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January 2, 2014

Thunderbird Films’ Burnaby soundstage is Canada’s sitcom central


Glen Schaefer / The Province

A Burnaby soundstage has drawn a new style of young performer — teenaged entertainment prodigies with formidable multiple skill sets.

They’re working in the TV sitcom style — some scenes filmed before a live audience, performances bigger than film usually requires, and snappy dialogue with pauses to give the viewers and the live crowd the chance to catch up on rapid-fire gags.

Leading the latest charge is Ontario native Kolton Stewart, who stars in the new series Some Assembly Required as Jarvis Raines, a kid who takes over a toy company in a lawsuit after a chemistry-set mishap. The show’s premise has Jarvis hiring his school friends to help him run the factory.

“Everyone’s got a cool talent on this show,” Stewart said during a filming break. “We all hang out, we jam and play music together.”

Now 14, Stewart auditioned successfully for Ontario’s Stratford Theatre Festival at eight years old, looking for something to do after he was sidelined by a football injury. He spent two seasons at Stratford, then toured North America as Simba in The Lion King. After that he was featured on Ellen DeGeneres’ TV talk show after a singing duet he made with a friend went viral on YouTube.

Stewart’s Ellen appearance sold the new sitcom’s producers on him. Some Assembly Required started filming in August and will continue until February.

Sitcoms have taken hold in Canada over the past couple of years, a new cultural import from the U.S. This latest YTV sitcom is from B.C.’s Thunderbird Films, the writing-produced team behind the earlier hit sitcom Mr. Young. That show about a teenaged high school teacher lasted three seasons on YTV and the U.S. Disney XD channel, coming to an end when the cast got older.

On a typical Friday afternoon at the Some Assembly Required set, the audience of a couple hundred kids and their parents start filing into bleachers around 4:30 p.m. Dominating several three-walled sets is a toy-factory floor with a fanciful roller coaster running through it.

Lights and four cameras are pointing at the stage. Video monitors play the already finished pilot episode for the new show, giving the audience an idea of what to expect when filming starts.

Comedian Dave Dimapilis warms up the crowd, MCing several contests — who’s got the oldest phone, what’s the weirdest thing in someone’s pocket, who’s got the craziest dance moves. Then the set is lit up and the cast and crew take the stage.

Stewart and the rest of Some Assembly’s cast can seem like they sprung fully formed from some entertainment-industry genetics lab.

Just turned 15 is Calgary’s Charlie Storwick, who taught herself to play piano at age seven. She found herself the winner of the TV singing competition series Next Star Canada when she was 12, and nailed her first-ever acting audition — this role as a teen computer whiz who joins Jarvis at the toy factory.

“I went from singing into the mirror to singing on television,” Storwick said. She never took piano or singing lessons, saying figuring out complex piano chords was “like a puzzle.”

Acting is the latest new thing for Storwick. The producers brought a coach up from Los Angeles before filming started, to train the young cast in the sitcom style.

“Most of us are brand new to this,” Storwick said. “It’s really neat to see everyone progressing together as a group.”

Seventeen-year-old Harrison Houde grew up in Qualicum Beach, and started his own Youtube channel when he was eight, writing and filming his own short sketches and music parodies.

Sixteen-year-old Sydney Scotia, the Arizona-raised child of Canadian parents, said she stumbled into acting after dancing competitively since she was seven.

Castmate Travis Turner looks like one of those young prodigies, but in fact he’s in his 20s. He too started doing theatre as a teen in his hometown of Penticton, heading to Vancouver for acting training at Langara College in 2008.

Turner starred in the direct-to-video prequel Marley and Me: the Puppy years and did various guest spots on B.C-filmed TV before landing this job, his first series regular.

“Doing the live audience is a bit of a learning curve,” Turner said, adding they have to memorize an entire 22-page script for their big filming day, unlike the usual film or TV routine, of between three and 10 pages of script in a day.

“Once you get into it, it just becomes second nature,” Turner said.

We’ll take his word for it.

Also playing younger than his years is 21-year-old Dylan Playfair. As the sweetly dim extreme athlete Malcolm Knoxford III (AKA Knocks), he’s the guy who got held back a couple of grades.

“He’s a happy-go-lucky, energetic, crash-test-dummy kind of guy,” Playfair said.

Playfair’s early career trajectory was as a hockey player — his Dad is a coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, and Playfair played Junior A hockey in Merritt at 19.

“I had a couple of offers from U.S. schools, but my heart wasn’t in it,” he said

He came to Vancouver, took acting classes and quickly found work, parlaying his hockey skills into a role in the TV biopic The Gordie Howe Story, as one of Howe’s sons.

“I apply a lot of the same stuff I learned playing hockey to film,” said Playfair, sounding a bit like a coach doing the third-period pep talk. “There’s a luck aspect, but if you’re prepared when these opportunities come up, then you’ll end up working.”

Brendan Meyer, the now-19-year-old actor who came to fame on the previous series Mr. Young, has served as a friend and mentor to the new players, Stewart said. The two go over the Some Assembly scripts together.

“He told me ‘You’ve got to make sure you have fun,’” Stewart said, adding that he’s also taking inspiration from his castmates.

“I want to be a musician as well as an actor,” he said. “There are things I want to do that people are already doing here. We’ll see what happens.”

TV premiere Some Assembly Required Where, when: YTV, Monday 6:30 p.m. PT/ET