He’s a cast member of one of Canada’s most prestigious theatre companies and, although his immediate family no longer resides here, he still comes “home” to the Battlefords.
Matthew Armet is one of the 61 actors of the internationally renowned Stratford Festival, in his fourth season with the company. He is what is known in the industry as a triple threat; he dances, sings and acts.
He was visiting in the Battlefords last week, the community where he grew up, studied through his school years as a French immersion student and laid the foundation for his career. Valerie Armet, his mom, has passed on, his brother David lives in Saskatoon and his father Doug lives in Kelowna, but Matthew returns when he can to the place he grew up and the many “families” he has here still.
The owner of the studio where he trained as a dancer, Virginia Winterhalt, and her husband Todd are often his hosts when he comes back for a visit.
“They are one of the many families here that have adopted me,” smiles the 28 year old with bright blue eyes and reddish brown hair.
“Since Mom passed and we sold the house, I have lots of places I stay when I come home,” he says, although his main landing pad is the Winterhalt residence.
There are also certain people he makes a special point of visiting. Matthew was a French immersion student at McKitrick Elementary School, where his mother, who he lost to cancer in 2008, worked as a secretary.
“I always go see some of the teachers there that were friends of my mom’s, that I’m now friends with.”
He also initiated appearances last week at his old high school, John Paul II Collegiate.
“I called up Jackie Maloney, who was my first homeroom teacher in Grade 8 French immersion.”
She’s a guidance counsellor now, he explains, and was able to set up a noon meeting and a presentation to the Grade 10 drama class later in the week.
As a cast member at the Stratford Festival, he is involved not only in its performances, but its education programs for visiting students. Students from throughout the world make their way to Stratford, but many are area children who come to Stratford on school trips.
“With teaching all these kids at Stratford, especially, I realized this year they were so lucky that they lived so close to a place like the Stratford Festival,” says Matthew.
They can go on school trips to see the Stratford performances, meet the artists and be exposed to the theatre experience.
“Out here, we are so far away, you don’t take school trips a province over,” he says.
“When I was in high school, we didn’t have anybody come talk to us about performing arts in Canada, what was available ... how to get into schools and what schools were even available,” said Matthew. “So I wanted to sort of bring that back and talk to the kids and let them know it’s out there, whether they want to do it or not. I think it’s important for Canadian arts and culture [for students] to be exposed to what’s out there.”
He says it hard work getting into the business, but it’s worth it.
“Some people luck out into some big thing right away and get rocketed up the ladder,” but that’s not the norm.
In the beginning there are many lows, he says.
“There are a lot of jobs you do to pay the rent or to get two or three more shows.”
It’s part of the journey.
“Getting cast is having the talent and the look and obviously all of that, but a lot of it is timing and people knowing you and people liking you,” says Matthew. “Once they get to know you and have worked with you once, or they take a chance on you and you make a good impression, they hire you again. It takes time getting into community and getting choreographers and directors to know who you are.”
It’s also important to have an agent.
“It’s tough without one,” he says, although he does have friends who don’t use an agent.
While he was speaking at JPII, he had a chance to see students preparing for the musical they are presenting this week, Back to the Eighties.
“I went to part of the rehearsal. It was great.”
It’s hard work for high school students to put together a full show.
“I remember doing that,” he laughs. “I did four of them when I was in high school. I was worn thin with dance classes after school and trying to fit in musical rehearsals after school when I wasn’t dancing.”
“It’s hard,” he says, but adds they were doing a good job and he was sure it would be a good show. (He started work on a “Christmas gig” in Winnipeg Monday, so would be missing the performance.)
Because the Stratford season usually runs from February to October, there is an opportunity to take on other projects during the break. This year, he is doing a cabaret at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, which will run for three weeks in January.
He’ll still be back at Stratford Feb. 9, the day before his birthday.
“I always get my birthday in Stratford or moving to Stratford,” he laughs.
“Stratford has been incredible the last two seasons I’ve been there,” says Matthew. “The second year we did Fiddler on the Roof and Tommy and this last year Man of La Mancha and Crazy for You.”
All four were physically demanding shows, and they were vocally demanding as well. “It was a lot of dancing and singing at the same time for a long period of time, so we were all in pretty awesome shape during those contracts.”
He loved it, he says.
“As great as it is to have six weeks off, I need to get back to a show and to a gym and get back into shape again after I‘ve been sitting around visiting.”
Getting back to Stratford means rehearsals six days a week, eight hours a day, but he has no complaints. To Matthew, this kind of hard work is “fun.”
He is also learning as he works. Growing up in the Battlefords, he took voice lessons from Dianne Gryba, and his voice training continues at Stratford.
“We have a lot of coaches at Stratford” says Matthew. “We have voice coaches for text and dialect and dialogue.” He adds, “They just brought in a new singing coach this year. She’s fantastic.”
Stratford brings acting coaches and teachers in throughout the season for workshops as well.
“They are really good about training their company to be better while they working so the next season will be even stronger. It’s really cool. It’s a very cool place to work.”
For the upcoming Stratford Festival season, Matthew has been cast in The Sound of Music and Carousel.
For The Sound of Music, he will be in the ensemble, which is the group of actors, dancers and singers who support the main actors. He will also be the understudy for the character of Rolfe.
For Carousel, he will, in fact, be the understudy for the entire ensemble.
“I’m the swing, which I did my first season in Pirates of Penzance,” says Matthew. “There’s usually a guy and a girl swing and they will cover everybody in the ensemble.”
Matthew explains he will have to learn eight or nine different parts.
“I’m backstage or waiting in the green room, waiting and just hanging out, when everybody is doing the show,” he said. “If anybody gets sick or injured before or during the show I’m thrown in at the drop of a hat.”
How does he remember that many parts?
“There’s a lot of note taking,” he says. “It’s very scholarly. Sometimes you feel like you’re sitting in a class back in high school doing memorization.”
Most people, says Matthew, even people who are familiar with theatre, don’t know what a swing does. It’s sort of a thankless job that no one really knows about, he laughs.
“Our job is literally to fill in the hole and not be noticed, and nobody should know anything is different.”
To be a successful swing, Matthew uses a system of notes and maps. It’s the same system he uses for understudying.
“I’m very visual,” he says, so he gets a printout of the stage diagram from stage management so he can draw out the sets for the scenes he’s in and map out where the actors are and what they do. He uses coloured dots for people and marks their movements with arrows. Underneath, he writes detailed notes.
“I just have lots of really good notes, and if I have to go on, I usually have it done so I can go through it really fast if I only have five minutes while I’m getting my costume on.”
He adds, “I watch a lot so I have a good visual memory to remember where people go and what they do and what patterns look like ... It’s a lot of work, oh, is it ever, but it’s fun.”
In The Sound of Music, he is an understudy and also a member of the ensemble, so if he is called in to take over as Rolfe, a swing will come in to play his ensemble part.
Matthew thanks his training at Dance Connection for the part it played in his being able to take on the responsibility of the swing.
“A lot of it comes from growing up and training here,” he says.
He and his fellow students often did five or six numbers in a day at competition, plus they travelled to various venues for intense training sessions where they might do six different numbers in a day, all in different styles, and have to retain all that choreography throughout.
“That really helps your brain in picking up stuff fast and remembering it, retaining it,” but he maintains his note-taking ability is still key.
Life at Stratford may be hard work, but Matthew enjoys it.
“I really like it there. I have a great time and I have created a little family there.”
Many of the same people come back year to year, so he can look forward to working with them again and again.
“It’s a really awesome place quality-wise and people-wise to work.”
While he’s in Stratford, he rents accommodation, usually from or with other actors.
“You’re always living with different people,” he says. “It’s really fun.”
When he’s not at Stratford, or working a “Christmas gig,” home is in Toronto, where he owns a condo with his partner, Ryan.
Matthew makes no secret about being gay.
“Honestly I’m completely open about it,” he says, “If people ask, I’m not ever shy about it.”
His friends in school didn’t know, although he says his close girlfriends say now they had an idea part way through Grade 12.
“But they weren’t ever certain and they never pressed the matter with me at all. My friends were incredibly supportive.”
Matthew says, “I think, though, ten years ago we didn’t have the shows on TV and YouTube like they do now. Nowadays the kids that are in high school at JP know what gays looks like.”
But that wasn’t so when he was in high school.
“I had friends in high school that were gay, too, and I didn’t know,” he says. “I didn’t see it in them and they didn’t see it in me. We could have been buddies, and talked about it, but we didn’t know.”
It’s a different generation today, he says.
“They are much more open and accepting of anyone being different anyway, because we are all different, at the end of the day.”
He was 18 and had just started his first year at the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria when he came out to his parents.
“Dad never had a problem with it and my mom came around. It took her a little while.”
Valerie Armet had always been supportive of her son’s interest in dance. She was a costume sewing mom and always helped with fundraisers.
Along with being a dance mom, she was a devoted hockey mom to her younger son, David.
Matthew had finished his two years at the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria, worked on a cruise ship for about eight months and had been in Toronto for almost a year when his mom passed away.
After her death at age 57, Matthew and David, who is now a journeyman electrician working in Saskatoon, created the Valerie Armet Memorial Scholarship in the name of the former head cheerleader for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The scholarship, awarded annually at the Battlefords Dance Festival, is for an individual who has competed in two or more solos, who exudes a strong heart and shows passion and dedication for performing.
Losing his mom left a void in Matthew’s life he couldn’t fill, because, he has said, “she was and still is the force that has brought me to where I am today.”
In 2010, he was able to co-create a special show that helped him deal with her loss.
He’d been taking dance classes from renowned choreography Faye Rauw, originally from Humboldt, when she said it would be a good time to create a show since there wasn’t much happening over the winter.
“So I went up to her after class and said, ‘I have this really great idea if you want to do it.’”
They collaborated on the project, with Matthew undertaking much of the creative process. Joining him were fellow Dance Connection alumni Natalie Krill and Kristi Frank as well as an ensemble.
“I basically made my own arts therapy.”
In one of the story lines for the show, “I played a character based on myself and Faye played a character based on my mom.”
He says, “Faye created a lot of the choreography, I had a lot of the directing and ideas and song choices.”
He even enlisted a friend who played the guitar to play some of the longs live, and he also had a friend play a cello for one number.
The show was about four individuals and how they deal with grief. They were all in the midst of a variety of personal struggles from the loss of a relationship to a troubled childhood.
“It was really good for me, and for all of us,” he says, “because Kristi and Natalie and a bunch of my other friends knew my mom or knew me and knew what I had been going through the two years before that when she had passed.”
They did four shows in Toronto at a small theatre they rented for the four days.
The Dance Connection is one of the benefactors Matthew saluted at the time as having contributed to being able to put Grief: A Common Bond together. He also thanked the staff at McKitrick School in North Battleford, the community of the Battlefords and his brother David.
“The show would not have been possible had it not been for the amazing support throughout the Battlefords community, both emotionally and financially,” he said at the time.
He looks back at it now as a positive experience, both as a form of therapy and a learning opportunity.
“It was a really cool experience.”
Maybe someday he’ll consider doing more producing or directing, or perhaps pursue arts therapy, but not anytime soon.
“I’m so into performing and doing all of that right now I haven’t thought about going into producing and directing, but I would love to a little bit later on,” he says. “I want to keep doing things while I can still dance and my body hasn’t fallen apart,” he laughs.
One thing he does want to add to his accomplishments on the near future is to play the guitar.
Matthew used to play trombone in his elementary school band, but says he hasn’t picked one up in ages. He also played piano, “barely,” in Grades 7 and 8, but says he doesn’t remember much.
“I’m going to teach myself guitar this year. My dad bought me a guitar for graduation for my first year of college, and I haven’t learned to play it yet,” he says. “That’s what I’m going to do in the green room at Carousel. I’m going to teach myself guitar.”