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DreamRider's Vanessa LeBourdais on new play about water

Goober (Ian Gschwind ) and Esmeralda Superspy (Sara Holt) in the new play H2Whoa!

The courageous super heroine Esmeralda Superspy Planet Protector and her sidekick Goober have a new mission: to save the water from the evil hands of “The Evaporator,” who has taken all the water from the reservoir with his evaporation ray.

They summon children to help fight the evil villain. The kids learn about water conservation with sassy and bubbly teacher Mrs. G, who belts out a catchy rock’n’roll tune explaining the cycle of water, and the Professor (reminiscent of Doc Brown in the Back to the Future film franchise), who provides Esmeralda with a super bracelet to fight the enemy.

Will water, and indeed the Earth, be saved from the malicious Evaporator?

H2Whoa! is Vancouver-based, green-oriented DreamRider Theatre’s new play on water conservation. One of the goals is to teach children that people and natural resources are not separate entities, but integrated. Taking care of water is taking care of oneself.

“We are 75 per cent water, so when we talk about protecting water, who are we talking about? We are not [only] talking about a river or an ocean or a stream or waterfall: We are talking about our bodies, human bodies,” DreamRider creative lead and executive producer Vanessa LeBourdais said in a phone interview with the Vancouver Observer.

Through catchy songs, multimedia and zany characters, award-winning DreamRider Theatre educates young audiences (from kindergarden to seventh grade) about taking care of the environment, and inspires them to pass the message onto their families.

LeBourdais’ interest in environmental issues sparked back in 1992 while living in Tofino, B.C. and witnessing how the rainforest in her backyard was being transformed into a dull parking lot. Soon after, she became organizer of the Clayoquot Sounds environmental campaign and wrote songs for the movement.

This experience also reignited LeBourdais’ desire to pursue theatre – she began working intermittently as a stage actor at age 18. However, the 47-year-old artist found herself in the middle of a paradox: It didn’t feel right making musicals while forests were stripped from the soil, but she felt it was the right thing to do to pass along the message.

“It made no sense because if forests are dying, how I can go and make musicals? But deep in my soul I knew it was what I had to do,” LeBourdais said.

In 1997, the City of Vancouver hired LeBourdais and her husband, DreamRider’s actor and stage manager Ian Gschwind, to create and perform skits for elementary schools twice a year.

They debuted with the show Clean Up Your Act about littering, vandalism and graffiti, and added two more shows, about water conservation and recycling.

In 2002, the City of Vancouver advised them to create their own production company, and DreamRider Theatre was born.

Five years later, LeBourdais stopped performing and decided to take the reins of the production aspect and make a living out of it, as well as hiring others, despite the risks that often surround living from artistic endeavours.

A business neophyte at the time, LeBourdais learned that she could do business in a sensible manner and find sponsors (municipalities and private corporations) that share DreamRider’s educative and environmental values. 

These partnerships have allowed them to continue touring schools for free over the years.

This year, DreamRider will bring four plays to 300 schools and 70,000 children in the Lower Mainland.

Their shows are fun, humourous and educative, but when writing the plays they seek expert advice on the environment to accurately convey key messages that “people need to know.” DreamRider’s team selects the messages they believe are the best for the children.

“And then we are really, really good at communicating [them to] kids,” LeBourdais said confidently.

Indeed, after 14 years and 800,000 children, LeBourdais and company have mastered their craft through “trial and error.” It's all about passing the messages onto the five-to-twelve crowd, while getting their undivided attention during the 40 minute play.

Ian Gschwind as the Evaporator.

For this task, Gschwind (Goober, the Evaporator and the Professor) and fellow performer and DreamRider’s custome designer Sara Holt (Esmeralda SuperSpy and Mrs. G) jump into their different characters with agility and without missing a beat, while encouraging children’s participation through multimedia, humour, songs and quizzes.

“What we do is we make them laugh and make them sing [while] we tell a great story that they are excited about, and we put learning in the story, so it's not separate, the learning is part of the story […] like a by-product.”

The main characters, Esmeralda and her good friend Goober, have become children's favourites, according to LeBourdais. Teachers are also fans of the plays.

LeBourdais is also a composer and writes DreamRider’s music. She explains that the lyrics are the “hardest part” and are carefully elaborated, because they embody the core of the messages that will be “sticking” in children’s heads for a long time after seeing the play. Case in point, the title song of H2Whoa!—“Oh oh H2O, I stand on guard for H2O”—which channels the Canadian anthem.

“If I'm going to have something sticking in children's heads, it's gonna be the key messages that I want them to understand,” LeBourdais said. “[Those are the messages] they are going to leave singing, so we consider really carefully what words they are.”

And the lyrics really stick. After the play, voices of children can be heard from afar lingering on the chorus of the title song H2Whoa!

“It happens every time!," Le Bourdais notes enthusiastically.

There goes another budding eco-protector.

After Spring Break, DreamRider will be back touring H2Whoa! with an additional team of actors, who will be playing Clean Up Your Act around schools gymnasiums in the Lower Mainland until June.

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