Asked why she chose musical theatre as her program, Senn Gelinas had a ready reply. “It doesn’t limit me – there is performing and directing and choreography. I am open to trying anything. With musical theatre I can be intimate or really big. And being highly energetic, I can put that energy into grueling activities that are part of musicals.”
Gelinas, the 2023 Charter Women’s Award Winner, was born in Montreal and moved to Coquitlam, just east of Vancouver, when she was three years old. “My entire family is musical,” she says. “My mother and aunt play the piano, my father plays guitar.” When she was five years old, Gelinas’ mother put her in musical theatre at Coquitlam’s Lindbjerg Academy of Performing Arts. It was an after school program in which she performed in various musicals.
“Because there weren’t many boys in the program and I had a deeper voice, was extroverted and energetic they often gave me male leads,” she says. “So I played Michael in Peter Pan, King Louie in The Jungle Book, Harold Hill in The Music Man, Flounder in Little Mermaid and Danny Zuko in Grease. I liked these opportunities because the male characters allowed me to be a lot more rambunctious and bolder.” The ingénue roles often required her to be quieter, demure and graceful and were less a match for her talents and energy.
After eight years at Lindbjerg, when it came time for high school she choose a small, unique high school that prioritized people with specific passions and leadership skills.
But she had to interview to get a spot. Inquiry Hub Secondary School in Coquitlam is next to a Superstore and a Cineplex and close to the Trans-Canada Highway. Senn’s graduating class had just 12 students of a total enrolment of 66 students. “Essentially the school model is self-directed where we were encouraged to take charge of our own learning and pursue our own interests,” she says. “In Grade 9, you’re taught how to build your own course. The first step is to do research on learning outcomes, plan a curriculum, find a professional in the field who could mentor you. Then you select projects. I decided to write a song or two, claymation, and gallery design.”
The following year, if the teachers thought a student was ready, they would approve a year long project. “I said I want to write a musical which I thought could be done in one year. At the end of the year, I realized I was nowhere near ready, so I asked to continue the project through Grade 12.” The musical was set in a sci-fi world where hearts are removable, and gifted as a gesture of trust and true love amongst romantic partners. “The musical questions who is worth giving your heart to, and is it worth the pain to try and fix someone unwilling to change?” Although she never gave it a title and it was never performed as it was never fully completed, she wanted it to be workshopped. “But CoVID came midway through grade 11, so I couldn’t go through with that plan. It is a story I want to move on from, but the process taught me many valuable lessons on who I am as a creator, and what it takes to write a musical. There are several songs I will probably reuse in future projects, though.”
Looking toward the future, Gelinas’ dream job would be “to write my own musical and perform on Broadway – very Lin-Manuel Miranda style.”
Gelinas says her years at Inquiry Hub honed many skills including networking. But because she was one of only three students who played an instrument, she felt a bit isolated. So when it came time to choose a post-secondary institution, she had to broaden her search. She applied to Capilano and Studio 58 in British Columbia. “And then my mom and some friends said try Sheridan College because it’s a leading musical theatre school,” she says. “I was terrified – I hadn’t danced in six years. But I applied – Inquiry Hub gave me a week off to prepare.” Gelinas is both confident and philosophical about taking major leaps toward her dreams. “Sometimes when I’m scared and nervous, I know it’s the right thing to do. I was scared but I thought it’s something to challenge me.”
She said when she applied, she saw a double rainbow. At first her letter of acceptance said she was on the waitlist at Sheridan and she also saw double rainbow. Meanwhile she was accepted at Capilano so she accepted that offer. Then an email came from Sheridan saying she was accepted and she took that offer while seeing her third double rainbow.
This summer Gelinas is using her energy to work at three different jobs: she teaches singing over Zoom, works as a musical theatre camp counselor at Sheridan in a new four- week long initiative on campus, and works as a host/server at a vegan brunch restaurant in Oakville.
In September 2023, she will start her third year in the program. In fourth year, students work on a number of complete musicals. Given a choice, Gelinas would choose to play Velma Kelly or Billy Flynn in Chicago; “Anastasia is a dream role of mine, with beautiful vocals and gorgeous music”; and any role in Hadestown because “it’s a glorious musical”.
Looking toward the future, her dream job would be “to write my own musical and perform on Broadway – very Lin-Manuel Miranda style,” she says. “I can’t just perform. I’d also like to originate a new, awesome, bad ass Disney princess. And produce a straight up music album.” She learned to play piano because she loves singing and songwriting. Next on her agenda: learning to play guitar.
Photo: (L to R) ALCT Foundation director Kimberly de Witte, Senn Gelinas, and Foundation President Marianne Fedunkiw