Vancouver TUTS’ We Will Rock You and Something Rotten! Champion Diversity

TUTS’ We Will Rock You; Photo: Emily Cooper

When Saccha Dennis, director of Theatre Under the Stars’ upcoming production of We Will Rock You, played Alice in an elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland, an audience member in the front row looking at her curiously. As a Black actor, director, and educator, she’s spent her whole life negotiating and defying expectations of what theatre should look like.

“I’ve made it my mission to be an example for other artists like myself who too get those inquisitive looks and have to explain themselves,” she says. Dennis has had an incredibly impressive career, including being the first Black Dorothy in a mounting of Wizard of Oz by the Young People’s Theatre, playing Hannah and others in Come From Away at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, and directing Legally Blonde at Toronto’s Hart House Theatre.

Saccha Dennis

Dennis’ tagline is “musical theatre reimagined,” meaning that she wants to be a vehicle for positive change in her industry. “For me to reimagine it is to bring forth narratives that we don’t really see often. It’s redefining how we tell stories we hear and see so many times—and that we enjoy—but that have become the same kind of message over and over again,” she says.

Dennis wants to spark a conversation about the experience of hearing a familiar story told differently. When she saw a call for a director for Theatre Under the Stars’ (TUTS) production of We Will Rock You, she jumped at the opportunity. She was a cast member of its first US national tour in 2013 and adores the music and energy of the show.

TUTS is an institution in the city, holding its first musicals in 1940 at Vancouver’s outdoor Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Since then, it’s seen considerable evolution, more recently expanding the diversity and inclusion of its shows.

We Will Rock You is a high-octane musical that uses the unforgettable music of Queen (think “We Are the Champions” and “Another One Bites the Dust”) to tell a futuristic story of corporate control and, ultimately, electrifying revolution. Dennis sees the musical as uniquely suited to embrace diversity and non-conformity. “The story of Queen itself is quite interesting in that they were four individuals who you would never think would have been together to create a rock band. They all came from different walks of life, and the fact that they bonded over music is what made them so iconic,” she says. Dennis sees the cast of We Will Rock You as coming together in a similar way.

Photo: Emily Cooper

Dennis made it a priority to cast as inclusively as possible and to celebrate diversity on stage. She says there are a host of systemic barriers, such as less access to training, that limit diverse casting in theatre. “It was very important to me that people of colour, people of body diversity, people of all disabilities were in the cast—and I feel like we have a good blend of that,” she says. Dennis is really impressed by the level of talent on stage. As a director and veteran actor, she finds it really rewarding to guide and mentor up-and-coming artists.

She was excited to cast Jessica Spenst, who identifies as a neurodivergent artist, as Scaramouche and Steffanie Davis, an advocate for size inclusivity and a proud plus-size actor, as Killer Queen. Davis takes the spotlight in the song “Fat Bottomed Girls” in Act Two to champion the beauty of all different shapes and sizes. “We wanted to make sure, particularly with that song and our costuming, that [Davis] feels really good about her body and her celebrating her body,” Dennis says.

Photo: Emily Cooper

The production uses costuming to depict the musical’s envisioned future landscape. “I really wanted to comment on where we’ll be in 300 years, particularly when it comes to gender and gender fluidity. I’m wanting to create a world where gender is a choice,” Dennis says. In the show, male-identifying artists wear skirts while female-identifying artists wear pants, highlighting diverse and flexible expressions of gender. The spirit of queer icon Freddie Mercury also dominates a show about unapologetic expression.

TUT’s other show, Something Rotten!, has a similar message of joyous self-acceptance. In a hilarious retelling of Shakespeare’s career, the show features two brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom who want to outdo Shakespeare through a musical, a new theatre genre they’ve invented. Kamyar Pazandeh, who plays Nick Bottom, finds the theme of the show inspiring. “It’s really a story about following your heart, listening to what you believe to be true. And you can’t try to do what someone else wants you to do. You have to listen to what you want to do and follow that,” he says. He also likes how the show is about brotherly love as Nick and Nigel Bottom courageously follow their dreams.

Photo: Emily Cooper

Pazandeh, who is half Persian, has starred in both TV and theatre productions, including Charmed, Motherland: Fort Salem, and the Arts Club Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast. “We’ve made strides in leaps and bounds towards equality but it’s really about practicing it. The only deciding factor for someone getting a part should be if they’re right for the part,” he says.

Photo: Pink Money Studios

The actor got his professional start in 2016 as the titular character in Pericles at Bard on the Beach. The production went for a Middle Eastern interpretation of the play, which made Pazandeh the ideal fit for the role. Based on what he’s heard of others’ experiences, he’s grateful that he entered theatre at a time when equity, diversity, and inclusion are increasingly prioritized. “I think we’re really on the right track right now. It’s hard to imagine it was different before,” he says.

Pazandeh feels the diversity of the cast of Something Rotten! is an incredible asset, one that reflects the vibrancy of the city itself. “Casts in Vancouver should be representative of the population. And right now Vancouver and Canada as a whole are pretty diverse, and our stages should represent that,” he says.

This rewriting of Elizabethan England transforms Shakespeare into a rock star with an overabundance of bravado. The Bard is upstaged by scrappy, straight-talking Nick Bottom and his brother Nigel who have their own story to tell. And Pazandeh loves how Bea Bottom, Nick’s wife played by Katie-Rose Connors, is an incredibly strong, feminist character. “It’s 1594 at this time, and she’s saying, by the year 1600, women will be completely equal to men,” he says. Bea wants to get a job and advocates for women’s rights throughout the musical, defying patriarchal norms.

Photo: Emily Cooper

Both Dennis and Pazandeh are overjoyed to be part of the return of TUTS after a pandemic hiatus. “[Something Rotten!] is going to be a goofy play with a lot of heart. And I think it’ll be a great way to end a summer evening in Vancouver,” says Pazandeh.

Photo: Emily Cooper

Meanwhile, Dennis sees We Will Rock You as a continuation of TUTS as a beloved theatre tradition in Vancouver—one that is very much open to reinvention. “It’s a great opportunity not just for music theatre lovers, but also for Queen lovers and rock lovers to come out to TUTS, whether it’s the first time or the fiftieth time,” she says.

Something Rotten! and We Will Rock You run on alternate nights from July 2 to August 27. See TUTS’ website for more information and tickets.

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