White Christmas Director Steve Russell & Co-Producer Florence Fletcher


What would a show be without a team to make it all happen?  Helping to lead the VOS White Christmas team are Co-Producer Florence Fletcher and Director Steve Russell, whom we interviewed a few weeks ago to find out more about who they are and what this show has mean to them.

Steve Russell

VOS: Steve, you’ve done Spamalot (King Arthur) and Shrek the Musical (Shrek) with VOS THEATRE as a cast member. You’ve got an incredible amount of experience as a director. Talk to us!

Steve: I find directing to be a whole different game. I loved being in Spamalot and Shrek. I had two great roles and was working with amazing talent all around me. Bea is a great director and the live orchestra is a great thrill for a performer. As director, I have to concern myself with a thousand decisions that I don’t have to think about as an actor. What colour should this dress be? What do you have in mind for this prop? When should the lights begin to dim? As director I’m concerned with all aspects of the production from an artistic point of view. How do I take all these departments, for lack of a better word, and get them to combine in the most powerful way to tell our story? That’s my question.

Along with that, there is the inter-personal role of the director. I want to motivate, encourage and support actors to go as far as they can and achieve a personal best in the show. The actors, dancers and singers come with a wide range of background, experience and personality. Giving constructive criticism is a delicate process because all actors are insecure. I know this intimately from playing roles in Shrek and Spamalot. I needed feedback and guidance and it was very helpful for me to have input along the way.

Directing is a balancing act. Sometimes the artistic push has to give way because of inter-personal issues – or rather, because someone has already given all they have to give. My wanting more, or yet another change, can push people over the line into shut down.

The great thing about working in a community theatre setting like this is that everyone is here because they want to be. We’re all giving this show everything we’ve got because it’s FUN to create something wonderful and be part of it. In a school setting, I had to also deal with students and their parents’ concern about marks. I had to end every rehearsal when the bell went and I couldn’t end them any sooner. Those concerns are no longer constraints on the creative process. The concerns here are more direct – when are we too exhausted to continue? Who needs a break? Who needs to do a song or dance just one more time? When do I stop pushing?

There I go getting into the thousand concerns again. This is a complex co-ordinating role – and I’m loving it!

Florence Fletcher

VOS: Florence – You’ve produced a bazillion shows and you co-produced White Christmas the last time. Why did you agree to tackle this monster musical again?

Florence Fletcher: This is such a great show with amazing music and I was excited to work with Steve Russell as Director on the first show Steve will be directing for the VOS. I knew that the team I would be working with would be focussed and committed to putting together the best possible performance of White Christmas. We had done the show before but this is not just a rehash of the same stuff over again. we do have some cast members returning but we have a whole bunch of new faces on stage this time which is always re-energising. I love working with Liz Clark, we just click. The number of times when I pick up the phone to dial Liz and it rings – and there she is! We both have strengths that compliment each other and we support each other when we hit the inevitable hurdles that need to be cleared.

VOS: Was the movie a part of your family Christmas tradition?

SR: White Christmas was not a part of our family tradition. I only saw it once when i was a kid. I had to start watching it again in research for this production. Our family traditions didn’t involve any films or theatre outings. We played some games together and ate too much.

FF: Actually no. We did not have a family tradition of watching any particular Christmas show, perhaps that’s a British thing.

Steve with actress Deb Riggin

VOS: Steve – favourite character in the show. Not your favourite actor – we know you love them all.

SR: I love something about every character in this show.  I like the little characters like Ezekial and Mike, and Rita and Rhoda. Those are such fun parts to play and they add so much to the show. I love characters that make me laugh.

VOS: Steve/Florence – what’s the biggest challenge you have faced bringing this big song and dance extravaganza to the stage?

FF: I think one of the biggest challenges has been to keep the new vision of the show up front of my mind and not think “we didn’t do it that way last time”. We were a little late getting started on this show as we planned to do a different production that didn’t work out for us, so there have been times when I have felt that we are still a little behind in production details. It is a BIG show, lots of costumes, lots of choreography, lots of music to be learned but the team is working really well together and we are well up to speed at this point.

SR: There are many challenges bringing a big show like this to the stage. One of the hardest things has been scheduling rehearsals to try not to waste people’s time. As an actor, it’s very frustrating to be sitting around all night just to do a two minute scene. I always hate that and I try to avoid making actors experience that frustration. We have a lot of talent in the chorus for this show and I want them to have a good experience so they come back and share their talent with us again and again. Many in the chorus could have leading roles in future shows where the parts are just right for them. I don’t want them to be so fed up with sitting around doing nothing, that they stay away next time. But there’s the challenge – more than twenty people and seventeen scenes to schedule to run as efficiently as possible while still making sure that the right amount of time is spent on each scene. Oh, and then there’s people missing rehearsals – always with good reason, but leaving us needing to catch them up next time.

Really that’s been the hardest part. Working with this team is great.  We usually exchange about a dozen emails a day, so we really keep on the same page with production elements. It’s the schedule that’s tough.

VOS: Steve – moving into a busier time and a tougher rehearsal schedule, what’s your strategy for getting a cast to the level they want to be at for Opening Night?

SR: Much of the work needs to be done by the actors at home. I know that may seem like a cop out, but it’s true. I see rehearsals as a time when you bring what you’ve been working on at home in to present it for shaping by your fellow players and the director. If you’ve done your homework, you’ve got it “in the zone” and you’re able to deal with the nuances that make a performance stand out. You’re also able to connect with your stage partners in a scene and be responsive to what they give you on stage. That makes everything work. I will keep driving the actors to connect with the material and with each other. It’s repetition and lots of notes!

Florence with Joel Varty and Stacy Main

VOS: Florence – What’s your favourite moment in the show?

FF: There are quite a few great moments, but I’m a sucker for a sweet moment, and I love the “porch scene” with Bob, Susan, General Waverly and Betty when Bob sings “Count Your Blessings”.

VOS: Steve – It’s been great fun to watch you work with your daughter Mackenzie Russell (choreographer and Judy). You are such incredibly talented people. Has there been a highlight so far you would like to share.

SR: There have been many great moments working with Mackenzie. She always surprises and delights me – even when she tells me to take a hike. Her choreography is very, very good. Mostly because she is a natural teacher and very sensitive to the group she’s working with. I’m always so proud to see her working with a group, pushing them hard and yet filling the room with smiles. Too many great moments to recall. Mackenzie is really brave, taking on this role and the choreography. I’m proud of her for pushing herself to do it. She’s going to be great!

VOS: So when you sit up in the Risers on Opening Night and watch what you have had such a huge hand in creating what do you hope to see?

SR: I have to tell you I hate sitting in the audience on opening night. It is the most nerve-wracking experience! I’m nervous as an actor before a show but once I go on I’m focused and absorbed. As a director, I feel nervous about every line, every lighting cue, every step, every note – and it doesn’t stop until the curtain goes down. By opening night, I’m powerless as I’ve made my contribution and just handed it off to the rest of the team to run it. I hope to see it all fit together. This show can make the audience laugh, and cry and feel really good. Getting them to feel those things is a combination of many creative efforts. This show is the result of thousands of creative decisions. Everyone’s, not just mine. I hope to see all the parts fit together so that the audience is transported without distraction into a wonderful nostalgic world. Some people call it magic, but it only happens when a lot of people have worked really hard. It doesn’t happen all the time. I hope to see some very happy people in the audience, on stage and back stage. I’m pretty sure I will.

FF: I always love to see those magic moments that come in every show, when it all comes together and I am transported into the moment and swept along by the story I forget that I am watching a play and just enjoy the whole experience. I expect to have tears in my eyes at the end of the night and a heart bursting with pride.

White Christmas runs through November 15th, at the Concert Hall at Victoria Hall in Cobourg.

The Varty Family: 3 Generations Onstage Together for White Christmas

Charles, Gemma and Joel Varty.
Charles, Gemma and Joel Varty. Photo by Ken Hurford

Hello, Varty Family!

So all three of you are working on White Christmas. We know that Joel and Gemma have worked together before. What a fun dynamic it must be to have three generations on the stage in the show. Tell us about that. Do you notice a bit of yourselves in the others? I bet it’s fun to sit back and watch your family work when you’re not onstage.

Joel Varty: It’s quite the feeling to be able to look at my kid and think how similarly she approaches performing onstage.  I think we really share the passion of delivering a message through song, certainly.  In my dad, it’s like looking in a strange mirror that goes through time.  I see old photos of him and I know that could have been me.  He’s also the very best role model a man could hope for from a father.

Gemma Varty: It’s been awesome. Dad and I always have the same things to talk about. We’ve always relied on each other for help, and this project definitely highlights that. I definitely do see myself in my family. Some things no, but a lot of things I do. Like my farm girl aspects and an obvious one, theatre. I do enjoy watching my family – while I’m backstage, laughing, we make these inside joke about different scenes, I better not repeat them, they’re a little embarrassing.

Charles Varty: Working with Joel is more than a pleasure. I have admired him in many ways throughout his life. He has gained respect everywhere his talents take him. To be on stage with Joel puts me right there where the action is between two actors. Rewarding, satisfying, rejuvenating.  Gemma has the same drive to grow and develop as her father. Her dance, song and stage presence puts her in league beyond most girls her age.

VOS: So, what’s the day job folks? When you’re not acting and singing at night what do you do?

JV: I am Director of Research & Development at a software company in Toronto called Agility Inc.  It’s really great to be able to escape into my work as much as I escape into theatre.

GV: Well mostly when I’m not at rehearsal I’m sleeping or at school in Grade 8 at Dr Hawkins in Port Hope. But other than that I love to hang out with my friends, horseback ride or help out the crew. They do so much work, so I like to help out.

CV: I am a farmer, from United Empire Loyalist stock seven generations ago. Also, I am a retired teacher, from both the Toronto and Peterborough School boards.

VOS: Charlie, have you ever done a show before? What in your life so far has brought you to VOS THEATRE’s White Christmas?

CV: I’ve never been involved in anything like this before, well that’s not entirely true. I did had a small part in Mrs. Dion’s grade four class play at the Christmas concert sixty years ago. It was called ‘The Christmas Cake’. I was the one who put the raisins in.

I was slightly apprehensive, when asked the audition for ‘the general’. I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to Joel if I failed.  What I found was, not only was I able to do the part, but to be part of a group that bubbled over with talent.

The backstage people can take the longest applause from me. To see the whole thing take shape is something that everyone should experience.

VOS: Joel – greatest challenge this time around. You played Bob in 2010 and this is a whole new ball game.

JV: I thought long and hard about taking this on a second time.  I remember an interview last year where I said I’d love a chance to sing any of these songs again, and the chance to do it with Marlena again as Betty is real gift.  Everything just kind of snowballed from there, with Gem and Dad coming on-board, too.

VOS: So Gemma, the last time the VOS did this show you were too young to be in the cast. Do you remember seeing it at age 9; your dad up there singing and dancing?

GV: Yes I do remember him singing, especially the Sisters reprise with him dressed up – I laughed so hard! But I also remember being so jealous of the girl who played Susan, I wanted to be her not sitting in the audience watching her!

VOS: Joel – you’ve worked with Steve twice as a fellow cast member, both in Spamalot and in Shrek. How does the dynamic change now that he is your director?

JV: I feel really lucky to be working with Steve again.  He’s a relentlessly hard worker, and he’s smart, and he has a real handle on details.  But that’s the easy stuff – I already knew that from seeing him prepare for a role.  What really impresses me about Steve is that’s he’s sensitive as a director, he understands what each person is going through at any given time and he allows us all to work through that with the show.  He’s the kind of director that community theatre needs more of, I think.

VOS: Gemma – any embarrassing moments in shows with your dad you would like to share. This is your chance?

GV: Haha! I’ve had so many embarrassing moments!  Being one of the younger ones in the cast, I always want to impress the other cast members. One was my first show and I was so excited for opening night so before the show I felt it totally necessary to do my own make-up.  So before the show I was doing my “touch-ups” and I hear my song come on from the stage and I know I’m late so I bolt down the stairs and run on stage acting like nothing happened but my face was beat red, but then again, that could have been the make-up!

I think the most embarrassing would have to be in my last show Shrek it just before a rehearsal and I was walking off stage down some metal steps and slipped and fell head first down the steps! Luckily not breaking anything just a huge bruise down my left shin!

VOS: Question for all three of you – White Christmas the movie – do you have a memory you would like to share?

JV: It’s a show that has genuine magic in its bones, and it brings out a different kind of magic in you every time you experience it.  I remember one time as a kid getting stuck on the 115 highway in December with my brother and having to hike for several miles in a blinding snowstorm.  When we finally made it home, my mom had White Christmas playing on TV.  I will never forget how warm it made me feel seeing those barn doors open up and seeing that wonderful snow outside.  I feel that every time I see the movie, and that’s what I feel when I’m performing in it.  It’s truly heartwarming.

GV: I do remember watching it!  I was with my dad at his friend’s house and we sat at the fireplace and watched it.  A classic White Christmas memory.

CV: The first time I saw White Christmas was at the Victoria Theatre in Tweed Ont. 1958. Irony? Maybe.


Don’t miss your chance to see all 3 Varty’s onstage in the VOS Production of White Christmas. Opening night is Thursday November 6th and the show closes November 15th!