Theatre Aquarius performing arts program moves on
Longtime force Lou Zamprogna bows out
NOTHING STAYS THE SAME. Change is the surest thing in life. For 40 years, Theatre Aquarius has run a Performing Arts School Program. Each August, it’s produced a full-blown student musical on the Dofasco Centre stage. That musical allowed young people interested in theatre to take part in a major production in a real theatre.
It was directed by Lou Zamprogna, a theatre professional who appeared on London’s West End. Under his direction, the performing arts program presented musicals ranging from Broadway classics like “Into The Woods” to cult musicals like “Footloose.”
The Performing Arts School program was Zamprogna’s pride and joy.
Over the years, performers involved in Zamprogna’s shows earned careers in professional theatre.
Evan Buliung, currently playing Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” at Stratford, is one of them. So is Kristen Peace, who appeared in Toronto’s “Kinky Boots.” Both came out of the Aquarius program started by the late Peter Mandia, one of Aquarius’ founders.
Now, that program is no more, a casualty of change.
Ron Ulrich, Theatre Aquarius artistic director, and Lorna Zaremba, the group’s general manager, decided in January it was time to go in a different direction.
“The program we are now offering is a complete theatre school experience,” Zaremba says. “It’s more about process than product. Our community has many summer theatre programs for children and teenagers. We feel now is the time for us to offer something on a different scale.”
Ulrich and Zaremba say they tried to include Zamprogna in their plans, and were willing to have him head up the musical theatre aspect of the new program. But Zamprogna is a hands-on person; he didn’t want to go back to teaching.
“I haven’t taught in 20 years,” he says. “I guess I thought I would be overseeing the entire program, as I have done all these years.”
When Zamprogna learned Aquarius had hired Jennie Easdale to head the school, Zamprogna said he felt he was being shut out.
“We always thought Lou was supportive of the direction we were going,” Zaremba says. “The musical theatre segment will be continuing, but as part of something bigger. And there will be no stage performance as such. That’s not part of our new focus.”
“The world has changed,” Zaremba says. “Needs of students are different today.”
The program had been searching for larger space for years. In January, when Theatre Aquarius was offered larger space on Wentworth Street South, Zaremba says “we felt we had a home where year-round classes could be held. It was the impetus to bring our education programs together under one roof, becoming its own department.”
“We’re bringing instructors from everywhere,” Ulrich adds.
“Jennie Easdale is an actress, artistic director and puppeteer. She has the experience to head this kind of school. And we needed to expand what our school is doing. We feel we need to diversify. Our old program was wonderful, but this is broader and allows us to do more,” Ulrich says.
“I was in complete agreement with this program,” Zamprogna says. “I thought we should start it in the fall, though. I had already hired some teachers for the summer and was ready to go ahead with what we had always done.”
Things came to a head when Zamprogna heard someone else had been hired to run the school.
“It was embarrassing. I always thought I’d be carried out of Aquarius in a wooden box.”
Zaremba explains, “We were not looking for a director of the education program alone, we needed someone who could oversee the school, the professional development programs and the new outreach program. It is not an equivalent position in terms of time requirements and other commitments.”
Under the circumstances, Zamprogna was not offered the job.
“I was offered a job as a teacher by Ron and Lorna because they wanted to keep my name involved. I didn’t want that.”
Zamprogna says the old program was successful with about 150 students. All teachers were theatre professionals.
“It was a thrill to see so many of our students go on to professional careers, but you know, we taught much more than acting, singing and dancing. We taught life skills. It was about communication. It was always about more than just doing a show.”
The brochure for the new program in the new Theatre Aquarius Education Arts Centre on Wentworth talks about practising empathy, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creativity, selfexpression, work ethic and collaboration.
Rather than a large scale production in the Dofasco Centre by senior students, there will be three showcases for the new school’s various age groups, with the older students performing original work in Gage Park.
“I was devastated to find the stage production was ending,” Zamprogna says.
“We needed to hire an administrator,” Zaremba says. “We needed someone to see things with fresh eyes. But we thought Lou would continue with us. He has always been on board about finding a bigger and better space. And if it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t be at this jumping-off place right now, opening new doors. The students who went through Lou’s program had a wonderful experience with him.”
Still, Zamprogna remains involved with local theatre. He’s lending his expertise to Zamprogna Arts, a five-week summer theatre school run by his daughters Gema and Amanda Zamprogna. The program, conceived in April, culminates in a production of “Rent” in early August.
Theatre Aquarius, of course, has a right to set their school program as they see best. But after the dust settles, a little public gratitude might be in order.
In a perfect world, there would be a celebration of Zamprogna’s achievements, before Aquarius moves on without him.
The world has changed. Needs of students are different today. LORNA ZAREMBA
Lou Zamprogna directs Evan Smith, left, and Jamie McRoberts during rehearsal for the 2006 production of "Evita."
Artistic director Ron Ulrich: different direction
Lou Zamprogna: felt shut out