The­atre Aquarius per­form­ing arts pro­gram moves on

Long­time force Lou Zam­progna bows out

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - GARY SMITH

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

HAMILTON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

Lou Zam­progna di­rects Evan Smith, left, and Jamie McRoberts dur­ing re­hearsal for the 2006 pro­duc­tion of "Evita."

COUR­TESY THE­ATRE AQUARIUS

Artis­tic di­rec­tor Ron Ul­rich: dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion

HAMILTON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

Lou Zam­progna: felt shut out

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