Bringing Theatre and Comedy Together in YPT’s Snow White: In Conversation with Herbie Barnes and Aurora Browne

Snow White Director Aurora Browne and YPT Artistic Diretor Herbie Barnes stand back to back, smiling towards the camera. Their images are superimposed over a picture of YPT's large, brick playhouse, which is hung with pale blue banners emblazoned with the YPT logo.

Toronto boasts world-class communities in both theatre and comedy. The two rarely intersect. Folks involved in the theatre scene dismiss the comedy community as fundamentally unserious in their work. Comedians lament the theatre as stuffy and stuck-up, if they ever think of the theatre at all. There is a sort of Montague and Capulet thing going on: two households, both alike in dignity, unwilling to see how they might support each other. But this December, Herbie Barnes — artistic director of Young People’s Theatre (YPT) — has crossed the theatre/comedy barrier for an imaginative retelling of Snow White, putting together an all-star double cast spanning both genres, directed by Baroness Von Sketch Show’s Aurora Browne. 

“It was a chance to bring those two worlds together. I think I need to do a little bit more of that,” said Barnes in an interview. “I have such wonderful friends on both sides of those worlds.”

“In Chicago or in England, you see a lot of cross-over between the theatre and comedy scenes. People in improv troupes will also have starring roles in Shakespeare and I don’t think that necessarily happens here,” added Browne. “You have to be a really good actor to be successful at comedy. Audiences might not think that comedy is that hard because Canada is blessed with so many amazing comedic performers. They make it look easy…in theatre schools, they can make it seem that the world between theatre and comedy are separate. But they intersect in the truth, and you recognize that with our actors.”

For COVID reasons, Browne cast four actors in the two-person show. Amanda Cordner of TV show Sort Of, veteran improviser Ken Hall, and newcomer JD Leslie join Barnes to round out the cast. Each performer comes with an impressive list of accolades and credits, offering their own spin on the play and bringing their experiences from the worlds of theatre and comedy to the stage. 

“I’m just kind of in love with the cast, they’re so great. We’re just so blessed to have these four performers. The show is 90% them and the magic that they create,” said Browne. “No shade to what the wonderful designers are doing, but the performers could do the show in a garage and it would still be absolutely incredible. It’s a real testament to their talent and timing.”

That kind of talent is necessary to pull off this adaptation of Snow White. Greg Bank’s script sees two actors play all of the characters, including Snow White, the Huntsman, the Prince, and all seven dwarves. It requires a huge commitment from the cast and a big sense of play to bring life to the unique retelling of the classic tale.

It’s one of the reasons Young People’s Theatre cast a net beyond the theatre world in their search for performers. Barnes is one of the rare crossover artists who spent many years in Second City while concurrently coming up in the theatre. He knew some old friends would be up to the task. 

“In the improv world, you’re trained really well. You’re trained in storytelling and you’re trained in character. You do that all incidentally. Then when you get your hands on a script like this, you’re just playing and discovering. It’s so easy to transfer,” said Barnes.

The age demographic for Snow White suggests grades 16, which means there’s a good chance that this show and this cast may be some people’s first introduction to the theatre. It’s a responsibility and opportunity that both Browne and Barnes take seriously. Their goal is to make sure that the show will be something parents enjoy while also creating something really special for the kids. 

“Some of the kids coming [to the show] have been very indoors for the last two or three years. For a few, that’s a quarter, or even half of their lives,” said Browne. “I want to blow them away. I want to make them feel like they’ve been out to the woods and been part of something magical. Getting a double cast like this is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

“I wouldn’t have done the show if it was the traditional Disney way of doing things,” said Barnes. “It’s not your typical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Snow White runs at Young People’s Theatre November 21, 2022 – January 7, 2023.

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Written By

Graham Isador is a writer and theatre creator based in Toronto. Best known for his time as a contributing editor with VICE, his work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the BBC, and GQ. Isador is the author of several plays including Situational Anarchy, Served, and White Heat.