Langford’s Lakewood elementary is approaching the end of an era, as theatre teacher Phil Duchene gets set to retire after one last hurrah.
After 40 years of teaching, and 12 years of putting on musicals at Lakewood, Duchene is semi-retiring and stepping back from his role at the school following the run of this year’s major spring musical, Annie.
Since his arrival, the school has put on a major musical every year. The productions involve about half of the student population as either cast or crew and take six months to rehearse, polish and perform the final product.
Duchene said the experience has been beyond rewarding.
“It’s a combination of the intensity of the experience for everybody and the privilege of being allowed to do it,” he said. “It’s an indulgence, it really is. The bottom line is you get to practise your art, and how many artists get to do that?”
Principal Bryan Johnson said Duchene’s departure likely spells the end for large-production musicals at Lakewood. A relief teacher will be hired, but it has been Duchene’s work outside of class time – after school, on weekends, during recess – which has made the musicals possible.
“Although fine arts will continue at Lakewood, I will be surprised to see spring productions in the future,” Johnson said. “Not every teacher is one of a kind, but that is the case with (Duchene).”
Education is Duchene’s primary background, but he grew up with a fascination for theatre, sparked by a fully-functional model of a theatre stage his father built and gave to him as a Christmas present when he was eight. It has working lights, functional scenery and characters on sticks could be moved around to put on plays.
“I think it may have gone back to that,” he said. “Being able to create an alternative world and be in it, that was pretty key.”
At university in Newcastle, England, Duchene tried his hand at acting, but a self-described “terrible short-term memory” did him no favours on the stage and he decided to go behind the scenes.
The last play you’ve done is always the best one, Duchene said, so, sticking to his guns, he is declaring Annie his best work at the school.
Lakewood’s take on the play is mostly traditional, with one notable difference: the use of a thrust stage, which positions the audience on three sides as it juts out into the middle. Duchene said the approach adds a level of intimacy to the performance you don’t get when you simply have an audience facing the front of a stage.
It also helps the actors, who are rather young and can find it hard to project their voices enough to reach the back of a gym.
Actors auditioned for the main roles, but all who want to participate will find a place. Duchene has two Annies, Haley Hood and Essencia Leandro, both in Grade 6, who will alternate performances. He said it was a hard choice to pick between the two girls who auditioned, so he didn’t.
A small army of students runs every aspect of production behind the scenes and other students make up a choir and a dance trope. All told, cast and crew included, about 200 students are involved.
Duchene credits his success working with children to treating them as equals and showing confidence in their abilities.
“We don’t have child actors, we don’t have child dancers, we don’t have child techies, we don’t have child singers,” Duchene explains. “We have actors, dancers, techies and singers. Kids rise to expectations.”
Duchene also works in the University of Victoria’s drama department and will be continuing on with his role there. He said he hopes to also get out more on his motorcycle now he will have more free time.
Annie runs May 6 and 8 at 6:30 p.m., plus a 1 p.m. matinee on May 7. Doors open 30 minutes prior to the show. Community members interested in attending can call the school at 250-474-3449 as of Monday, May 5 to check availability.