top of page

Persephone Theatre Swings towards Spectacle closing its 49th Season on the heels of the fiftieth anniversary in 2025.

By Ezekiel McAdams

May 6 2024

Persephone Disney's The Little Mermaid 2.png

  Persephone Theatre officially closed its Forty ninth season yesterday on May Fifth 2024 with a final swing towards full spectacle with its production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the largest undertaking in the theatre company’s forty ninth history.

  Persephone Theatre began in 1975, founded by local actors, Janet and Susan Wright and director Brian Richmond. The company was originally located at the Mendel Art Gallery. The company’s name was chosen because Persephone represents agriculture and the changing seasons. Richmond told Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reporter, Jean Macpherson, on September 20 1974, “We wanted to avoid a very corporate name.”


The company’s first production was Hot L Baltimore by playwright, Lanford Wilson and included a sprawling cast of fifteen including founders Janet and Susan Wright and included well known Canadian actors at the time, Jackson Davies (The Beachcombers) and David Stein (House of Style).

  Cant came aboard as the company’s artistic director in fall 2021. Born in Moose Jaw, s graduate at Gastown Actors Studio, she has worked all over Canada and was previously Assistant Artistic Director at Western Canada Theatre from 2014-2017.

Heather Cant Profile.png
Persephone The Mountaintop Poster.jpg

  Cant is especially proud of Bright Half Life, which launched the 49th season, last fall. Bright Half Life was directed by Kathryn Smith and written by playwright, Tanya Barfield. “Bright Half Life to me was a stunning piece of theatre. I know for some audiences they’re unaccustomed to that style of playwriting. For some people, they struggled with the timeline, it jumps around, and it’s not a linear story because Persephone often does linear storytelling. I go ‘Here is another type of theatre that you can be experiencing but you can’t unless someone in town does it or you travel.’ I love how it opens up people’s way of thinking. Theatre works in a similar way to me, as visual art does.”

  Cant compared theatre like Bright Half Life to experiencing visual art in museums. “For me, it’s akin to visual art, that when we go to a museum and you look at a painting on the wall, you have an innate response to it. You look at color, texture, subject matter and you form an opinion what you like or don’t like about it. But when I go to a museum, I’m always thinking ‘Why is this piece of art here?’ Sometimes I don’t like it I always wonder, why does this piece of art exist or is there something I’m missing?”


  For Cant there was never another choice then The Little Mermaid. While Beauty & The Beast was previously supposed to be part of the 2021- 2022 season.  It was originally scheduled for March 30-May 12 2022.  “I decided I didn’t want to revisit that show, because Persephone has done it before and we’ve got this deposit sitting with Disney and I wanted to do something we haven’t done before and for me that was this one.”


  Cant was very deliberate in wanting to bring magic back to the theatre.. “What I really wanted to do with this show was bring spectacle back. It is a thing we don’t get to see often and frankly, it’s not a thing Persephone can afford to do as often as people think. These shows cost a lot of money to put on. But, every once in awhile, I think, people need to be reminded what theatre is capable of. Those are small, intimate moments of genuine reflection, connection and changing the way we see the world in the smaller shows that we do to.”

1989 Disney Little Mermaid Poster.jpg

  When The Little Mermaid premiered in 1989, Cant reminisced about relating to Ursula more. “I wanted to be Ursula. My friends were all about Ariel. I didn’t care about her. I wanted to be the sea witch.”   

  She remarked on how this film in particularly transitioned Disney into a new phase. “As a Disney kid, who watched the Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night at six o’clock. This was the first film that transitioned Disney into what we know today. It was the last film they ever made in the old ways that didn’t have CGI. It is the commencement of what they refer the Disney renaissance.”


  While Persephone has not strayed away from musicals and specials with previous productions, The Sound of Music in 2012, Marry Poppins in 2016, Fiddler on the Roof in 2018 and Elf: The Musical in 2019, the company has never taken on a production this large before. “From what the team downstairs told me, is that probably, this is the largest show they’ve had to build.” Cant said.


  Cant talked about the undertaking of the process of casting such a large ensemble but also iconic characters. Cant, music director Stephen Greenfield and chorographer Kelsey Stone, held in person auditions in Saskatoon over several days. “They auditioned with scenes, songs, dances calls and also accepted tapes nationally. We had artists across the country submit tapes and we saw about two hundred and fifty people all told and had to choose eighteen.”

Persephone The Little Mermaid Kelsey Stone.png

  It was also paramount that the production utilized as many local actors as possible for Cant. “It’s important to me and for Persephone to support local community and have locals in the cast was intentional and very important but where people end up in the mix was dependent on the audition. We saw so many incredible people. It was really hard and at the same time watching the auditions, because I had really clear ideas for myself about who I felt these characters were and we weren’t telling a Princess story, there were certain qualities I was looking for. There were skills that are required. Kelsey needs people who can do certain dance styles. We had to have tappers, we had to have an Ariel and Eric that would be capable of essential components and same with Stephen, they had to sing it. Those three things have to exist in the same person at the same time.”

Persephone The Little Mermaid Synthia Yusef.png

  Synthia Yusef, who played Ariel, is a graduate of Capilano University's Musical Theatre Program, won an Ovation award for her portrayal as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors in 2023. Yusef has appeared both on stage and film and television.

Yusef, was not available for an interview when this article was published. The following quote is taken from one of Persephone’s behind the scenes videos that were uploaded on April 5 2024 on both their Facebook and Instagram pages.


  “I’ve loved The Little Mermaid since I was a little girl I watched The Disney movie hundreds of times as a kid. I always wanted to be a mermaid.” Yusef said.

  Cant was elated how many local actors ended up being cast. “I’m really pleased, we have eleven out of eighteen are from Saskatchewan and that feels remarkable to me. That’s a beautiful thing to be able introduce artists to one another. Our local talent pool here is quite large and very talented. One of the things I can do is as artistic director is help people build connections and relationships with other artists, other theatres and other places.”

Persephone's The Little Mermaid Kristel Harder.png

  Kayvon Khoshkam has been the the artistic director of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan since 2022.

Cant continued her enthusiasm for some of the Saskatoon actors in the production, Alyssa Billingsley and Mitchell Larson who play Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s eels, and Kenn McLeod who plays Louie, the French Chef. “And that’s one of things I think this particular musical does so well. Watching Mitchell and Alyssa play Flotsam and Jetsam. I go, ‘Gosh, who else are you going to get to play them?’ It almost feels like typecasting.” Cant laughs

“And Kenn playing the Chef, he has incredible comic skill.  And to be able to program something that allows us to literally put a spotlight on him and say ‘Look at this incredible performer and how funny he is. The chef is a bit of a star turn.” Cant said.

  It was not lost on both the cast and crew, that they were tackling a very iconic property. “I love The Little Mermaid. It was the first VHS, I ever owned myself, I got it for Christmas with the puffy case. I wanted to be Ariel my whole life. I dyed my hair red for a long time. My first high school boyfriend was named Eric, in hindsight, kinda looks like him a bit. So, I feel like it was very influential for me” Harder said.


  “That’s the fascinating part for me is the bubble we live in as theatre makers or patrons. People often associate Disney with children. I think that’s the thing came out during this process, sometimes we did have conversations with patrons who were less interested in seeing the work because they thought it was for children. From my perspective, this is about theatre magic.” Cant added.


  With the actors assembled, the rehearsal process proved to be just as joyous for Cant as it did for the actors. She particularly cited Kelsey Stone as part of the magic that made the process come together. “There’s a way to take an animated movie and make it feel living on stage. Synthia feels like a mermaid. She’s swimming. Kelsey, our chorographer, was able to create a movement language that allows us to live under water and feel that sense of water motion in people’s movement without anyone having to do fake swimming.”

  The following images are from one of Persephone's behind the scenes videos of rehearsals. The video can be found here.

Persephone The Little Mermaid Rehearsals 1.png

  The following image is from one of Persephone's behind the scenes videos of rehearsals. The video can be found here.

Persephone The Little Mermaid Synthia Yusef Rehearsal Still.png

   For Cant it was really important to bring purpose to the character of Ariel and the story based on the musical, which differs from the animated film.”Synthia and I talked about this, she’s still sixteen, I would say she has knowledge. Is she naïve about things? Absolutely but she has self knowing and knowledge about herself and her world and gives her a greater sense of maturity. I think this an important part of the journey.”


  “It’s hard to make something your own when people know one version of it so well but I’m really looking forward to the challenge of inventing it in my own special way.” Yusef said.

Live Five I Have No Idea Still.png

  Harder was in the middle of finishing rehearsing for her role in Live Five’s I Have No Idea that ran in March of 2024, when rehearsals began for Little Mermaid. “Ironically, I was like Ariel and couldn’t speak or sing for the first few rehearsals. So, my friend and understudy, Elizabeth Whitbread, did the first few read-through’s and rehearsals. Which was unbelievable, such a gift and a rare thing to have an understudy.”


  Developing the role of Ursula ended up being a fun process for both Cant and Harder. “I actually hated Ursula, I didn’t like mean people, I still don’t like mean people but they are fun to play.” Harder exclaimed. Cant added. “I really wanted to be Ursula. I loved her power. The way in which she analyzed and understood the world and utilized her own resources to make it work for her.”

Persephone Little Mermaid Ariel Flosam and Jetsam.png

  Harder ended up being surprised relating to Ursula during the process. “I think what surprised me was how much I relate to Ursula I’ve played villains quite a bit, I find a way to agree with them, which is important when you’re playing them. I really agree with Ursula in a lot of ways. I don’t agree with killing her family or her methods.” Harder laughs “But I do resonate with her feeling of being robbed and frustrated of feeling unloved and alienated with who she is. Not that I’ve had this negative experience with my family but it makes sense. She lost the kingdom basically she was female. Which is a pretty topical. issue.”

  Harder also shared some anecdotes during rehearsal “I’ve known Mitchell and Alyssa for a long time and I don’t think I’ve seen them work together. They’re so responsive and present, creative and fearless. There’s this beautiful moment in rehearsal where Synthia was putting on her shoes to leave and suddenly shrieked because Mitchell rolled out from under a bookshelf where they were exploring what an eel might feel in a cave.”

  Harder also praised the ensemble. “Synthia is stunning, onstage and off and very present and easy to work with and delightful. With Robbie, every time we do a scene it feels like it gets deeper and richer and more exciting. I really just feel so honored to work with all these people”

Persephone The Little Mermaid Synthia Yusef Ariel.png

  While the actors were more present on stage every night, Cant couldn’t stress enough what a collaborative effort the production was. From the set design by Omanie Elias, to music direction by Stephen Greenfield, chorography by Kelsey Stone, lighting design by Byron Hnatuk and costume design by Jensine Emeline. “The creative team from the music director, Stephen Greenfield, the chorographer, Kelsey Stone, are local. We worked together to create this piece and it’s been a real collaborative effort throughout this process and the creative team from the designer’s perspective has been so imaginative and clever and their contributions have made this show a visual feast.”

Persephone The Little Mermaid Jensine Emeline.png
Persephone The Important of Being Earnest.png

  It was however another Persephone production, The Importance of Being Earnest from 2012 that changed everything for Emeline. “I didn’t get in costumes until I was in University. It started in high school. We went to a production at Persephone of The Importance of Being Earnest. It totally, totally, blew my mind. The costumes and set were so incredible. My high school teacher, Carla Husnik, really supported all of us, showing us theatre at Persephone and Live Five.”


  That production would come full circle for Emeline when she started taking theatre design in University. “One of our first days of my Drama design course, Carla Orosz, asked us why we were here and I said ‘I saw a production of Importance of Being Earnest and it really changed my life.’  And Carla started to smile because it was her design. And so getting to meet your hero right off the bat and Carla and Beverly Kobelsky, just fostered anything you want to do. I became kinda costume specialty almost immediately and Bev took me under her wing and the rest is history and everything fell into place. Costumes are where my love lies.”

Carla Orosz University of Saskatchewan Drama Department.jpg
Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan Beverly Kobelsky.png

  Emeline first got to work on designs for her BFA project, Beaux Stratagem, which didn’t go as she originally planned. “The honest answer it was a horrible experience.” Emeline laughs. “It was my first time dealing with a director that hated what I had designed. We got to a good place, but it was hard getting that rejection for the first time. We pivoted and found a really beautiful place for the show. The other thing that was great, we had access to the University storage and so much of Bev’s own work and there’s so many pieces that we got to use in the show.”

  After graduating, Emeline, won her first SATA award for Outstanding Costume Design on Ferre Theatre’s The Penelopiad. However it was a bittersweet moment. “What an honor and huge imposter syndrome. 2019, was the worst year of my life. My partner died, we lost our house and we did Penelopiad four months after he died and to be awarded that after that show, you can’t explain that. For not only the work to be recognized as good enough but that the people you value as friends, yes they’re colleagues too, these people are my friends that I love with all my heart and they saw what I had worked on and valued it as much as I did. I call the Penelopiad my crown jewel in my career hat that I have made up in my head.”

Persephone The Little Mermaid Cast Costumes.png

  Emeline was quick to credit not only the design department but Persephone’s employees in this endeavor. “And speaking of cogs in the wheel, I can’t go without saying the people that helped in every department. I designed, yeah, yeah, but I didn’t build all of those costumes. That was all Anna Yaworski, Rory Jewiss, Trona Garvie and Jeff Chief. And even folks in the Administration office, Mel, who runs front of house, helped sew a bit, Kristi Friday, and all these amazing people who really shouldn’t have given us a hand, but they did. It truly takes a village, times a thousand. Holy Dina!” Emeline said.

Persephone The Little Mermaid Byron  Hnutuk.jpg

  Hnatuk’s lighting was especially crucial to the production said Cant.  “We really leaned into luminosity into this show. The use of UV lighting and things that glow in the dark. Byron really did an incredible job with the lighting and to bring those different worlds to life. That makes us think we are underwater or there’s a magical moment happening or those eels were electrified.”


  Cant continued to celebrate the work of the designers she knew were ready to undertake a production of this magnitude.  You have people who never done a musical like this before, like Jensine and Byron. They’re really gifted designers, but they’ve never been given an opportunity to create in their discipline at this scale. Now they have, at home, with the support of the community around them and they killed it!”

  Set designer and artist, Omanie Elias, resides in Vancouver and has worked on numerous projects of various scope and scale. Elias, was not available for an interview when this article was published. Her following quote is from of Persephone’s behind the scenes videos on the production, uploaded April 11 2024.


 “Early on, we figured we wanted to capture the essence of the original but not actually try to be cartoony in our style. So, but it’s not essentially realistic either. It’s somewhere in the middle.”


  Elias took inspiration from the Art Noveau from early twentieth century.  The style was inspired by the curves of plants and flowers. It was also known for its dynamism and movement.  It was popular between 1890 and 1910 during the Belle Époque period and was a reaction against the academicism, eclecticism and historicism of 19th century architecture and decorative art.

  For Cant and Harder they both enjoyed different aspects of watching the audience’s reaction and engagement. “I find great delight in going to continue to watch the show. Each actor is making new discoveries and refinements with every performance. The way in which they’ve taken the choices we’ve discussed and through their pure skill, talent to refine and deepen and to work with the audience to find the rhythm to make that joke work. That little flourish that they add to the dialogue or choreography that you suddenly feel in an electric way because in the way that the audience responds energetically. It’s so delightful and speaks to the caliber of the cast.”


  For Harder, it was nice to not be so overwhelmed after jumping from I Have No Idea to Little Mermaid. “The nice thing about this show is that while Ursula takes up a lot of space, physically, emotionally and vocally, she’s only on stage four times, so it’s not as heavy a learning process as I Have No idea or Spring Awakening was.”


  Now that the season has concluded, Cant reflected on the past year. “I love it!” Cant laughs “I’ve loved this whole season. I thought every show was beautiful and each of the artists we have engaged and did all of things we have tasked them with. I take great pride in putting together an eclectic season. It can be challenging when you’re a regional theatre who is mandated to serve the community as a whole. How do you do that without homogenizing who the community is? So to me, being able to bring an eclectic sense of genre, style, topic and ascetic to our season is how we do that.”     

Persephone Theare 50th Anniversary.png

  For Persephone’s Fiftieth season, for their main stage, they will be producing Native Gardens as their Season opener, followed by The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Miracle on 34th Street, 18 Jews Order Chinese Food, Made in Italy and Million Dollar Quartet. Youth series include The Mixolydian, Young Turtle and G’zaagiin Maleńki – I Promise You a Forest.


“When people come to the theatre, I want them to engage in that aspect of thinking, ‘Why did we choose to tell this story at this time in this town? What is it about the journey that has something to contribute to the community that we live in?’” Cant said.                 

  When Cant came aboard, she very intentionally wanted to focus on inclusion, diversity and bringing more voices whether playwrights, directors and actors into the fold from across the country.


  From Dian Marie Bridge for winter 2022’s The Mountaintop by playwright, Katori Hall and fall 2022’s The Fiancée by Holly Lewis, which Cant directed.

Cant compared the scale and scope to Mary Poppins which she assistant directed. “The show I would think from a scale perspective or on par is larger than this would be, Mary Poppins. It’s a cast of twenty two, a live band, we had people flying through the air. Huge dance numbers that lives inside Little Mermaid in the same way. The only difference is that Persephone didn’t build Mary Poppins. It was a co-production with Western Canada Theatre.”

  Saskatoon actor, Kristel Harder, a graduate of MacEwan University’s Theatre Arts program, also holds a Masters in Musical Theatre Performance from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Harder was fortunate enough (pun intended) to get one of the lead roles, the iconic villain, Ursula, Ursula’s character has since become iconic as not only one of the great Disney villains but in the general villain pantheon as well. Ursula was voiced by the late Pat Carroll.


  When it came time to audition, Harder, talked about the trepidation of returning to audition for musical theatre. “It was a little scary for me, actually. I hadn’t gotten to do musicals in a little while. That’s where my training is in. I’m more scared and put more pressure on myself. It was a role I really wanted, but I also know, a gagillion people in this city, around the province and around the country that would be incredible at it. So I did some coaching with someone in the city. Kayvon Khoshkam, who’s the A.D. of Shakespeare. I did the audition. I didn’t think I did a great job, I felt kinda frustrated with myself that I didn’t succeed at bringing in the things I prepared necessarily. Afterwards for the dance call, which was right after, and I had to quickly change, and I realized I forgotten pants. I meant to bring leggings, instead I brought nylon and they were also too small. Which is why I’ve never worn them and I grabbed the wrong thing. So I was not dressed very well, just in a t-shirt, nylons and dance shoes. I don’t think I could have done a worse job. Miraculously, I got it anyway.” Harder laughs. 

  Emeline, graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019, with a BFAH in Theatre Design. Emeline was awarded a University Medal in the Fine Arts for outstanding academic achievement and community involvement. Since graduating, Emeline has won a SATA award for multiple productions.


  Emeline began acting as a child at The Off Broadway Dinner Theatre and had planned to take Biology at the University. “I didn’t take a single Biology class.” However design and art was ingrained very early on. “I learned how to sew in high school for Home Ec but that was about it, but I’ve always had an affinity for maybe not costumes but for fashion at the very least. One of the icons and we know this now, with modern media is of course, Barbie. I loved dressing them up and creating clothes for Barbies.”

  When Cant asked Emeline to discuss the upcoming season, she felt unequipped to tackle an iconic property. “Heather had reached out to me, we went for coffee and she said ‘Let’s talk about next season.’, so, shortly before the season launch and I was thinking ‘Please God, not Little Mermaid and not This is How We Got Here, because that’s content I can’t deal with.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’m competent to do Little Mermaid.’ And she said ‘Well, I want you for Little Mermaid.’” Emeline laughed.


  Cant reassured Emeline and the process quickly began. "Heather always does this, when I design for her, she starts the process with a lot of play. She’s really excellent in the preliminary process in letting the designers do what they do best, which is design. I did have the freedom to think of how far can we go before we reign it back in.”     


  Emeline was both delighted and surprised with designing the costumes. “The most exciting to me was Ursula of course but also Flotsam and Jetsam with how technical they are. Sebastian is not pretty standard but the rest of the costumes are stylized but standard or historical pieces. But Flotsam and Jetsam, the mermaid skirts, even the starfish and the turtle. They were pretty standard in my head and the amount of people freaked out over them has been so joyous, that I was not expecting.  That’s part of the directing that Heather has done just placing them in places that has made them hysterical For lack of a better word, the stupidity of those costumes.”

bottom of page