When 21-year-old actor David Ball signed a contract to play the lead role of Ren McCormack in the theatre's first summer production Footloose, he was reminded that Rainbow Stage vet Jeremy Kushnier actually originated the role of Ren when it debuted on Broadway in 1998.
"They said, 'You better not screw this up. Jeremy Kushnier is from Winnipeg and you're doing it in Winnipeg. You better do it justice.'
"They were kidding," Ball laughs. "But not really."
So... no pressure.
Actually, as this season of Canada's longest running outdoor theatre opens on Monday, one might assume the theatre is feeling a bit of stress that transcends mere opening-night jitters.
Footloose, the story of a young man who challenges a clergyman's no-dancing edict in a small town, is the first Rainbow production following the death of longtime general manager Ken Peter in December 2011. Peter not only had a hand in choosing the plays Rainbow would mount, he had become one of the pillars of the organization since he took over the job as its top administrator in 1998.
Peter was the man who announced that longtime Rainbow mainstay Carson Nattrass would be making his directing debut on Footloose. Peter was on Nattrass's mind when he was writing his director's notes for the program.
"Footloose's dual protagonists, Ren and Rev. Shaw, have both lost somebody in their life," Nattrass says. "And soon after I got this job, we lost Ken.
"I look at this play and see we have a choice to either go forward alone dealing with loss, or to reach out to your community to move forward as a team," Nattrass says.
Nattrass and company chose the latter.
"We have swooped in and been moving forward at a rapid and very positive pace," Nattrass says. "The fact things are going so well here isn't any disrespect to Ken. In fact, it's because of how much everyone loved him that it's really going so well here."
Nattrass's extensive onstage Rainbow credits include Hairspray, Good News and Miss Saigon. He was an assistant director on Grease. He says he has directed before, either solo or with his partner, actress Sharon Bajer, but never a production of this magnitude.
Apparently, it is a role for which he has been preparing in a surreptitious fashion for years.
"Sharon said to me yesterday, when she's in a play, she just does her job as an actor. The difference between her and I is when I'm in a play as an actor, I'm also obsessed with the director and what the director is doing, and the choices he's making."
When it came time to cast that all-important role of Ren, Nattrass ultimately chose the 21-year-old Ball on the strength of an audition tape he sent from Toronto's Sheridan College, where he was completing a three-year theatre program.
"He's unbelievable," Nattrass says. "I contacted our agency and asked for a Ren, a triple-threat singer-dancer-actor, and I got a lot of guys who were all in their 30s."
Nattrass ended up casting both Ball as Ren and Julia McLellan in the role of Ariel Shaw from tapes recorded the same night at Sheridan College.
"I videotaped her dance audition and she videotaped mine for me," says Ball.
The two friends likewise shared outdoor theatre experience working on the stage of Canada's Wonderland outside Toronto.
"We say that we are 'Wonderland Warriors,'" Ball says. "We survived summers at an outdoor theatre before, so we knew we'd be able to do it here."
And in fact, the experience of working under Rainbow's geodesic dome in Kildonan Park has been exhilarating, he says.
"It rained Wednesday while we were working onstage, and hearing the rain and seeing the lighting through the dome, it's the coolest thing," he says.
June 18 - July 8
Tickets available at rainbowstage.ca