Malaika and Oscar Return to Their Home Stage to Direct The Pajama Game
Malaika Horswill, 23, and Oscar Derkx, 22, have known each other since grade one. They were both in Annie at age 11 and 12 and they acted and sang in every Capitol Theatre summer youth production since, with increasingly major roles, until they graduated from high school.
But their collaborations haven’t ended there. The talented singer/actors have lived together as a couple for four years. They are both studying at the University of Alberta in Edmonton– Derkx in the theatre program, Horswill in music.
And this summer they are directing The Pajama Game, this year’s offering from the Capitol Theatre youth program. They can relate to the 12-19-year- old cast in a unique way—it’s been only a few years since they were kids on that same stage.
“They taught me so much…”
“In my first year in the program I was in Les Miserables,” says Elizabeth Barrett, 16, who has the female lead in The Pajama Game. “I was a little kid. I was in the chorus, and they both had leads. That was the first time I met them, and they taught me so much about theatre. I remember being so blown away because they were so responsible about learning their music, and for all us younger kids, to watch their professionalism was really incredible. So they have been my role models for a very long time.”
Young performers, impressive results
The Capitol Theatre Annual Summer Youth Program, now in its 24th year, is one of the main reasons Nelson is known as an arts town. Every summer the program puts huge casts of teenagers through three weeks of full-time intensive training in acting, singing, and dancing, always with big-city level performance results. For the many young people who have taken part year after year, like Derkx and Horswill, it’s been a formative life experience.
“Not only musically and artistically,” says Horswill, “but as far as being able to work with a group of people and meeting new people and loving that, it was a big part of my social growth and a huge influence on my life.”
Liam Long, 17, has been in a number of previous summer productions and he has a lead role in The Pajama Game. (Last year’s audience may remember him as Schroeder in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.) “I met Oscar and Malaika the summer of Oliver when Oscar was playing Fagan,” he says. “Just watching him act and get into a huge lead role was just so cool to watch, very inspiring for me.”
Big shoes to fill
Directors in the past have included, for most years, former LVR drama teacher Geoff Burns, singer and choir director Allison Girvan, and (including this year) dancer/choreographer Lynette Lightfoot.
The shoes of Burns and Girvan are big ones for Derkx and Horswill to fill. Both young directors are very conscious of attempting to give this year’s young performers the same inspiring experience they had. “I am constantly reassessing myself,” says Horswill, “from the perspective of the younger me, being in the shows back then, and wondering if I am motivating people the way Allison Girvan did.”
After watching a rehearsal last week, Geoff Burns doesn’t think that will be a problem. “The kids obviously respect them and love what they are doing,” he says. “Many of the students who have been part of the program over the years have gone on to follow their passions in singing, dancing, acting, but it is really rewarding to see two of them come back and direct a show together. That says a lot about the program. And about them.”
The Pajama Game was first staged on Broadway in 1954 and made into a movie in 1957. It’s about a labour dispute in a pajama factory and a love affair that grows out of that. The Tony Award winning musical has been produced innumerable times since, on Broadway and elsewhere.
“Huge entertainment value…people will be really impressed”
“It is a blast, it’s total fun onstage,” says Derkx. “It has huge entertainment value, and it is a reminder of how incredible the youth of this community are. I think it is phenomenal when I think about how young some of these kids are, and how little experience a lot of them have, and the fact that they can put on a show that is this entertaining and good. People will be really impressed.
“I have been enjoying watching the dynamic of the group change, and watching people just light up on stage and totally come out of their shells,” he says. “Over the rehearsal period I have been growing in my confidence. At the start I didn’t know how much I could ask of them, and now I know I can ask for everything, I can ask them to give me everything they’ve got.”
Intense dynamics and friendships
“It is not so much what I can ask of the kids because I believe they have potential that goes on and on,” says Horswill. “But it is a question of when to ask and how to ask, and timing it. They sing a song and I have thousands of things I want to tell them and I have to just give them one thing at a time.
“What I love is watching the kids arrive at the beginning and they don’t know each other,” she says, “and then they start to become fast friends. The group dynamics are so intense. I remember that so dearly.”
The Pajama Game runs July 26 through 28. Tickets at the Capitol Box Office or online.