Top: Broadway bound, but first a group hug. Bottom: never fear, the only filter is for talent. Photos by Dawn Gawdie.
There’s a little white logo riding on the back of a pair of black, size four yoga pants striding purposefully just ahead. You recognize the ubiquitous emblem without having to squint inappropriately: Lululemon. It’s fitting. Torontoist is on foot following a small pack of sleeksters headed south on Spadina, crossing the bridge that links a small grove of new high-rises with the city proper north of the GO/VIA/CN rail tracks. They’re heading home to the same de rigueur condominium of structured glass, steel, brick, and marble where our interviewee resides.
The modern, minimalist lobby still has that fresh-swank smell. Two long, athletic, late-twenty-something dudes in long basketball shorts snigger conspiratorially in the elevator. There’s smooth blonde wood covering the corridor walls. And then there’s Rachael-Lea Rickards.
If we had to guess, Rachael-Lea is closer to toward one end or another of the building’s demographic bell curve. She could be a little older than some of the other singles here; she’s of West Indian heritage; and is, unquestionably, unsleek. Our subject is full-lipped and curvaceous, with convexity clearly winning the day. She is also a number of other things, including bright, graceful, talented, funny, animated, down to earth, old school, and, by any account, very successful. Profile be damned, the developer will sell a home to anyone who can afford it, which is of course all that should count.
These days, Rickards has a new outlet for meritocratic expression as founder and artistic director of Broadway Bound, a theatre academy for children. Launched this past March, the school opened with thirty students and a mission to change the face of Broadway. Eschewing the all-too-prevalent theatre politics, where—regardless of any actual flair for acting—children of big-time contributors consistently wind up with the choicest roles, Rickards’s school will train and encourage talent from any background, in all shapes, sizes, and looks. It’s a decidedly inclusive approach where no one will lack for attention or opportunity, even if they don’t happen to fit the physical template for the entertainment industry’s star mould. Sheer ability is the focus.
The inspiration to start the academy sprung from a personal pain. Jamaican-born and Brampton-raised Rickards was sure from about the age of five that entertainment was her destiny. A naturally effervescent personality, she always enjoyed the spotlight and entertaining others. So it was dispiriting, to say the least, when she could not earn a single role in any of the productions at her Notre Dame Catholic Secondary, even though she scored high marks in drama and was commonly the featured singer at official school functions. A fruitless audition for a part in the school’s production of Grease (Rizzo was the role she was born to play) was particularly crushing. So in grade twelve Rickards gave it up altogether. The theatric rejections served to build up her fear that she was too heavy for her first love.
Rachael-Lea Rickards, artistic director, The Broadway Bound Theatre Company. Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.
After high school, Rachael-Lea finally succumbed to parental pressures to seek a steadier profession, and enrolled in a social-work program at Sheridan College. She could still leverage her abundant people skills and actor’s empathy. Or so went the plan. However, there comes a time in every true artist’s life when the call cannot go unheeded, and so it was with Rachael-Lea. Almost immediately after graduation, she went back to performing, teaming with her high school soul sister, trey anthony (who was also denied parts). Recognizing that good roles weren’t going to hunt them down, they determined to blaze their own path to the lights.
The pair went at it full bore, guerrilla style, hustling and charming passersby to catch their amateur sketch comedies performed in a nondescript room in a public library. This was in the early 1990s, well before widespread access to email and the internet, in the days when word of mouth was the only means of going viral. Against odds, the two earned a following. trey wrote a play, ‘da Kink in my Hair, that quickly caught fire in the Caribbean community. The venues and crowds grew in time from workshops at Harbourfront to the Toronto Fringe Festival, to Theatre Passe-Muraille, to the Princess of Wales Theatre. It then leaped to stages in Halifax, New York, San Diego, and London, England.
Rickards was a featured performer in most of those runs and well known around the city, but still wasn’t quite ready to let go of an office job she’d picked up years earlier to help make ends meet. In fact, she advanced in that corporate gig, becoming a supervisor, then trainer. Then one day she was fired. Knowing it was patently unjust, Rickards successfully sued the company for wrongful dismissal and finally cut her ties to the nine-to-five world. The award from that lawsuit provided the seed money to produce her own play in 2006, I Am Not A Dinner Mint, which she co-wrote with trey. The show enjoyed a successful run and Rickards has been a working artist, producer, and promoter ever since, most recently as a writer for the second season of the television version of ‘da Kink. At least on a professional level, much has been overcome, and all has been gratifying.
Visiting a friend some months ago, however, conjured up some old demons. Her friend’s child was in a play which Rickards went to see. The chubby child, it was obvious to Rickards, was the most talented on the stage, but was relegated to a relatively minor role. With visions of that old, yet deep, high school grief at the forefront, Broadway Bound was born.
Now is as good a time as any, she believes, for a program like hers. “We live in the Ugly Betty era,” says Rickards. “People want to see the normal people next door.”
Equally important as developing talent is building confidence and self-esteem. “We like to call it ‘self esteem through theatre.’” But it won’t be easy for the students: no one is coddled. They are put through a challenging two hours of singing, acting, and dance every day (Rickards handles the theatre aspect, while a dedicated music director and choreographer respectively manage the music and dance portions). They will also cultivate good manners, etiquette, and respect.
Most of all, Rickards hopes to teach the kids how to tell their own stories. Sometimes, when the opportunities and encouragement don’t come as they should, you need to create your own space. If you build it, you will belong.
This fall’s production is The Wiz. Classes start September 12.