Sunday, October 28, 2012

Celebrating 20 Years: In Conversation With George Randolph, Founder of Toronto's Randolph Academy For the Performing Arts

George Randolph with David Mirvish
Chances are, if you’ve gone to the theatre anywhere in North America lately, you’ve witnessed something of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts in action. Since its founding in a Toronto church basement 20 years ago, the performing arts school has produced two generations of theatre professionals modeled after the old Hollywood tradition of the Triple Threat – that is, a performer who, in equal measure, can sing, dance and act. First coined by the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney when they were kids performing in musicals some 70-years ago, the Triple Threat was a relatively unused term in Canada until George Randolph, an American-born hoofer, came to Toronto to literally shake things up. Trained at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the former dancer with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal arrived in Toronto in the 1980s at time when the city was being transformed into Broadway North. The big shows of the Great White Way were then crossing the border in record numbers, lured by local theatre impresarios like Garth Drabinsky and Ed Mirvish. Audiences were hungry for them, but the country didn’t have the manpower to sustain them. Theatre professionals here were either dancers or singer or actors. Rarely were they all three at once. They hadn’t had the training. Spying an opportunity, Randolph threw himself headlong into the void, eventually creating a signature Triple Threat program that is today the envy of much of the theatre world as he explained recently in conversation with Deirdre Kelly. Read on to find out how the Randolph Academy started and where it’s going next.

dk: Congratulations on 20 years at the helm of your own George Randolph Academy! Tell us how you've been celebrating.

Shows influenced by Randolph Academy in Canada
gr: Thank you. We just had our 20th anniversary dinner gala celebration at the Royal York Hotel. It was fabulous. Members of our Kids Program, current college students and graduates, all performed brilliantly. Our hosts were Randolph Academy alumna Cara Volchoff (she's a very successful reality TV producer and one of her shows got picked by Oprah Winfrey) and fellow alumnus Carlos Bustamante (the YTV host for the show, The Zone). They kept the flow going. The house funk band was LMT Connection, led by my friend Leroy Emmanuel who used to play for Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. They kept the groove going. We had video messages from original alumni who couldn't be present, among them the choreographer Sergio Trujillo, part of the Tony Award-winning team behind Jersey Boys and Memphis. He sent a message from Broadway where he's working on his latest project, Flashdance The Musical. Tara Young sent one from the O2 arena in London, England, where she is the Artistic Director for the Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour. That was very touching.

dk: You had special guest of honour. Tell us about him.

gr: Our honoured guest, Canadian theatre impresario David Mirvish, was present for the entire evening and he enjoyed himself immensely. At one point he leaned over to me and said, "Are all these students from your Academy?” I said,” “Yes, but of course!” And he said, “Very impressive."

dk: What’s up next?

gr: We just started rehearsals for our upcoming musical being performed by our graduating class, Nine. It's running November 27 through December 1 at our Annex Theatre on Bathurst St., in Toronto. [Visit for more information.]

dk: I know that the past 20 years have sometimes been difficult, but you survived. What's the secret behind your staying power? What remain the challenges?

gr: Challenge is an understatement. We have never had any government support over the years because we didn't fit inside the box. Our idea of a triple threat post secondary training program was cutting edge for the time. I once read that if you're going to pursue anything in the arts, your need to do it must supersede virtually every desire you could possibly have. To make it, you must sacrifice time, financial security, personal life, every last shred of your piece of mind. Over the past 20 years, I've found these words to ring true.

dk: Has it been worth it?

gr: Nothing about my career in the arts has come easily. But thanks to that struggle, I've learned some very important lessons. I've learned to view every closed door or obstacle as an opportunity. I've developed an iron-will constitution. I've experience the joy of following a dream. And most importantly I know that if a person stays honest and true to his beliefs, others will follow.

dk: What’s the biggest challenge today?

gr: Our biggest challenge is letting people know that we are here. The program sells itself. Because of our budget constraints, our marketing is very limited. To this day, it has been all word of mouth and referrals. Once that missing piece of the puzzle is solved, our dream of becoming the Julliard of the north will be realized.

dk: This concept of the triple threat you mentioned earlier. It's a Broadway term that until you came along was not as well known in Canada, at least as an approach to theatre training. How and why did you change that situation?

Triple Threats in action in Little Women
gr: The term triple threat is not at all new. The phrase was used back in the MGM days when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were part of the star training system in Hollywood. It just wasn’t part of the Canadian scene. I first took notice of that in the mid '80s, when I ran a dance studio in downtown Toronto. It was a time when music videos were first coming on the scene and dance was extremely vibrant. Soon after, Broadway musicals then started coming into Canada in record numbers. Cats was the first. Then LIVENT [Garth Drabinsky’s company], was formed and they brought to Toronto Kiss of the Spider Woman. That show alone generated a lot of hype in town. [Canadian actor] Brent Carver was the up-and-comer, Chita Rivera was the star and Vincent Patterson, who had just finished doing Madonna's initial string of videos, was the choreographer. Auditionees for these shows came from everywhere across the country, and were put through their paces for many hours at a time. At the end of the day, I remember one of the producers saying that there was no talent in the room: “I have to go to New York because they have versatile performers, there.” When I heard that, I said, “What do you mean? There is talent in this room.” And he said, “Yes, you're right. You've got singers here, actors there and dancers in another corner. For the type of musicals I'm bringing into the country I'm looking for a versatile performer, one who can dance, sing and act. They have that sort of training in New York, but not in Canada.” I immediately asked him to consider being part of an advisory committee to help develop an industry curriculum for producers like him. He agreed. I then formed a committee with representatives from the country’s leading theatre companies. The Ministry of Human Resources and Development hired the accounting firm KPMG to do a feasibility study to see if this idea of triple threat training – singing, dancing, and acting in one package – had legs. The report concluded that while there are many great colleges and universities in Canada, they only allow students to major in one area of theatre and minor in another. There was no one doing equal training in all three areas. The report concluded that I was at the right place, at the right time. So I trademarked the phrase triple threat in this country when referring to training, and then I started the journey.

dk: Has the scene changed since then?

gr: The employability of theatre artists in Canada has definitely changed over the past 20 years. It’s now better. Major production companies, like Mirvish Productions, are now casting Canadians in major Broadway or West End productions, for example The Wizard of Oz. There's a resurgence in midsize theatre companies, as well. Festivals, like the Toronto Fringe Festival, provide a platform for new works by up-and-coming artists. Still, it’s a tough time for the industry, and getting work always is a challenge.

dk: Can you also comment on the recent announcement in Toronto of the closure of the Princess of Wales to make way for condos. How does this affect what you do?

gr: People must realize that yes the closure of this theatre is unfortunate. But at the same time, David Mirvish has been busy acquiring other theatres in town such as the Panasonic Theatre and the newly named Ed Mirvish Theatre, formerly the Canon Theatre, to make way for his new project on King St. It’s also not just another condo project. It'll be a very unique educational, cultural and living space that will further enhance Toronto’s reputation as a destination spot.

dk: I was fortunate enough to see you dance when you still had a stage career and can vouch for you as a mover and shaker in more ways than one. Can you tell us why and how you got into dance and what dance, ultimately, has meant to you?

Randolph Academy's Cyrano
gr: I wasn't suppose to have a career in the arts. I think my parents had high hopes that my future lay in the military. I was meant to follow my father and become an officer. I went to Hampton University as a military cadet, where I was a psychology major and tennis player. I took dance in gym class to help my tennis game. When I discovered Add captiondance everything changed. This new way of expressing myself was something I had been searching for. It filled a void in my life. I told my parents I was dropping out of the military program, but that I would finish my degree and then pursue dance as a possible career. It didn't go over too well at the time. A friend took me to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. After that experience, I said to myself, this is the company I want to be a part of. Upon graduation, I went to New York to audition for the Ailey program. They looked at me and said you're 19 years old with minimal training: why on earth are you auditioning for us? I told them I needed to follow my passion. At Ailey, they made the first cut from potential dancers after watching people walk across the room to sign in. They wanted to see if you had confidence. They liked the way I walked. So they offered me a work scholarship, cleaning the bathrooms and studios in exchange for classes. Then they promoted me to receptionist. It’s hard to explain. I would train six hours a day, six days a week in ballet, contemporary, jazz, and African dance techniques. The movement started getting inside of me. Then I was offered a full scholarship. A few months later, I was invited into the apprentice company, and then into the second company, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble. After three years, I was asked to perform at Carnegie Hall with the repertory ensemble. Around that time, I heard about a relatively new company in Canada called Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. I wanted a change from New York, so I auditioned for them and was accepted. I joined the company in 1980. That's how I got to Canada. I later toured the world with them for two years. Then, I accepted a position as a guest soloist at the famous cabaret club, Le Lido, in Paris. I returned to Canada in 1984 as a guest teacher. I have been here ever since.

dk: Now you couldn’t leave even if you wanted, right? You now have roots here.

gr: Yes, I met my wife here and we have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. She's an unbelievable woman. She has been by my side from the beginning and has filled many roles in the business, from General Manager to Kids Program creator and manager to Financial Aid Officer and Admissions Officer. But most importantly, she is the heart of the Randolph Academy and the love of my life. I am grateful every moment of every day for her wisdom, her compassion, her insight and her love. We are very blessed with two beautiful children. Thalia, who is 23-years old with a very promising career ahead of her in TV and film, and Curtiss, my 18-year old who has his sights on becoming a cinematographer, one day.

dk: Last question – promise! Anniversaries are often a time to reflect back on one’s achievements. What are some of the standout moments for you looking back over the past 20 years?

gr: What stands out after 20 years is that, finally, we have satisfied the requirements for the Ministry of Training for Colleges and Universities and have received our designation as a Private Career College. Now our students can use credits received here to fast track into year two at select universities to obtain a B.A. degree in the arts. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, for instance, offers an intense Master's Degree in Musical Theatre and its administrators tell me they are so impressed by our Triple Threat program’s practical approach that when our graduates who audition and qualify for admission, they are fast tracked into the Master’s degree program, without first having a B.A. To date, we have 16 graduates with Masters from the Scottish program. We are developing an international presence. Also noteworthy for me is that our signature Triple Threat Kids program has been adopted by the Stardust Academy in Amman, Jordan. We designed the program for the Middle East, and sent teachers over to implement it. We are now in our second year. It has been well received. Presently we are in the early stages of developing a relationship in Beijing China.

dk: And so the journey continues.

gr: Indeed it does.  

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). She is signing copies of her new book at the LE Shore Library in Thornbury, Ont., in association with Jessica's Book Nook, today, October 28, from 1 to 3pm. On Tuesday, October 30, from 12-noon until 1:30 pm, she will be in Edmonton signing copies at Audreys Books as a guest of the Albert Ballet who is co-sponsoring the event with the independent bookstore.

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