Dreaming (and dancing) big: Prison Dancer premieres at the Citadel’s Collider Festival

Prison Dancer, with Julio Fuentes, Josh Capulong, Daren Dyhengco, Renell Doneza, Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Byron Flores, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s a theatre festival that thinks big about the new — creating it to live on large performance spaces across the country and beyond, developing, celebrating and showcasing it. The Citadel’s Collider Festival, a collision of artists and forms and larger-scale inspiration with potential producers, is back Thursday for a third annual edition.

And with Collider comes the premiere of Prison Dancer, a new musical that’s billed as “the world’s first transmedia musical with an all Filipino-Canadian and Filipino-American creative and producing team.” Ah, and an all-Filipino cast of 12 from across this country, including four from Edmonton.

To help support 12thnight.ca YEG theatre coverage, click here.

Prison Dancer, the Citadel’s mainstage season finale (playing opposite Punctuate! Theatre’s First Métis Man of Odesa in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre), is the joint creation of Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus, Filipino-Canadian artists both. Their inspiration? The 2007 video, which instantly went viral on YouTube, of 1,500 inmates in a maximum-security Filipino prison dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

At Collider, as Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran points out, there’s new work of every provenance, poised for future productions in national and cross-border (and -ocean) partnerships. The back story of Prison Dancer, and its launch as a stage musical, has the longest lead time, and the most multi-platform history. By far.  Prison Dancer has lived in many different ways on its journey here,” as Cloran says. 

“Romeo and Carmen started to develop Prison Dancer for the stage over 10 years ago.” And it made a splash and collected awards at the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival. But that’s mid-story. As far back as 1993, when Candido and De Jesus were both in the cast of a Toronto production of Miss Saigon, they were already dreaming of a collaboration that would tell an authentically  Filipino story and celebrate Filipino talent.

A decade ago, an Off-Broadway future was thwarted by the arrival on the scene of another musical with a Filipino story: Here Lies Love, the immersive David Byrne/ Fat Boy Slim musical, tells the Imelda Marcos story. “It had more momentum and cachet, so Prison Dancer stalled a bit,” says Cloran. Ironically, just as Prison Dancer if officially launching after a decade in the making, Here Lies Love is preparing for a large-scale Broadway run this summer.

Cloran’s own connection to the project comes via one of the producers, Ana Serrano. She ran a digital media lab at the Canadian Film Centre (where Cloran had a residency), and she encouraged the Prison Dancer creators “to imagine it in different ways, living on many platforms.”

Julio Fuentes in Prison Dancer, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Prison Dancer has been a web series and an award-winning film. And, inspired by the Citadel’s own history of commercial partnerships honing pre-Broadway runs of Hadestown and Six, Serrano reached out. “Edmonton has such a vibrant, and large, Filipino community, it felt like a great connection,” says Cloran. Money from the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, designed to galvanize large projects, was indispensable. And work on Prison Dancer as a stage musical resumed. The production that opens Thursday is directed by Filipino-Canadian artist Nina Lee Aquino — the former artistic director of Factory Theatre and new head of the National Arts Centre English Theatre — who also delivers Friday night’s keynote address.

The story is a validation, under extreme circumstances, of the redemptive power and joy of song and dance (choreographer: Julio Fuentes). And Candide’s original music, embracing pop, house, R&B, is, says Cloran, “the most poppy electronic dance score that we’ve done here….”

Prison Dancer’s Asian Heritage Month premiere at Collider, a Citadel- Prison Dancer Inc. co-production, is a fruitful collision between the not-for-profit and commercial theatre.  And so is one of the four new plays getting a reading at Collider: Evening Train, a musical by Ursula Rani Sarma and Mick Flannery, partners the Citadel with Irish commercial producers. In fact, the entire team of Irish creators and producers arrives from Ireland for Friday night’s reading, along with the Hadestown musical supervisor and dramaturge from New York.

Says Cloran, the project validates the international networking of the Citadel in Hadestown, Six, and most recently Peter Pan Goes Wrong, all currently running on Broadway. As Cloran explains, the Irish singer-songwriter Flannery was interested in building his concept album Evening Train into a play. “He was talking to his musician friend Anaïs Mitchell (the creator and composer of Hadestown) about how to do that. And she said ‘call the Citadel’,” he laughs.

“Because so many companies in Edmonton develop great new work on small stage, or at the Fringe, or at the 200-seat level,” Collider “is us trying to figure out what we can offer playwrights.” The question it addresses is “how to create work for a large stage” (both the Maclab and the Shoctor, for example, are 700-seat houses).

“What does it need to live on a big stage? Does it have to have a cast of 20? A giant set? What do audiences expect when they come into a big theatre?” There is no one answer, witness the success of Mieko Ouchi’s solo play Burning Mom, on the (very large) mainstage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, “on a big, beautiful, transformational set,” as Cloran puts it.

playwright Collin Doyle

The Takeoff, which gets a reading Saturday night directed by Dave Horak, is a 10-actor play by Edmonton star playwright Collin Doyle. His stellar archive includes such intense, darkly humorous relationship dysfunction plays as The Mighty Carlins, Let The Light of Day Through, Terry and the Dog — all of them for small casts. Collider is a chance for creation on  a larger scale. Cloran describes it as “a lovely script….. A great intertwined narrative about families, couples, finding love later in life.”

“We’re engaged with the Collider plays all in different ways,” says Cloran of the Citadel’s new play development wing headed by playwright/director Mieko Ouchi.” Just Like Paris, by Jamaica-born Toronto-based Marcia Johnson, is a commission from an idea the actor-playwright pitched a year ago. Set in 1943, it follows a Jamaican nurse who ends up in Lethbridge, home of the largest German prisoner-of-war camp in the country. Patricia Darbasie directs the Sunday 2 p.m. reading.

Blow Your House Down by Edmonton’s Louise Casemore had development time in the Citadel’s Playwrights Lab and Punctuate! Theatre’s Playwrights Unit. It populates the stage with real estate heavy hitters, gathering to speculate and whisper about the workplace and a developing industry scandal. “Hilarity and havoc,” as billed, ensue. Cloran directs Sunday night’s reading.

“None of them are guaranteed to hit our stage,” he says of the four new plays getting Collider one-off readings. “But all are of legitimate interest to us for future production.” And festival also includes workshops and panel discussions for theatre makers (see citadeltheatre.com for a full schedule).

“Our goal was to be  a hotbed of new play activity.… And it seems to be working. Artistic directors are coming to town; people who love the excitement of new play development will want to get themselves to Edmonton for the weekend.”


Collider Festival 2023

Theatre: Citadel

Running: Thursday through Sunday, with Prison Dancer continuing its run through May 28, and First Métis Man of Odesa through May 13.

Tickets and full schedule: citadeltheatre.com.

This entry was posted in Previews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.