By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the LaSalle Post on Apr. 28, 2017
Photo: From left, Gabriella Touralias, Ella Hodgson-Gray, Alessia Bellaire, and Lauren Zanier are pictured during one of Holy Cross Catholic School’s music performance of Vanessa Corona’s ‘The Castle by the Forest at St. Thomas of Villanova High School last week. DEVAN MIGHTON / LASALLE POST
(LASALLE, ON) – The students of Holy Cross Catholic Elementary School took over St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic High School’s auditorium last week to put on their third annual theatrical production.
Entitled ‘The Castle by the Forest’, the 90-page musical was written and directed by Grade 4 teacher Vanessa Corona.
This year’s play centred around the environment, came to Corona one day while out on a hike.
With a projected release date near Earth Day, she felt the theme would be a perfect fit.
The musical served as a way “to talk about the beauty of the Earth and our responsibility in preserving it while not being so in your face with a political message. People want to be entertained.”
With a cast of roughly 80 students and a crew of another 30, all ranging from Grade 4-8, crowds were dazzled by vibrant costumes, wonderful ballads, a gorgeous backdrop, professional lighting, and memorable and touching character interaction.
Set alongside the theme of the need for symbiosis between humanity and the planet, was the tale of a pair of sisters torn apart in disagreement.
“They need to see where they fell apart in order to rebuild, which is really what we all need to think about with the environment too,” said Corona.
She sees the problem mirrored in our society as well.
“We need to look at where we, as a society, fell apart in order for us to rebuild and be able to preserve the future.
“Everybody has forgotten how to compromise and how are we ever going to move forward in our society without a willingness to understand somebody else’s point of view?”
The heroines of the story are brought back together by the character Ava, a little girl who serves as the vessel through whom the characters can rebuild the bridge between them.
Ava was played by both Mae MacNeil and Ella Hodgson-Gray, who received a large share of praise from their director, who was thrilled on the mass of feedback they received for their performance.
Corona also credits fellow teachers Rosanna Desando, Maureen McLinden, Amanda Dillon and Mary Fournier with an equal hand in getting this endeavour off the ground, as well as countless staff members who helped with things like ticket sales and other duties.
Although a health scare for Corona almost put the play in jeopardy, it was her third such play at Holy Cross and her 13th since becoming a teacher.
She started her career at Lakeshore’s St. William Catholic Elementary School in 2004 as a supply teacher and took it upon herself to give something back to both the kids and her longtime passion.
“I think the arts are so wonderful,” said Corona.
“I kinda fell into it in Grade 10, and I was so shy growing up, before then, and when I found drama – I found myself.”
After graduating from the University of Windsor, she hoped to share her love of theatre, dance, and music with children from a much younger age than when she, herself, was exposed.
So at St. William, she put the quill to the paper and wrote out her first play.
“I had never written a play before so I just kinda winged it,” Corona said.
“After that, I just said ‘you know, I’m going to try and do this every year of my career’. So, we’ve been going strong ever since.”
After two years at St. William, and eight more at St. Peter’s Catholic School in Tecumseh, Corona brought her passion for the arts to Holy Cross.
Jennifer Newman, mother of one of the leads, Jay Newman who played the Element of Fire, described the effort as “remarkable” and “elaborate”.
Citing Corona’s use of re-purposed pop songs from the ’80s and ’90s, Newman felt the show was like something out of the Olde Walkerville Theatre.
“They’re dancing, they’re singing, they’ve got solos and these kids have many, many lines in the play and there’s a lot of lead roles and it’s amazing,” said Newman.
“[The kids] all really look up to [Corona], [Jay’s] very inspired by her. The fact that she writes her own plays, that she is so passionate about theatre and she really encourages them to feel comfortable with the singing and dancing parts as well.”
Corona says that she plans to make this tradition run as long as she can.
“I’d like to say, when I retire someday, that I put on a show every year of my career for these kids,” she said.
“It’s ambitious, but I’d like to be able to say that after 30-so years. So, 13 down and 17-or-so more to go.”