca members were always busy rehearsing for their next stage performance. It was exhilarating getting ready for the many shows hosted over the year. This includes a community musical in the fall, a community musical and kids show in the spring, and a drama or another small show along with Christmas and spring concerts.
The year before the pandemic Mecca boasted a roster of roughly 115 performers enrolled in classes honing their craft Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights along with Saturday mornings.
“Before COVID my calendar was very full, with lots of evenings and weekends for classes and performances,” said performer and music director Katherine MacFarlane. “During COVID my calendar became quite empty.”
When COVID-19 first hit, they were working to bring together the play Spamalot. It was fun rehearsing the community musical together, MacFarlane said, adding it was a difficult decision stopping the run of the show due to safety and public health orders necessitated by COVID-19.
Although it was deflating for the group when they were forced to cancel Spamalot, beginning rehearsals for All Together Now reinvigorated the performers.
“As soon as we sat down with our music, it felt really good,” Vasconcelos said.
The cohorts have spent countless hours performing together over the years and this has built an intrinsic trust between members, she said. This in turn helps them feel comfortable taking risks and pushing their craft to the next level.
They could feel the trust and care in the room when they began rehearsals for their first major production since March 2020. Vasconcelos described it as a special experience made possible because they were working in harmony.
“There were moments where I would catch myself and think ‘this feels normal,’ except for the mask on my face and ... not hugging,” MacFarlane said. “It feels nice.”
As a tight group of performers and friends, many Mecca members have been sharing the stage for more than a decade. In that time they have built strong friendships.
The loss of these in-person connections stung as keenly as the theatre stage going dark in Brandon, said performer and stagehand Hannah Price.
She said she has not been singing as much post-pandemic because she does not find as much joy in singing on her own as she does with her friends.
“This is what I love to do and not being able to do it for that 18 months was really, really difficult,” Price said. She described the experience as having a piece of her identity ripped away without warning. “I was just radiating energy [after the recent rehearsal]. I was radiating energy like a post-rehearsal excitement just to be back with people singing again.”
The hardest part of COVID-19 is that they were barred from Friday night hangout sessions before shows and spending quality time with friends.
Performer Clint McLachlan said when the pandemic first shut down the province, he experienced a crescendo of emotion. It was a challenge being unable to unite and as the months dragged on they really wanted to perform and practise together.
It was hard to stay motivated because it was unclear when the time to share a tune again would arrive.
MacFarlane said they diligently worked to stay connected as a musical community and classes were available online for students.
“If you have ever tried to do anything musical over Zoom, that is really challenging. You can’t do anything synchronized,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t be on my end playing piano and have students sing because none of it lines up.”
They found creative ways to celebrate music, but singing in person was sorely missed.
She added for many members connecting and engaging in music and creativity together was an important part of their mental health and wellness.
In September, the Mecca Community Choir gathered at Rideau Park with masks on and socially distancing in place so they could sing together, MacFarlane said. For many, when they began to sing together their eyes filled with tears because they had missed the power of connecting together in harmony.
During the first rehearsal for All Together Now, Vasconcelos said, she spent the entire day mentally preparing for the gathering, because “she felt like a kid before Christmas.”
“It was a very emotional day and it was very awesome,” Vasconcelos said.
Getting back in the studio was like riding a rusty bike, she said with a laugh. For many, using their voice in a communal setting was like working out for the first time in two years — it left people’s bodies and throats tired. At the same time though, they felt elevated and excited to be united once again.
Unable to perform since 2020 made her especially grateful to see everyone together once again singing in unison.
It has been a great feeling getting back into the headspace of preparing for a show, Price said.
“I find for myself when I’m rehearsing I have to work hard to be focussed on what I’m doing and I really have to think about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. That felt really, really comforting and like a welcome home,” Price said.
The team has great trust in each other, helping everyone feel comfortable and ready to take on new challenges because they know they are supported. Price said this has helped push their performance to the next level.
“When we started singing together in harmony, I honestly went home and thought to myself my friends have never sounded so good,” MacFarlane said. “It was music to my ears.”
McLachlan added it felt good to perform together after taking such a long break because it reaffirmed what they can accomplish together as a group.
“It’s still there, we still got it. It feels good,” McLachlan said.
Having a goal to work towards has changed the dynamics of the group because they now have a finish line in sight with All Together Now, Vasconcelos said. Rehearsals have been planned for every week and they have dedicated times Tuesday to Thursday night for the show to hammer out the songs and staging of the production.
“It will be full-speed ahead until the show,” Vasconcelos said.
Price said the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium is like a second home to many Mecca members because they have spent years hosting multiple performances at the space. They are eagerly looking forward to once again standing on its stage.
“I’m thinking about the first time that I get to open that door and walk in again … I’m not too sure if I’m going to cry, or if I’m going to be super excited, or if I’m going to be so focused on what we have to do that I’m not even going to recognize it,” Price said. “I know either way it’s going to be a moment for sure.”
Vasconcelos added just thinking about entering the auditorium fills her entire body with exciting tingles. The Mecca team has spent countless hours, adding up to years, on both the stage and the bowels of the building getting ready for different productions.
They are excited to reconnect with the Westman Auditorium crew, as they have played a pivotal role in helping each Mecca production find success.
“It will be a moment to remember for sure,” Vasconcelos said with a grin.
During a show week they are at the auditorium from the minute they finish work, MacFarlane said, flying over to the stage with food for performers and rushing to get hair and makeup ready after a quick supper so they can rehearse. It becomes a community hub for the team and feels like a giant family.
All Together Now, featuring 18 performers, marks a departure from a typical Mecca production.
The show features 15 selections from different musicals in a cabaret-style concert. Vasconcelos said this route was chosen because it offered the chance to embrace a variety of different sounds and performances.
All Together Now, released by the licensing company Musical Theatre International, is especially exciting because similar performances will be taking place around the globe. Each troupe can choose from a variety of options for each song number.
At Mecca, performers sat down as a team and carefully selected each set piece to build the production, ensuring there was a solid flow to the sound and songs complimented each other.
Some of the pieces are solos while others are performed in small groups.
MacFarlane will be singing a duet with Ken Stelmack called Stop the World from the production Come from Away. She said it’s an exciting piece because Come from Away is not yet available to community theatre groups; Stop the World has been specially released for the All Together Now review.
Vasconcelos will be performing Gimme Gimme Gimme from Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Price is featured in a number of songs from the show. Her favourite is The New World from the musical Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown. She described it as a powerhouse of a tune with intricate parts and a big rousing sound at the end.
McLachlan will sing Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from the musical Les Misérables. He appeared in the show eight years ago and the song has remained one of his favourites.
All Together Now features one number featuring the entire cast of 18 that has been carefully choreographed to adhere to COVID-19 public health measures. The Mecca team will appear on set together wearing masks and at the last moment will remove their face coverings for the song.
MacFarlane added this abundance of caution has extended to audience attendance as well. All guests will be required to have proof of vaccination, remain masked and attendance numbers will be limited to 190. The entire auditorium can fit 800 audience members.
Vasconcelos said it will be a different feel for the performers and those in the audience but will create a more intimate experience. She added she’s missed interacting with the audience.
They will closely monitor public health orders so they can shift the production as needed if any changes occur.
“It feels like very unstable ground for us. But, we have been able to adapt really well,” Vasconcelos said. “I hope things can go forward the way that we envision.”
Vasconcelos said knowing the constant change and uncertainty faced by the group sits in the back of their minds as they prepare for the big show.
“We can handle almost anything … When I think of all the adjustments that we’ve made over the past year and a half and the things that we have figured out on the fly, we’ll rally and we’ll figure out whatever happens. But we sure hope we can go forward with our plan the way it is now,” MacFarlane said. “It’s exciting to think we can perform for our family, friends and community.”
All Together Now takes place Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m. at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium. To purchase tickets, visit wmca.ca or call the auditorium box office at 204-728-9510.
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun