Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When Toronto-based Young People’s Theatre (YPT) artistic director Herbie Barnes was working on a stage production of The Hobbit in the late 1990s, he likely didn’t envision the far-reaching effect the show would have on his life.
Barnes, who was playing the lead role of Bilbo Baggins in the play, was talking to castmate Paul Sun-Hyung Lee about the impact of Gollum, a degenerative Hobbit that grew to prominence in the Lord of the Rings book and film series.
“Even though he's in such a very small part of the play, he seems to be stealing every moment,” Barnes said in an interview with Windspeaker.com.
Barnes and Lee, who would become widely known for his role as family patriarch Appa on the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience, discussed how they felt a story featuring Gollum as the lead role would be worthy of its own production.
They thought someone should write the Gollum story. Then Barnes thought, “well, can I write it from within my community, within the First Nations community?”
Barnes, an Anishinaabe theatre artist from Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island, began racking his brain for ideas about how to relate Gollum to his own people.
Such is the impetus for Barnes’ play Bentboy, which opens today, Thursday, Oct. 6 and runs through Oct. 23 at YPT. It is directed by Eric Coates and features choreography by Dora Award-winner Waawaate Fobister.
“Hunched and hobbled by his curved back, Bentboy is cast aside by his village. Until, one day, he is chosen by an Elder as the unlikely warrior to embark on a quest to save the village from grave danger. And so begins his epic adventure, and a tale both treacherous and tender,” reads the play’s description.
Barnes said he named the character Bentboy because “his spine is bent like the creek,” but added the wider message of the play is about learning how to celebrate people’s differences.
“That's the way we are in our community,” he said. “We don't hide [people] away.”
The cast features a heavy roster of Indigenous talent, with Dylan Thomas-Bouchier, a Cree and Dene storyteller, playing the title role of Bentboy. PJ Prudat, Dillan Meighan-Chiblow, Ashley Cook, Brianne Tucker, and Daniel Yeh round out the cast.
“We got very, very lucky with who we found,” Barnes said.
Like many theatres across the world, YPT has been slowly reopening throughout the COVID-19 pandemic after two years of dealing with virtual or limited performances.
“There's already preview audiences that have had children in there and I think it's a huge boost to the actors who haven't had live audiences for a while,” Barnes said. “I think it really opens them up and I know that they've had a reaction to it. There's been a lot of buzz in the past couple of weeks at Young People's Theatre as we've sort of opened the doors slowly. And now this will be the big flood.”
Barnes said the Bentboy production has been in the works for a while, with the theatre committing to the script before he began his role as artistic director in fall 2021.
“It has been like… really awesome. I've been associated with Young People's Theatre for a long, long time. And now I'm on the inside. They have such a great team,” Barnes said of his work over the past year.
“We get along amazingly and are very clear with each other and hold nothing back. So there's open conversation. The board members are incredibly supportive. And the team at Young People's Theatre is amazing with what they do... I feel very blessed.”
One of Barnes’ long-term visions is to bring YPT’s work to Northern Ontario-based Wasauksing and Wikwemikong First Nations, as well as Indigenous communities around the North Bay area.
“I want to start with the communities that already have a little bit of a history with the theatre,” he said. “But then I want it to branch out into as many as we possibly can.”
Barnes said he’s “probably out seeing four shows a week” at other theatres across Canada to stay informed about the country’s theatre landscape and to help shape his work with YPT.
“My job is to know what's out there,” he said.
Though he will be unable to make the premiere of Bentboy due to a positive COVID-19 test of his own, Barnes is hoping that audiences of all ages will enjoy the production.
“Regardless of your age, if it's a good story, the audiences will watch it.”
Young People’s Theatre is located on 165 Front St E in Toronto, just east of Jarvis Street. Tickets for the play are available starting at $17 at https://www.youngpeoplestheatre.org, which also features a full list of show times over the next two-and-a-half weeks.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.