Former Prince Albert resident helping bring West Side Story to Saskatoon

Jodi
Jodi Schellenberg
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What may have once been a pipe dream has become a reality for a former Prince Albert resident.

Dana Hunter, a former Prince Albert resident, will play Fernanda in the travelling Broadway show West Side Story, which will be in Saskatoon next weekend.

Dana Hunter, who was born in Saskatoon but grew up in Prince Albert, will head to TCU Place next weekend with the travelling Broadway show West Side Story.

Hunter has always had a passion for performing that started at a young age. She started ballet lesson at three years old and tap lessons soon followed.

“I got obsessed with dancing from the first class I took in Prince Albert,” Hunter said. “From that time on I was always begging to take more classes.”

That passion for performing may have lead her into trouble a time or two as well.

“I actually lied and said that I had a Mary costume for the Kindergarten Christmas play so I could play Mary even though I didn’t have one,” Hunter laughed. “I told my mom, ‘You have to make me a costume because I’m Mary.’

“From that early on, I think because I’d already been dancing for a couple years going into Kindergarten, I knew that I wanted it,” she added. “I was definitely finagling roles in anyway I could from the time I was five years old. It is kind of an embarrassing story because I totally lied to get it. I don’t do that anymore.”

Throughout her time in Prince Albert, Hunter continued to fuel her dream, performing in Odyssey Production plays and in Broadway North.

“I definitely still have the same drive and passion that certainly have carried through,” Hunter said. “I still study all the time, any time I am in New York, I’m always (taking classes).”

After graduating from high school, instead of taking the route most graduates do by heading off the university, Hunter instead went to a musical theatre school in Victoria, followed by acting school in New York.

“I take ballet and jazz several times a week if I can fit it in my schedule, I still do singing lessons all the time and take scene study classes even though I have been studying them my entire life,” Hunter said. “I could say that I’ve done my education but it is always a moving and growing craft.”

With each new role she has taken on, Hunter says there are always new things to learn.

“In New York, I have found the most amazing set of teachers at my acting school The Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre,” Hunter said. “I have some teachers who are still close and near to my heart. I contact them to this day if I am struggling with something in a show, if I am having a hard time getting into a character or whatever it may be.”

In addition, he ballet, modern dance and singing teachers have all inspirational and supportive.

Hunter feels blessed to have found some success following her dreams.

“It has been wonderful and challenging -- You go to auditions for shows like this one and there are 100 people and then going through that whole experience,” Hunter said. “Then I’ve done smaller work as well, which has been really phenomenal working with and building the craft with all those other actors, performers and budding directors along the way.”

Not only is she proud of her own success, but she enjoys seeing the success of those around her.

“It is really exciting -- I have a lot of friends who are dancers and choreographers and directors and actors who are all really starting to hit great roles right now,” Hunter said. “It is really exciting to be on that journey with them and alongside them as well. I think that is part of it in New York too, the community you build.”

Performing in West Wide Story is also an amazing experience for Hunter in more ways than one.

“It is a show that I actually saw at the Powerhouse Theatre … That was the show that Darren McCaffrey moved to Prince Albert to do that show and sing Tony,” Hunter said.

At the time, Hunter was studying dance under Jillian McCaffrey and she said it was amazing to watch the show with people she grew up with.

“I saw it way back then and at that time we (my fellow dancers and I) were all trying to learn to do the dances and figure it out because we loved it so much,” Hunter said. “It is really exciting to be in this.

“I think it is a really nice full circle in the way I saw people who were creative in my life (perform in West Side Story) and to also to be on the tour of it now, coming back to Saskatoon to do it,” she added. “(I get to) perform in the theatre that I used to watch Broadway tours come through and dream about being in those shows. It is pretty amazing.”

She was very excited when her contract offer said she would be performing in Saskatoon.

“I think I am the first Canadian they have ever had and definitely the first to be able to go to my hometown and my home part of Canada with the show,” Hunter said.

The experience on West Side Story has been amazing so far, she said.

“It was a little bit nerve-wracking in that immediately when I saw how phenomenal the director and choreographer and I wanted to live up to everything I could in their expectations,” Hunter said. “Also, the show is really challenging. It is amazing, brilliant choreography. Every night you have to summon all of the energy and passion you have and even more and keep challenging yourself to live up to the choreography, to execute it technically and accurate and also fill it with all of the passion that you need to.”

She said the dance at the gym is a great example of how much passion they have to show through their performance.

“You have to fill it -- It is not just dancing with smiles and happy, it is connecting to the anger and the hatred and bigotry those characters feel,” Hunter explained. “You have to be connecting deeply to all those emotions in yourself so you can share it on stage. Those aren’t emotions that are easy or comfortable but if it is not full, it will not work.”

It was also wonderful to work with the director David Saint and choreographer Joey McNealy, Hunter said.

“From our first day of rehearsals when I heard David speak about what was important to him about the acting and the show and give the overview of the show, I felt completely in love,” Hunter said. “I thought, ‘This is exactly how I want to hear a director talk to me.’ I was just on fire, so excited.

“The same thing through the whole audition process for the dancing, because I had to work so closely with Joey McNealy and I was just lit up by what he demanded from us as dancers and actors as well,” she added. “It is just an inspiration to work with the creative team in this show.”

Hunter would like to continue doing shows like West Side Story that have important message in them, such as cultural misunderstanding.

“It has been really exciting to be part of a show that has a powerful message like that and has something to share with the world,” Hunter said. “I would love to continue to find shows like that. (It has) brilliant choreography, incredible music and an amazing story. If I could find that triple action for the rest of my life, that would be amazing.”

Although she would like to try more film roles, Hunter said her ultimate goal is to be on Broadway.

“I love theatre and the way that it just has this wonderful connection with the audience,” Hunter said. “It is a special moment and experience every night. So yeah, definitely my dream is to play main roles on Broadway and in films and I’m going to continue to work towards that.”

She counts some of her role models as Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Broadway actors Idina Menzel and Mark Rylance.

“(Rylance) is a huge inspiration to be in the moment and be able to communicate with the audience,” Hunter said.  “I take a lot of inspiration as well from choreographers and directors -- I love knowing what their demands are and taking those on.”

Since she was once trying to break into the business herself, Hunter has some advice for aspiring actors and dancers.

“I would say to do it because you love it and follow your heart and your dreams,” Hunter said. “Be smart about everything, work hard and train hard but no matter what, stay connected to your love of what you do because that will carry you through everything.”

More information about Hunter can be found on her website www.danahunter.com. Anyone interested in tickets can visit TCU Place website at www.tcuplace.com.

“I’m really excited to go home to Saskatchewan, my home turf and share this story with everyone,” Hunter said. “I am overwhelmed by the response and the love I have been shown in Saskatchewan.

“It is such an amazing community of people and I am always proud around the world to tell people I am from Saskatchewan and teach them about what Saskatchewan is and the really kind, hard working people who live there,” she added. “It is a beautiful place and I love it very much and always will.”

An interesting play that speaks to all ages

West Side Story is a play based in New York in the 1950s about two rival gangs.

“It is based on Romeo and Juliet,” actress Dana Hunter said. “There is Maria, who is a Puerto Rican who moves to New York and there is Tony, who is of Polish-American descent, already living in New York.”

Tony belongs to a gang called the Jets and Maria’s brother, Bernardo, is the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.

“The two gangs are warring for territory and there is also a clash of culture,” Hunter said. “The Jets feel the new Puerto Rican gang is moving in on their territory and they don’t understand each other.

“Then, at the dance at the gym, both gangs are in the same room together,” she added. “It was something they used to do in the 1950s to try to bring more understanding between gangs.”

At the gym, Tony and Maria see each other and fall desperately in love in a world that doesn’t want them to be together.

“That sets in motion the whole chain of events in the show,” she said.

Hunter plays Fernanda, one of the Puerto Rican girls and a friend of Anita, who is Maria’s best friend.

“She loves New York and is glad to be there and is part of the Puerto Rican girls who want to assimilate,” Hunter said.  “They see what is available to them and the freedoms and powers they get being a woman in New York at that time.”

There is a really powerful message and content to the play, Hunter said.

“It is very socially relevant I would say, even today,” Hunter said. “It was written quite some time ago and around true events of gangs warring in New York in the 1950s.

“There definitely still is today a lot of culturally misunderstanding,” she added. “You can look at examples throughout Canada, in the U.S., and throughout the world. (It also shows) what kids and youth are struggling with in their world.”

Organizations: The Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, Powerhouse Theatre

Geographic location: Broadway, Saskatoon, West Side Story New York Broadway North Victoria Saskatchewan Canada

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  • Rachelle
    January 23, 2014 - 12:52

    Check this out