Surrey-raised starlet leads choreography in ‘James and the Giant Peach’

VANCOUVER — It’s not a typical experience for young people who are fresh out of post-secondary to land their dream job right away. But for Cloverdale-raised Kayla Dunbar, she’s been acting and dancing her way to success since before graduation.

The 26-year-old actress, whose most recent credits include playing the lead role of Kate Monster in this year’s Arts Club’s Avenue Q, a lovable — if raunchy — puppet-based adult play featuring Sesame Street-esque characters, is a recent graduate of Langara College’s Studio 58 program, but is already making rounds in the Vancouver theatre circuit.

“I kind of had a little bit of a foot in the door before, so I had contacts when I graduated,” Dunbar admitted, adding that she acted in a production of Hairsprayand the Wizard of Ozbefore graduation.

“I was one of the lucky ones. It doesn’t happen for everybody, but I somehow just had everything lined up,” she said.

The statement, though it may be true, seems modest for the relatively young Dunbar, who hasn’t stopped working at her craft since the age of 12.

Shortly after taking dance lessons as a pre-teen, she realized she could sing and got a scholarship to a musical theatre camp at Surrey Arts Centre. She then transferred from Clayton Heights Secondary to Langley Fine Arts School to pursue acting. And, when she’s not taking the stage, you can find her assistant-teaching acting classes at Granville Island’s Carousel Theatre for Young People or instructing dance at Surrey Arts Centre’s musical-theatre intensives.

Working with kids, it seems, is something Dunbar just can’t get away from.

“I think I just naturally gravitated towards children’s theatre,” she said. “It kind of found me.”

Now choreographing at CTYP for the heartwarming James and the Giant Peach, the classic Roald Dahl story about an unwanted orphan who stumbles upon a giant magical peach and embarks on a fantastical adventure, Dunbar is finding her passion in working with kids.

“(Carousel) didn’t even know I had a huge background in teaching kids and wrking with kids a lot,” she told the Now. “I just think children’s theatre is so important, it’s something that I’m very passionate about now.”

Her secret to making it all work? Treating the kids like they’re adults, she says.

“We’re not treating Julian any different,” she said of the show’s star, 11-year-old Julian Lokash, who plays the role of James. “But I think it’s because Julian is really stepping up and it’s because our cast is so professional. It’s made him really step up to the plate, but he’s still a kid.”

As with young Julian, Dunbar employs the same type of thinking when teaching intensives at Surrey Arts Centre.

“At the intensive, we really try to treat kids as professionals,” she revealed. “We give them a little bit more respect than is sometimes given in a fun, musical theatre class. I was pushed really hard when I was 15 and 16 and it made me really want to do it. I think it’s a good thing for kids to know what it’s really like. This is a hard business but if they can overcome that and actually still want to do it, it’s really important.”

And though the upcoming James and the Giant Peach, presented at Granville Island’s Waterfront Theatre, in centred on a classic children’s story, Dunbar maintains that there’s something for everyone.

“The music is so sophisticated for a kids’ show, it’s so jazzy and uptown and Broadway, it’s so fun,” she exclaims, speaking excitedly about the choreography that goes along with it.

“Sometimes you’ll find that, in children’s theatre, there’s not a lot of money put into it or not as much thought and care, but this one really is a show for everybody. I can say that honestly.”

James and the Giant Peach opens this Saturday (Dec. 6) and runs until Jan. 4 at Granville Island’s Waterfront Theatre. Tickets range from $18 to $35 and can be purchased online at Carouseltheatre.ca or by calling 604-685-6217.