Monday, November 21, 2016

B.E. Extraordinary - Director Michael Barnard talks about Phoenix Theatre's Billy Elliot

by Jennifer Haaland / Photos by Reg Madison Photography

'The story itself is extraordinary. The events are so completely unlikely,” says director Michael Barnard about ​Billy Elliot​, Phoenix Theatre’s holiday musical that he notes may not seem traditional.

During this season that sparkles with hope and giving, the story fittingly revolves around a child’s gifts. The show about a motherless boy who secretly chooses ballet over boxing while his father and older brother struggle through social and economic hardships in their strike-weary mining town won ten Tony® Awards including Best Musical and Best Choreography in 2009.

"The spirit inherent in children is what we celebrate during the holidays,” Barnard says regarding how well the Lee Hall book and Elton John score fit the occasion. “We embrace the tenacity and innocence of a child and want to share it with family.”

The Elliots and their other blue-collar family neighbors were inspired by A.J. Cronin’s 1935 The Stars Look Down novel which was based on a true story of a mining town boy turned Royal Ballet artist. Theirs is a disenchanted community who trusts that by standing united with one another, the stars will light their inevitable darkest pathways.

“In an environment where every penny counts, the community does the unthinkable,” Barnard says, suggesting Billy has an unlikely catalytic effect within a town largely resigned to its own grim fate. “Under the incredible pressure and stress it takes just to exist, this child happens. That they all contribute to the destiny of his escaping is an amazing community outpouring.”

Citing that Phoenix Theatre’s mission is to make space for hope and acceptance by bringing literature to life, Barnard reflects that youth is often the purest source of those ideals. He adds that the older we become, the more fearful. And we stop asking questions borne of sheer curiosity or open-minded desire.

“As adults, we forget or give up on the child. But the child doesn't give up because he hasn't learned to be afraid. There's such a zest in his ability to love. If we can discover that child within ourselves, we become brave enough to face the demons and challenges we've been running from.”

Barnard’s direction of the show emphasizes the scenes and numbers where we’ll find those healing emotions.  He names songs like “Express Yourself,” “The Letter” and “He Could be a Star” as examples of loving something enough to make it come true.

“I'm looking for places to draw hope and acceptance out of the text. We gravitate and pull attention toward those moments in the show,” he says.

Perhaps part of Barnard’s ability to name and illuminate those moments is owing to personal experience.  As a child, as a dancer and as a director he’s had extraordinary brushes with the joy of discovering and offering musical talent.

“They visited me the first time I acted. It was very exciting because I was doing something I loved and it was making others happy,” Barnard remembers.

With a chuckle he describes playing Rudolph, complete with red nose at age five, as a first stage experience. The memory is almost visceral as he describes a dance experience.

“At 14 I was amazed in my first dance concert what we could communicate with just our bodies and no words,” he recalls, linking his own experience to Phoenix Theatre's Billy Elliot production that runs through December 24th.

He muses about how those feelings linger even through the many shows he’s directed, the first musical being ​Applause! when he was just 20 years old.  Those occasions introduced him to the lifelong habit of teamwork because an “instant interdependent bond” of camaraderie forms between artists out of their need to tell a united story.

“Art keeps me young and alive. It keeps me exploring the hopeful on a daily basis. Some of my best memories are of being shocked by talent that pours out of the most unlikely backgrounds and experiences,” Barnard concludes.

There’s extraordinary power and comfort when we, our families and friends, stand as one to accept and lift high the unlikely gifts of each individual.  The innocent child in Billy Elliot​ glows with promise that his own--​and our extended--community can embrace. Like bright starlight to guide us through the darkest nights, Phoenix Theatre has wrapped music and story around a holiday message from which talent springs unexpected and hope dances eternal.

Billy Elliot runs through December 24. CLICK HERE for more information on this production

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