On the outskirts of campus, McMaster graduates prepare a story of an apocalyptic diner to be performed at the fourteenth annual Hamilton Fringe Festival. For many of those involved, First Class preludes the next big step in pursuing a career in the local theatre industry in Hamilton and beyond.
First Class was first shown as part of the McMaster Theatre Programs’ graduating classes’ Honours Series Performances, and was selected via lottery to show alongside over 300 live performances from July 20 to July 30 at this year’s Fringe Festival.
The drama centers around three strangers trapped in a diner just days before the world ends. The three fight over the news of a spaceship, which is set to give the lucky few a first class ticket to a new, habitable planet.
McMaster Commerce graduate YiJian Zheng plays Benny, a young, gifted inventor with a villainous disdain for the poor, and who has had the privilege of having his ticket purchased for him by his parents.
Theatre program graduate Christina Stolte plays his foil. Her character, Callie, is a single mother, who is frantically finishing her application to earn a spot on the ship for her and her son.
The diner owner, Deejay, mediates the two and is played by Mohawk television and broadcasting student Funsho Elegbeleye.
The story explores themes of privilege, immigration and seeks to explore the grim question of who deserves to live or die when given the choice.
“I’ve always wanted to pursue a more artistic career. Singing, and [now] acting. I came to Mac mostly because my friends were here and they took commerce and my parents wanted to me have a commerce degree so that’s what I chose. [But] my real passion is acting …”
Co-writer and co-director Omobola Olarewaju was able to insert her own experience as a former international student into the characters.
“Coming from privileged background in Nigeria I was able to have both ends of the privilege [experience] … So I was privileged back home and came here and the international student life isn’t quite as [privileged] as what I came from I noticed there are a lot of limitations based on the fact that I’m not a citizen,” said Olarewaju.
“Deejay’s character is kind of in the middle … I put a lot of my own experience into because he is also an international … an immigrant at the end of the world. [He] doesn’t have food ration rights, doesn’t have any of the normal things that people are entitled to, but still makes things work.”
This year, Olarewaju graduated from theatre and film and the economics programs at Mac, and like other members of the First Class team, she is immediately seeking to further her career in the theatre or film industry. She is currently working on a book, continuing her life-long practice of writing, while also seeking opportunities to work in television and film.
Unlike his fellow cast members, Zheng entered McMaster planning to pursue a career in commerce. In his third year, this changed when an extra male role needed to be filled for the McMaster School of The Arts’ production of Lady In The Red Dress.
“I’ve always wanted to pursue a more artistic career. Singing, and [now] acting. I came to Mac mostly because my friends were here and they took commerce and my parents wanted to me have a commerce degree so that’s what I chose. [But] my real passion is acting … so when my friend told me about this opportunity with Lady in the Red Dress I took it.”
Zheng resides in Richmond Hill, and currently has a full-time job to support his endeavour into a potential full time acting career. He hopes that opportunities to work in theatre, whether that’d be finally landing a role in a musical or working in the technical aspect of production, and that those opportunities present themselves close to the GTA.
The Fringe Festival is a means of showcasing the Hamilton theatre community, and it is this community that has both Stolte and Elegbeleye hoping that they can launch their careers in Hamilton specifically.
“[Hamilton] might not seem like the place to go if you were looking to be a skilled actor but I feel like it will get there, and aim hoping to be part of the people who find that, inspire that or who bring that to life … I feel that Hamilton is going to be [my starting point]. … it already is. People see that at the Fringe,” said Elegbeleye.
Elegbeleye has been acting in a variety of different productions since childhood, and has performed for two years at McMasters’ African Students Associations’ Afrofest. Currently, he is working a working on a web series titled Catalyst.
“[Hamilton] might not seem like the place to go if you were looking to be a skilled actor but I feel like it will get there, and aim hoping to be part of the people who find that, inspire that or who bring that to life …”
Stolte has been part of school and community theatre productions since her childhood. Originally hailing from Burlington, she also sees Hamilton as a place for making connections with theatre industry veterans.
“Some theatre in some location is awesome, but not so much in a career sense — more in a recreational sense. In Hamilton, I have a very distinct feeling that it is very productive in a career sense where you could get a lot of really good experience … that will then help with furthering a career in acting or anything to do with theatre really,” explained Stolte.
While this may be the last chance to see First Class, it may not be long before the names behind the production appear again in Hamilton’s theatre and independent film scene. For these artists, writers and technicians, Hamilton continues to be an increasingly attractive place to hone their craft.
First Class will be play at Mills Hardware from July 20 to July 30. Show times and more information about the Fringe can be found at http://hamiltonfringe.ca/