Rainbow Stage, Manitoba’s premier outdoor theatre company, has always been known for its large-scale musical theatre productions. Since 1954, the iconic theatre space in Kildonan Park has entertained and engaged Manitoba’s culturally rich communities and held the titles of Canada’s leading not-for-profit musical theatre company, and largest and longest-running outdoor theatre.

Rainbow Stage, Manitoba’s premier outdoor theatre company, has always been known for its large-scale musical theatre productions. Since 1954, the iconic theatre space in Kildonan Park has entertained and engaged Manitoba’s culturally rich communities and held the titles of Canada’s leading not-for-profit musical theatre company, and largest and longest-running outdoor theatre.

What’s not so well-known about Rainbow Stage is that it has, at the centre of its vision and commitment, strong community education and outreach programs focused on increasing accessibility to underserved communities and making dreams come true for young and old.

Artistic director Carson Nattrass has been with Rainbow Stage for nearly 20 years. His relationship with the theatre company began as an audience member taking in the land of Oz at the age of 10, eventually becoming a performing artist and then director for the renowned organization.

"Rainbow Stage became a home to me," Nattrass said. "It’s about providing opportunities for people. We are just stewards of this organization. It’s not about being a boss, it’s oh my gosh, I get to help people."

Nattrass remembers working on Beauty and the Beast in his first season, with cast members aged 10 to 60. The Hockey Sweater, opening in July, has an equally vast range of characters.

"We cast moving forward to represent a cultural mosaic of Canada, so that’s represented as well. Towns are families. It’s really impactful to see that onstage."

Supporting Manitoba talent is one of the core values of Rainbow Stage. Children can attend Camp Rainbow, a week-long day camp featuring first-class musical theatre instruction by Rainbow Stage teaching artists, with a focus on singing, dancing and acting. There they have camp counsellors they’ve seen onstage playing the likes of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, some getting auditions and work with Rainbow Stage, and going on to perform on Broadway.

"They can see a direct path in their professional career, something they’re passionate about," said Nattrass. "I want the child to connect the dots to their desire, and come to classes, which are often free. Our professional training is paid. We try to empower people so they can find their voice, as a singer, dancer, actor or even working backstage. We need to invest in them. We want the talent to be competitive on an international level. We are valuing the creation of the mentorship and education programs to ensure that Manitobans attending our shows are seeing Manitoba talent that is the most amazing ever. Rainbow Stage has always been at its healthiest when it invested in itself, in the community. The rewards are the eight kids (from the upcoming production of The Hockey Sweater) that sang the anthem at a Manitoba Moose game. It warms my heart.

"We change lives for the better, through our education, coming to a beautiful park with your family. Musical theatre is a celebration of human capacity — look at them sing and dance and work together, come and see what we’re capable of. Going to Rainbow Stage offers a different kind of healing. We are here to make your life worth living."

Development officer Mindy Barsky agrees, noting the connection between art and well-being.

"I look at Rainbow Stage as integral to mental health for people, it’s equally important for people to have art in their lives," Barsky said. "Arts are good for self-esteem, people in palliative care or in hospital want to see our productions online because that’s their happy place."

Rainbow Stage offers a number of programs designed to encourage artistic talent with a particular focus on those who may not otherwise have such opportunities. The Manitoba Micro-Musical Project For Students is an initiative for teachers and students across Manitoba to safely create their own micro-musical with resources and support from Rainbow Stage and professional local artists. The organization also offers free annual dance classes in various styles.

"Donors want to know that they’re contributing to something right now and in the future," Barsky said. "With the Rainbow Stage vision there are four pillars; productions, education, outreach, professional training. The outreach and education demonstrate the impact, that we are there to provide an arts education and exposure for families who couldn’t afford to attend. During the pandemic, kids attended digital online workshops, connecting with like-minded kids. There is a really big social impact."

"We have decided to really spotlight those programs, expand them, introduce musical theatre to underserved communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access," said executive director Andrea Pratt McDowell, who’s passionate about the work being done in education and outreach.

Programs like the Micro-Musical Project filled the void during the pandemic. Replacing the musicals that couldn’t happen in school, the online project offered a safe space where kids could find like-minded friends and helped schools do special projects during COVID, including blogs about different aspects of theatre.

"When people consider giving to Rainbow Stage it’s important for them to understand the impact that they could be having on a young person’s life," Pratt McDowell said. "I find that people have very fond memories of Rainbow Stage, going with their parents or grandparents. I don’t know that they know the behind-the-scenes impacts on individual lives, engaging, helping along the path of musical theatre.

"It’s important for people to understand that if they support Rainbow Stage, they support education and outreach. We have community groups and individuals that donate to have tickets given out in the community to different organizations and resource centres where people who may not have access to attend a show can come. We are very much committed to that."

Due to the priority of increased accessibility at Rainbow Stage, American Sign Language interpretation is offered, as is wheelchair and mobility aid, and ensuring that productions are available to the widest possible community.

"Rainbow Stage itself is such a strong community; you hear about it when you talk to parents, schools, our crew, our donors, our volunteers; everyone feels such a strong sense of community. There’s a strong responsibility to share that."

Visit: rainbowstage.ca

fpcity@freepress.mb.ca

Janine LeGal

Janine LeGal
St. Boniface community correspondent

Janine LeGal is a community correspondent for St. Boniface who also writes the These Old Houses column for our Community Homes section.