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Local theatre artists reconnect two decades later

Note: Birnton Theatrical has post-poned the showings of The Other Josh Cohen until further notice, in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

A professional theatre production in Calgary has given three Airdrie artists a chance to reconnect, two decades after graduating high school.

Chris Stockton, Laurel Oneil and Derek Paulich are all involved with The Other Josh Cohen, a musical comedy produced by Calgary-based Birnton Theatricals. Stockton, Birnton Theatricals' artistic director, is directing the production, while Oneil is the stage manager and Paulich is the lighting and set designer. 

Though they all attended George McDougall High School in the late 1990s, this is the first time the artists have worked together in a professional setting, according to Stockton.

“It’s serendipitous that these three people who grew up in Airdrie – and all went to the same high school – now get the chance to work together professionally,” he said.

Oneil and Stockton met as children, Stockton said, and took similar paths. Both received their initial theatre training with the George McDougall High School drama department, before attending the University of Lethbridge where they obtained their bachelor of fine arts.

“But it’s never lined up for us to have the opportunity to work together,” Stockton said. “This is such a wonderful show and has such a wonderful message of hope and resiliency, so it was a fun one to work with her on.”

As the show’s stage manager, Oneil is responsible for ensuring the show runs smoothly behind the scenes, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time and that the lighting and sound is cohesive.

The production features just seven actors, who each play multiple instruments throughout. According to Oneil, that provides an interesting challenge as stage manager.

“There’s a lot of tracking of musical instruments because they’re moving around with them and exiting and entering,” she said. “We have to make sure we know where the instruments are and that they’re in the right place for the next time they’re needed.

“I definitely like a show that is a challenge, it keeps me flexing those muscles so they don’t atrophy.”

Oneil’s career has taken her throughout Canada. After graduating from the UofL, she completed her apprenticeship with Stage West Theatres in Calgary, before moving east to work on shows in Prince Edward Island, Toronto and Drayton, Ont. She later returned west, working as the resident stage manager with Stage West for 11 years.

The drama veteran of 20-plus-years said her favourite thing about live theatre is that every performance is unique.

“You’ll never be able to recreate the exact same moment because the audience is different and how they react to things is different,” she said. “Every night, you get to create something that people love and evokes emotion.”

Though they all now call Calgary home, Stockton, who was the valedictorian at George McDougall in 1999, still returns to Airdrie regularly, as the artistic producer for Bert Church Theatre.

“I think there’s a responsibility for people like myself…to pay it forward to the next generation and to really help nurture the arts where and when we can,” he said.

Stockton said the pathways he, Oneil and Paulich took illustrates Airdrie can be an incubator for a career in the arts.

“I think it’s a testament that, if you are growing up in Airdrie and want to be an artist, there are ways to do it,” he said. “We’re the proof that it doesn’t matter how big the town is…if you want to pursue it, your dream is there and your passion is there, you can do it.”

The Other Josh Cohen is described as an off-Broadway musical comedy, featuring an all-Albertan cast. The musical has been nominated for six Drama Desk Awards and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical.

The plot centres on the down-on-his-luck Cohen, who receives a mysterious letter that changes his life forever.

“It’s 90 minutes of music, laughter, pop-culture references, heart and hope,” Stockton said. “It takes you on a journey from absolute rock bottom to finding a solution to [recognizing] rock bottom may not be as rock bottom as you thought.”

The production runs at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary from March 19 to April 4, with previews on March 17 and 18.

Scott Strasser, AirdrieToday.com
Follow me on Twitter @scottstrasser19



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