Interview with Matt Lacas of We Are Here Productions
Updated: Sep 19, 2019
This week, I had the opportunity to interview Matt Lacas, the founder of We Are Here Productions, a theatre company based in Toronto, Ontario that works to create art for tangible aid worldwide. Founded in 2017, We Are Here has staged two In Concert performances of musicals benefiting a variety of charities; In the Heights for Puerto Rico, and Heathers for The Canadian Mental Health Association. This week, their third production, Urinetown the Musical: In Concert Benefiting WaterAid Canada takes the stage at the Wychwood Theatre. I have always been interested in the work of We Are Here, and I am so excited to have the opportunity to learn more about this company and to share it here!
What was the inspiration behind We Are Here?
I’ve been getting that question a lot lately, but it’s a good story.
It was late 2017 and there were a lot of tragedies going on in the world. A big one at the time was Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. I was in a ride share from Montreal to Toronto and when you look online, everyone is changing their Facebook profile and giving their prayers and blessings; hoping that things are going to be okay. But the Red Cross was out there looking for money, and being an artist in Toronto, I’m living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way I was going to give them anything, so I was feeling upset in the car that I couldn’t do anything. I felt really helpless and that feeling helped propel me to get to the point to start a company like We Are Here.
What happened was that the following night, I went out to Statlers in the Village, and went to Singular Sensation, hosted by Jeni Walls, a musical theatre open mic night. I was sitting there with some friends and we were talking about why theatre companies would never do In the Heights. I said, ‘That’s silly. We could look around this open mic night right now and cast In the Heights.’I got up onstage, and I said, “By the end of the month, I’m gonna put on In the Heights.” When I woke up the next morning, there were a couple emails and messages saying, “If you’re serious, I want in”.
Then I scrambled for thirty days and put up In the Heights for Puerto Rico. We raised ten grand and next thing I knew, someone was asking me ‘What’s next?’ Suddenly, I had a theatre company.
What happened was that I bit off more than I could chew, and the community really came in to save me to put on this wonderful little show and made a lot of money. We kind of realized that if we did it once, we can do it again; so We Are Here was born.
Where did the name We Are Here come from?
When you’re applying for rights for a musical or show, you have to write down your production company name. When I got to that section for the first time, for In the Heights, I hadn’t thought of this as a company. I had thought of it like a ‘one-off’ thing because someone said In the Heights was impossible to do.
I was listening to Dear Evan Hansen a lot at the time, and there’s a lot of “I am here”, “We are here for you”, and “We Are Here” just really jumped out. I wasn’t going to call it “Matt Lacas Productions”, so I was trying to figure it out. We Are Here sprung to mind, and I didn’t really think too much about it.
Next thing I knew, when we decided to push forward as a company, we had this great name already. I enjoy the name of the company as the name encompasses exactly what we do and it was a stroke of luck that it came about.
Did you ever think of doing something like this before, using theatre to create tangible change?
Yes, and no. For most of that question, it’s no. The way I’ve kind of viewed art and theatre for the majority of my life has been quite selfish. It’s been ‘I do art because I want to tell a story’, ‘I do art because I want to be onstage’. I never thought I would own a company, I was never that person in theatre school who was like ‘I’m going to leave theatre school and make my own work, I’m going to provide work for others.’ It was always about ‘how am I going to get the next gig?’, ‘where am I going?’ I was looking out for number one.
Then this happened, and when we did Heights, it was still slightly selfish. It’s a show that I had always wanted to be a part of and do, but through giving back to Puerto Rico, I learned a lot about Puerto Rico and their struggles.
Charity feels great, especially to do something with art. I have a couple of skill sets; but the skill set that is the biggest part of my identity, is theatre and film and acting. So to find something new within that skill set that I can do is super exciting. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day, it opened up an entirely new door that I never thought was there.
I think that’s when I realized what we could do, when we raised ten thousand dollars for Puerto Rico. It’s not a terribly large amount, but for theatre, with a community paying twenty dollars a ticket, it was a big deal. It kind of cemented the feeling of succeeding in that way. I know that money went to a good place, and the money we made when we did Heathers went to The Canadian Mental Health Association, I know that money went somewhere good as well and that’s a good feeling.
How do you balance a career as a performer in the industry with your charity work?
It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t really versed in how to run a company. It’s one of those things where I’ve made some mistakes, and I’ve learned a lot of things in the last year on how to balance being a performer and running a company.
I’m lucky that the role of Producer is mostly sending emails; showing up to things or talking on the phone, which is something I can do from anywhere in the world. I was performing out in British Columbia when I was getting prepared for Heathers, so when I got home all the dominoes were set up, and all I had to do was knock things over.
I still haven’t found the balance yet, honestly. We kept the idea of putting on shows in thirty days, so when the show is happening, it takes over my life for those thirty days. Every day I work for at least eight hours on the show in some capacity, otherwise it won’t get done.
That’s also because I’m terrible at delegating. As a performer, it’s a solo job. It’s “You vs. The World” or however you want to look at it, but it’s you putting in the time to make yourself better and you can’t really delegate that out to anybody. So my balance problem so far is that while there are lots of people who want to help me, I have a hard time expressing how I can get them to help because I’m not used to that.
Urinetown has been great step and I’ve got a couple of people taking on jobs that I usually do. Rosie Callaghan is running Front of House, I have Scott Moyle as our Intimacy and Fight Director, and Rachelle Bradley as our costume designer. These people have taken on odd jobs within this show that I can’t imagine doing now, so the balance is getting better.
What comes first, the cause or the show?
There’s a couple of mandates to the company. Once I decided we were going to be a company, the mandate was already set, “art for tangible aid for those worldwide”, but what’s the criteria for something like that?
One of the small mandates of the company is “to do shows people actually want to see”. I will never do Hairspray, or Mamma Mia; I will never do something that is being done all over Canada. I feel like I don’t have a budget, so if I were to do Mamma Mia, you could see a better production elsewhere. But Urinetown, for example, is a show that hasn’t been done professionally in Toronto in over a decade. The last company to do it was CanStage.
We choose a show that people want to see, then we look at the themes or the central facet of that show, and then choose a charity that links. The reason we do that is because I want audiences, when they’re sitting there – I don’t want to beat them over the head with it; but I want them to be able to see something their money could possibly be going towards. It’s a reminder of the possible change they could make.
A big one was Heathers. It was about mental health, and there was a lot of bullying in the show, as well as talk of suicide. It’s important to destigmatize that particular conversation, but it’s also important to let the audiences know that the money they are putting forward will have a positive change. Some of the characters onstage get that support from other characters, who are the audience members in some way. I want the audience to reflect and see themselves in one of the characters.
Your mandate is “art for tangible aid for those worldwide” would you say that sums up your overall mission, or is there anything else you would like to add?
Overall, yes. That is the mission and idea behind the company. Now that the company has evolved and we’re finding where we sit within the community, there are a couple other things I would love people to know us for. One of them is taking chances.
In terms of casting, we try to find the best person for the job; it has nothing to do with the way they look, it has nothing to do with the way they look next to another person. At the end of the day, we try and go with if you’re good, you’re in the show.
For example, we had the very first transgender performer to play Usnavi in the history of In the Heights with Heath V. Salazar. We didn’t mean for it to happen and I didn’t realize it until someone else said something later. Heath came in, killed the rap audition, and we were like, “We found our Usnavi, thank God!”
Now with Urinetown, there are some people who might look a little award next to each other, but that didn’t matter to us. I would love people to know that when we say we are inclusive and open, that it’s true.
Your work is mostly volunteer-based, what is the process of finding like-minded people like?
It comes and goes. We’ve had a lot of good reception. The interest in the shows is always quite high because I think part of me saying “I want to do shows people want to see”, kind of goes double for performers as “shows people want to perform”. So even though the work is unpaid, people have seen the show and want to be a part of it.
I think people understand that I’m simply just another actor. At the end of the day, I’m not a famous actor, I’m not even an actor who works full time as an actor. I have a bartending job (side job) just like everybody else. So, I think people understand that I’m not in a position to pay. Eventually, I would love to pay people their worth, and I think everyone who works with us deserves full equity money every time they work for me. I would like to get to that point.
I will say that there have been people who I’ve approached whether it be a musician or an actor, that have said that despite loving the idea of the project, they aren’t in a position to work for free. I’ve gotten a lot of “Noes” throughout the process, but that’s okay. It’s normal. My mother always told me, “It’s okay to ask, just be prepared for the no. And be okay with having someone say no.” So I always go back to those people. If you said no the first time, but said you liked the idea behind the project, I will most likely message you again to see if you’re still interested in coming on board.
You mentioned having a lot of people come on board for creative team positions for various shows, but do you have a core team at We Are Here?
Right now, I don’t. The closest thing I have to another team member is my musical director. Quinton Naughton. He’s the other half of this company, really. He is much more behind the scenes and the music; everything that you hear when you come to a show. I do lean on him a lot, but that needs to change. We bring other people on for shows, but right now, it’s a two man team of Quinton and myself.
There are a couple things that really need to happen within this company for it to really flourish, and one of those things is to put together an actual administration team to help me with writing grants, pushing the company forward, and making decisions. I’m not perfect, I’m never going to make the right decision every time. To have a group of people I trust who understand what the company is doing and want to see it succeed, for me to go to those people and get their opinions and trust that they are doing it for the best interest of the company, I need that.
How have your productions progressed as your company has evolved?
It’s changed a lot. In the Heights was a scramble to put up because of the time limit I’d given myself and the fact that I didn’t know how the process worked. Once we had a cast and began rehearsing, it became very obvious, very quickly, that the group of people who came forward were so talented that sticking them behind a music stand would be a disservice to them.
So, we started to stage the show, very simply, and no choreography. In the Heights is a bit of a park and bark in terms of some of the music, or is very acting heavy. You can make it dance heavy as well, I know the original production has quite a bit of dance in it, but you can take that away and still tell the story quite well. There was one dance break in that show, where we tried to choreograph something very quickly, and I commend the actors for executing it as well as they could with only six hours of preparation. From that point, I realized that we could do that kind of stuff if we prepared for it.
Heathers was a big jump in terms of adding things to a concert. For example, Heathers has very specific costumes for the three Heathers and Veronica, so we made sure that happened. Michelle Shuester was our choreographer for that show and she came in and really pushed dance. The cast took it on really well. If they didn’t see Heights, I think I had been slightly unclear about what Heathers was going to be as an “In Concert” show with staging. I think some of them thought that they were just going to be standing behind a music stand and I want to make sure that never happened again, that no one came into the show not expecting to do more than what was expected in terms of an “In Concert” performance. It was a big jump in production as we even added a few set pieces to set the scene. It was a bit more expensive for me, but at the end of the day I was really happy with the product. I was happy to put the money in and give a better show.
Now, with Urinetown, we’ve just kind of continued this path. Urinetown isn’t as dance heavy as Heathers, it’s a lot of marching and a lot of formations. I found a choreographer that could do that in Mason Micevski and he has done a fantastic job.
I think from this point, the next step is to drop the “In Concert” and put on full productions. The next step is to go from being the company that does concert shows to a company that just does shows.
How would you describe your process now?
In the Heights was a bit of a scramble, but it did teach me a lot of things. It taught me what worked, what didn’t. Then I took that information and went to Heathers, found some more things that didn’t work in my process, that weren’t efficient and clean.
Urinetown, for the most part, has gone according to plan in terms of the process. There were a couple bumps in the road and this and that, but overall, everything has worked out, scheduling wise, and I found what I needed for props.
Friday, May 31st will be the first time I have ever had the full cast in the same room. Right now it’s three productions that I never have the entire company in the same room until opening night. Since we work for free, if someone can’t come to rehearsal for their day job, I can’t be angry at that. I know the struggle it is to pay rent here in Toronto, and that has to come first. They’re all professionals, and I trust that they will do the work at home if we provide them with videos and song sheets to be ready the next time we go through everything.
But that is just a testament to how great they are. Even though there are missing pieces, the puzzle still comes together. So the process has been better and cleaner. There are still things to improve, but there is an upward trajectory there.
Would you like to describe your production of Urinetown and your vision?
Urinetown is a show people want to see, and it’s one of my favourite shows. We’ve only put on three productions, but they’ve been three productions of shows I would kill to be in as an actor. That’s a bit of the selfishness behind it. When I knew we were doing Urinetown, I wanted to do something water related and WaterAid Canada jumped out during my search.
To say anything else about the show, the cast that we assembled is just out of this world. I am very proud of the choices we’ve made and the people who have come on board. Equity has been so kind in the last couple shows to give us concessions and special agreements to use Equity performers. It’s not like the whole show is Equity, but there are a couple performers who are of that caliber in terms of union status.
But talent-wise, I think everyone in the company could be a union member if they wanted. They just walked into rehearsal and learned so quickly. I set up rehearsals for two weeks to learn the music and they did it in five days. It moved very quickly and was a real gift. A gift I didn’t know how to handle because I’ve never had a team work so quickly.
We sell it as an “In Concert” performance. I like to under-promise and over-deliver. The concert itself, it’s not truly a concert. We have music stands onstage and we have books, but we staged the whole show and everyone has costumes and props. Honestly it is a full production without the set, because that is a big money part I can’t figure out yet. When people read “Urinetown In Concert”, if they think they’re coming in and are just thinking they’re going to just see people behind music stands, they’re going to have a great time because they’re going to get so much more than that.
Also, by saying it’s “In Concert”, there are a few things I want to keep true to that. We keep the music stands, and we have sections of the show where they are just standing behind music stands. It’s important to me to keep that to be honest to what the show is. Anything we give extra is just that, it’s extra; it’s wonderful, it helps the audience sink their teeth into the show.
Urinetown for example, doesn’t get done a lot. A lot of people in the cast were like ‘I’ve heard the music but never read the script’ or ‘I’ve never seen a production of it’, so by staging it, even though it’s a concert, we get to show the audience what the show is all about.
How can people get involved with We Are Here?
We have social media. We have Facebook and Instagram; mainly because those are the things I use. I’ve been told I need to get a Twitter, so I'm working on that. Once Urinetown is done and I have footage of three different shows with lots of photos and things to say about the work we’ve done, the next step will be getting a professional website out.
You can reach out on Facebook or Instagram, you can also reach out to me personally. I’m always happy to talk about the company. Beggars can’t be choosers, so if you have something you’re willing to offer to the company, to a show, I’m always going to say yes. No matter what it is, if you want to help, who am I to say no?
That’s the weirdest part about this in terms of casting, because really, everyone is fighting over a couple of roles, but they’re all volunteering their time. It’s a little awkward, for me anyways, to say someone can’t be in a volunteer show.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just a big thank you!
Thank you for taking your time to give me an email and a call, I appreciate that. And a thank you to anyone who’s going to read it and share it; anyone who has ever helped the company. I think that it’s important to make sure people know that I appreciate the help and the collaboration.
This company wouldn’t exist without the community behind it and the large amount of help this community has put in to make this company viable. So, a big thank you!
Urinetown the Musical: In Concert Benefitting WaterAid Canada is onstage at the Wychwood Theatre at 601 Christie in Studio 176 from Friday, May 31st to June 2nd at 8pm. Tickets are $30 and are available at brownpapertickets.com. Be sure to follow We Are Here Productions on Facebook and Instagram to stay tuned on all of their future endeavours!