You could be a DuffleBag Theatre star

Whether you are an experienced theatre performer or simply an aspiring theatre actor or actress, your chance to shine in a main role in a feature production is coming your way courtesy of Toronto theatre troupe DuffleBag Theatre.

Since starting in 1992, the theatre group has built a dedicated following of fans through non-conventional ways. Rather than merely offering a “standard” production for audiences to see, the troupe picks out volunteers from their audience to fill the roles of main characters in each of their productions, making for a fully interactive and largely non-scripted production that can go in one of multiple directions on any given night.

Marcus Lundgren serves as DuffleBag Theatre’s artistic director as well as one of the performers and has been with the troupe from the very beginning. He says that DuffleBag had never intended to become a full-time venture for anyone. He notes that they had originally gotten together to perform in the London, Ontario based International Children’s Festival and could never have anticipated still going strong almost 20 years later.

“We actually started with a five-day commitment for the International Children’s Festival in London,” Lundgren explains. “From day one, we decided to walk a different route and instead of telling fairy tales word for word, we decided to put audience members in the main roles of the play. Not only does it end up making things incredibly fun for us but it also ensures that no two shows are ever the same. Our job becomes to take what the audience members are giving us and make the story flow from there.”

“Our story really is amazing in terms of success for arts companies because when we started DuffleBag, it seemed as though theatre companies were folding left and right. As word got out about and we started getting calls to perform in other festivals in the area which soon expanded to other provinces and then other countries all over the world. We are very fortunate that people like us.”

Thanks to their unique style of storytelling, DuffleBag Theatre has had the pleasure of performing for audiences throughout Canada and the United States while also having performed in far-off lands including Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Despite the obvious language barriers that the troupe was faced with during their performance, Lundgren insists that comedy is a universal language and as such, their performances were as well received there as they were anywhere.

“We found that a lot of the audience had a working knowledge of the English language but none the less, we tended to increase the slapstick factor so that our actions were also getting laughs. At the end of the day, we are doing a lot of traditional stories that people all over the world know.”

Asked what sorts of personalities that the DuffleBag troupe has come onto the stage, Lundgren says they welcome people from all walks of life, whether they were born to be a performer or prefer being a wallflower. He says that while some of the “stars” from the audience will sometimes bow out prior to the end of a performance, he says that people are usually having such a good time, their reluctance to finish the performance becomes a non-issue.

“With anybody that we have come onto the stage, we recognize that everybody has their limits in terms of what they are comfortable with. The last thing we would want is to make their experience a bad one; we are always willing to switch up volunteers if we need to do so,” Lundgren says.

Lundgren says that one of the most gratifying aspects of calling up members from the audience is how some will emerge from their shells during the course of a performance.

“You can never really be sure of the impact that the performance can have upon someone’s life,” he says. “But when you are a first-hand witness to seeing someone come out of their shell on stage and the way it then casts that person in a different light to their peers and teachers, it is amazing to know that we can end up having a positive impact on some kid’s lives.”

Not only does DuffleBag have the ability to appeal to a younger audience due to their reliance upon the re-telling of “classic” fairy-tales, Lundgren feels the troupe is also easily able to win the hearts of the parents who attend their shows.

“We encourage everybody to come out to the show and have a good time. People can definitely expect a fun, family-oriented evening when they attend one of our shows. What we offer is something that works for people of all ages,” Lundgren says. “We have found that if we do a performance in one area and then come back the following year, the number of parents in the audience has often doubled and I think that it is because our performances are a lot of fun and respect the fact that there is a wide-range of ages sitting in the audience.”

Article published in December 26, 2011 edition of the Times & Transcript