Original Kids is a children’s theatre troupe located in London, Ontario. Their mission is to enrich and celebrate the lives of children and youths through engagement with the arts, specifically theatre and the performing arts, in order to provide them with opportunities to grow and learn positive values while still operating within a safe, affirming environment. They provide opportunities for children and youths to gain practical skills with regard to the theatre, both on stage and backstage. Performances range extensively, including drama, comedy, and musical theatre.
Original Kids began initially as a not-for-profit charitable organization founded by David Conron. It featured twelve members and was run out of Alma College in St. Thomas. Alma College had been a private girl’s school that had operated out of St. Thomas beginning in 1881. The college had closed in 1988, in part as the owner’s response to a teacher’s strike, but groups like Original Kids were still able to rent out space in it. This suited the group’s needs at first, but over time the success of the small-scale operation led to growth, and this necessitated moving to better spaces. For those curious about the original home of the modern troupe, Alma College can be seen in interior shots of the film Silent Hill, as well as in photographs in the 2009 film Orphan.
In 1994, the Original Kids organization left Alma College and rented a rehearsal space in the basement of what is now Museum London in downtown London. That was also the year that the organization’s Summer Camp program put on performances for public audience. The performance took place at the outdoor theatre at Alma College in the summer of 1994 and was called “Cats of Alma”; the production was directed by Art Fidler and Reed Needles. After two years of toiling in the basement of the Museum, Original Kids built their own theatre inside of the Museum and named it the Bull-Donaldson Theatre, after the two volunteers who led the project and guided it through to completion. 1996 was also the year that Original Kids put on their first big theatre production. Art Fidler, who had directed the troupe’s first public performance at Alma College, retired from his day job as a teacher and became the Artistic Director for the Original Kids organization. His first major task in this role was to direct “Annie Warbucks”, the troupe’s big theatre debut. This performance took place at the Talbot Theatre at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University).
Bigger and better things awaited. In 1997 the Original Kids troupe incorporated full-length productions into their repertoire, performing “The Boy Friend”, directed by Tia Pearse, and “Daisy Pulls It Off”, directed by KC Cann. The next year, Original Kids sent members to represent Canada at the World Youth Drama Festival being held in Lingen, Germany. This delegation called themselves The Dreamers, and they performed under the direction of James Schaefer. 1999 saw the Original Kids troupe move to a new home of their own, the Spriet Family Theatre in the upstairs level of the Covent Garden Market. This theatre was built through the generous contributions of the Spriet Family, Andy and Helen Spriet, a couple of London philanthropists who have a long history of community involvement, especially in the London Health Sciences Foundation and the Robarts Research Institute at Western University. The annual Summer Camp put on by the Original Kids troupe moved closer to home that year as well, moving into its current spaces at the Spencer Lodge on Windermere Road, just down the road from the University campus.
Original Kids in the 21st Century
As the 21st Century dawned the success of Original Kids allowed it to expand into bigger and better things. In 2000 the Original Kids troupe began their annual tradition of taking cast members in the high school demographic on a March Break trip to Broadway, in Manhattan. In 2002 Art Fidler retired from being Artistic Director to take up special projects, and he was succeeded as Artistic Director by Dale Hirlehey; the rehearsal space above Covent Garden Market was renamed The Art Fidler Rehearsal Hall in his honour. 2002 was also the year that the renovations on what the old Galleria Mall in downtown London were capped by the construction of Wolf Performance Hall, the crown jewel of the city’s central library branch. The Wolf Performance Hall was designed to be an all-purpose performance hall that could accommodate everything from intimate shows to grand theatrical productions. The very first performance at the new Wolf Performance Hall was put on by the Original Kids Theatre troupe, who staged a version of “Bye Bye Birdie.” The Original Kids troupe also put on a form of performance at another then-brand-new London landmark in that year, carrying in the gigantic red ribbon for the opening ceremonies of the John Labatt Centre, now known by the name Budweiser Gardens.
In 2005 the Original Kids troupe entered into a partnership with the London Arts Council and the London Public Library in order to produce an outdoor show at Rotary Reading Garden at the London Public Library’s Central Branch. The show was pay-by-donation and featured the first time in Canada that anyone had performed Broadway’s “A Year With Frog & Toad”, a musical written by Robert and Willie Reale that had made the jump from Off-Broadway to Broadway in 2003. The Original Kids troupe was also given an Ontario Trillium Grant in 2005, which gave them $29,600 to upgrade their equipment, including backstage rigging and lighting.
London Fringe Festival
Five years later, in 2010, Original Kids entered the London Fringe Festival for the first time. The London Fringe Festival is an annual city-wide festival that showcases the best in local and other performing arts, including theatre, visual art, dance, and music. Original Kids’ first entry into Fringe Festival was “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, a quirky musical comedy that hit Broadway in 2005 and has been on a world tour ever since. In 2011 the Original Kids troupe celebrated their 20th anniversary by holding a large gala event at the Sunningdale Golf & Country Club; the proceeds of the gala were used to update the sound equipment at the Spriet Family Theatre. Another gala was held the following year, in 2012, to continue updating the backstage equipment. Between the two galas, Original Kids managed to raise $20,000 toward this goal.
In 2012 the Original Kids troupe also moved their box office system into being a directly controlled part of the Original Kids organization, and implemented a youth leadership program to help oversee it, and to give youths training and experience in running large monetary operations. It was also the year that Andrew Tribe became Artistic Director, a role he continues in to this day. By 2013 the cast of Original Kids had grown to 310 performers, and the troupe began its first annual Playfest, which also came with an awards ceremony recognizing the best talent that Original Kids had to offer. In 2014, the troupe put together an original piece, “Dream Journey.” Directed by Jim Schaefer, “Dream Journey” was written specifically to be performed for audiences of any language, which allowed them to sell tickets to a wider group. Rather than dialogue, the performance included different techniques, such as dance, mime, sound-scape, and improvisation. They were also selected to represent Canada at the 13th World Festival of Children’s Theatre in Lingen, Germany, where they performed “Dream Journey”; the performance was also entered into that year’s London Fringe Festival.
The LEAD Program
Youth leadership remained a big focus for Original Kids; in 2015 they implemented the LEAD Program at their annual Camp OK, which is a month-long course dedicated to imparting the skills and knowledge of leadership. In 2016, the troupe celebrated their 25th anniversary by having a reunion evening on the mezzanine of the Covent Garden Market, with 400 attending. The Original Kids troupe also debuted the Canadian premiere of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hit musical “School Of Rock”, which was still on Broadway at the time. The success of the performance led to the Spriet Family Theatre receiving a round of renovations in 2017, which allowed for a greater variety of performances to be staged there. The latest, and arguably most innovative, performance staged by the Original Kids troupe was the 2018 London Fringe Festival performance of “The Awesome 80’s Prom”. The performance was an adaptation of the hit Off-Broadway show of the same name; it’s an interactive performance where each character is an archetype of Eighties teen movies and the audience gets to decide who becomes Prom King and Queen. The site is part of the performance; attendees can wander the hallways of the school, linger in the classrooms, and dance in the gymnasium. There are easter eggs, secrets, and relive the storms of their adolescence.
Original Kids Programs
Camp OK is the original and longest-running program offered by Original Kids; the origins date back to the original Alma College program in 1992. The camp started off small-scale – 72 kids in St. Thomas – but by 2018 it was operating on the grounds of Huron College at Western University with nearly 800 participants. The success of Camp OK lies in that it offers a total immersive theatrical experience for campers, but it also allows kids to try and fail without enduring consequences, and it provides a safe, fun environment for learning the ins and outs of theatre, and of the performing arts in general.
Camp OK runs full day, with four two-week sessions taking place over the summer months. The age range of campers runs from 7 to 16. At the end of each two-week session, campers put on a performance for friends, family, and fellow campers at Althouse College, also on the grounds of Western University. Registration for the camp opens in January, and spots fill up fast. The day for campers can start as early as 12:30 AM, but campers first meet with Counsellors at 9 AM. Songs and ceremonies go until 10:15, when the morning singing, dancing, and acting lessons begin. After lunch (complete with games) there are more performance workshops until around 3:30 PM, when the end of the day and sign-out of campers begins. After camp care is available until 5:30, if such a timeline is desirable.
Tuition for two weeks of theatre camp experience runs to $525, payable in instalments if necessary. In addition to the two weeks of camp, tuition includes the performance and a camp t-shirt to remember the experience by. Camp OK is a long-running London tradition, but it is not the only camp that is offered by Original Kids.
Leadership Skills and Training
One of the goals of Original Kids is to develop leadership skills in children and youth, to prepare the next generation of organizers, directors, and producers in the theatre world. The goal of the overall leadership program is to have the youth of Original Kids engaged in the theatre world as a business as well as a venue for performance. This occurs through education, coaching, and mentorship of the necessary skills, which empowers the youth of Original Kids to bring inspiration to the organization as a whole. The LEAD Program, Original Kids’ main leadership development program, spans four weeks and is designed to be an intensive program that fully explores all aspects of what it means to be a leader. This is accomplished through four modules, one per week: “Original”, which lays the foundations of the skills and leadership styles necessary for success; “Kids”, which teaches coaching techniques and behaviour management and integrates them into daily Camp OK tasks; “Camp”, which further integrates LEADers into camp organization and increases the day-to-day responsibilities of those in the program; and “Leaders”, where LEADers put it all together to demonstrate exactly what they’ve learned during the course.
In addition, Original Kids offers a leadership program through the Box Office Personnel Program, which offers management and leadership workshops that are designed to impart key principles of business leadership; in addition to allowing youth to develop their own leadership style, the program also teaches the use of the SalesForce system, which is a repeated “must have” in many business-related job offerings in the 21st Century.