When Brian Lee first pitched his idea of a Richmond Hill–based musical-theatre troupe to corporate sponsors, he was 16. He’d never directed a professional stage show before, let alone built a business or knew exactly how to raise tens of thousands of dollars. He didn’t even have a driver’s license.
“My parents would drive me around,” Lee says. “I had meetings about sponsorship in TD while they waited in the parking lot.”
But none of that stopped him. In March 2008, Lee, then a Vaughan TanenbaumCHAT student debuted his local community theatre company, Steppin’ Out, with a performance of the musical Little Women; as soon as the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts opened later that year, Steppin’ Out became its resident musical-theatre company.
“I always grew up knowing I wanted to work in theatre,” Lee says. “It seems quite odd, but there’s something to be said for tenacity.”
In the 10 years since, Steppin’ Out has staged roughly three large-scale musical productions every year, each budgeting as much as $80,000. And since the company is not for profit – none of the actors or crew get paid, except for the venue and technicians – the company has drummed up a constant flow of support from local corporate sponsors to create truly professional-grade shows with intricate costumes and set designs.
“Specifically in Richmond Hill, there’s an amazing feeling of community and support,” Lee says.
Even though he moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, and now spends much of his time in New York City (he’s worked on Sunset Boulevard on Broadway and, along with his wife, is one of the producers of this year’s hotly anticipated 7 1/2 -hour Angels in America revival with Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield), he still returns to his hometown to direct at least one Steppin’ Out show each year.
Of the company’s more than 30 performances, Lee has directed around 25 personally. “It’s hard to let go,” he says.
This year, he’s back to produce Steppin’ Out’s 10-year celebration, a special retrospective show of the company’s past performances. Lee reconnected with around 70 past actors to revive their hit songs from Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, Gypsy and dozens more.
He’s been planning this “from day one,” he says. “The decade was always the goal.”
Last October, he and his team sat down to create a list of numbers to include and started the groundwork for this special showcase, and rehearsals began in January. The show will run just two nights, March 23 and 24 – a weekend birthday bash for the community.
For Lee, however, the celebration will be cut short: he flies back to New York the next day, on Sunday, March 25, the day that Angels in America officially opens on Broadway.
But he isn’t moving permanently to the Big Apple anytime soon. “There is more joy in a rehearsal room in Richmond Hill than you’ll see anywhere in the commercial world, where it’s about money and the industry,” he says. “This is about sheer joy.”
So will Richmond Hill fans have to wait another 10 years for the company’s next retrospective celebration?
“I think we’ll get to 15 and then we’ll talk,” Lee says.
“Celebrate 10 Years of Steppin’ Out” will be performed at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on March 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $30.