Its a rainy Saturday morning in mid December. Inside a multi-purpose room on the ground floor of Strathcona Community Centre, 16 Eastside kids and half a dozen adults are converging under the fluorescent lights.
As a group, their focus isn't on Christmas, or the unrelenting rain, or even the steady sound of stomping feet intruding from the room above.
"The house lights go down for the overture," director Paul Belanger calls out in a booming voice to the kids, who are now gathered behind chairs that represent the wings of a stage. Even in rehearsal, their excitement and jitters are palpable. "Overture ends, then lights up on the fairy in front."
The play in question is Mirror, Mirror, Project Limelight's Snow White-inspired pantomime set for a January 12 run date.
Despite the young age of the actors — all of whom live in Vancouvers Eastside — and the community centre setting, the rehearsal proceeds just as it would in the professional theatre world. Actors move from mark to mark, recite lines, and receive detailed notes from the director and stage crew. Focus is paramount, although occasionally, there are bursts of giggles — mostly from the children, but sometimes from the grown-ups, too.
The rehearsal comes to a natural pause after an hour, when the kids turn their attention to tables of healthy food and reusable dishware that have been stealthily set up by several adult volunteers.
It's this combination of performing arts and nourishment that has made Project Limelight an Eastside fixture since it was first established by sisters Maureen Webb and Donalda Weaver less than two years ago. The show biz veterans wanted to do some good in the community following the death of their mother.
Thus, Project Limelight was born. Its mission: to provide a free performing arts program to Eastside kids and equip them with all of the benefits of the arts: self-confidence; curiosity; community; responsibility; imagination; mentorship; fun.
"We see remarkable change in some of the kids who have a few more problems than the others, and we see how joyous it is," says Webb during a post-rehearsal conference call with WE and her sister. "It's working wonders."
The program runs three sessions per year, during which 18 kids ages eight to 15 meet several times a week to prepare for a show. They're guided in their pursuit by an impressive team of industry pros. A healthy meal is provided at every rehearsal.
Over the course of its short life, Project Limelight has benefited from enthusiastic private and corporate support. Its earliest supporter was none other than Sir Richard Branson. "[Branson] set the tone," says Weaver. "What he did for us was just amazing. It wouldn't have mattered how much it was that he gave us. It was just the fact that he believed in us, and he believed in our model. The community has risen around that."
But Project Limelight has also been touched by tragedy. It found itself in the international spotlight this past summer when its most high-profile advocate, Glee star Cory Monteith, died of an accidental overdose in a Vancouver hotel room.
Monteith had publicly and passionately supported Project Limelight, and his death brought an unexpected wave of support for the organization.
"That word 'bittersweet' comes up. It's hard to talk about it in a way of being grateful, but it's been tremendous as far as what it's done for shining a light on us," says Webb, a friend of Monteith's since the early days of his career. "Cory brought us into the spotlight anyway. That was his goal, and he did a great job of that, and how it affected us personally is were just incredibly saddened."
In the immediate aftermath of Monteith's death, his family named Project Limelight as one of three organizations to which donations could be made in his memory. In October, Fox and Columbia Records donated all of the proceeds from Glee's tribute episode's iTunes sales to Project Limelight. "We became a place where his fans could reach out and tell us how sad they were, and how happy they were that he supported us," says Webb, describing a group of girls who bought a star in his memory and then wrote to tell her all about it. "The letters, and the emails, they're still coming in."
The week before he died, Monteith dined with Webb and his agent Elena Kirschner at East of Main Café, the sisters' East Georgia restaurant above which Project Limelight is based. Though a separate, for-profit entity, East of Main has fed into Project Limelight in two ways, donating its profits to Project Limelight and also supplying the food for its rehearsals.
This support should continue for the future, even though East of Main will be taking a hiatus for the month of January. Says Webb: "We're trying to re-energize and figure out a way that we can become a more viable source of income for Project Limelight; we have no intention of letting it go."
January, though, is mainly about the actors and Mirror, Mirror: first rehearsing, then performing, and, finally, rejoicing in a job well done.
"The greatest moment for me as a director is to see their faces on stage and see what we've done for them," says Belanger as lunch winds down and the cast preps for the second half of rehearsal. "This stuff changes peoples' lives."
Mirror, Mirror runs for two performances on January 12 at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodwards (149 West Hastings). Tickets are $10/$15 at ProjectLimelight.ca.