The experiential programs at Whitehorse’s Wood Street School are known for providing practical, hands-on learning to those students lucky enough to get in. 

Each of the three programs attracts distinct groups of students who must complete an often rigourous and competitive application process. 

The science-based programs for Grades 9, 10 and 11 offer 25 to 30 days outdoors, and include canoeing, winter camping, and snowshoeing. And there is the option of doing these classes in French.

They all combine aspects of science and social studies, as well as physical and outdoor education, and award the appropriate credits upon completion. 

The school also offers a class for Grades 9 and 10 students that combines multiple subjects into a comprehensive program, which has Yukon First Nations studies at the forefront, as well as English, social studies, and outdoor education.

And finally, the somewhat appropriate shining star of the Wood Street School: the Music, Art, and Drama program, called MAD. It’s the go-to program for Yukon youth who dream of pursuing the arts. 

Selina Heyligers-Hare knew she wanted to be in MAD long before she was even eligible. 

“Ever since I was little I had been going to the haunted houses and the winter shows MAD puts on,” she says. “And I knew I wanted to do it some day.”

Heyligers-Hare is currently in Grade 11, and has been returning to MAD since Grade 9. She plays guitar and sings lead vocals in the band Dead Simple, which recently placed second in the Battle of the Bands competition. Also playing piano and clarinet, she feels the MAD program offers more than a regular high school band class could.

“In regular high school there are some classes that I would like to be in, but also others I don’t really need for the direction I’m going,” she says. “Being in MAD – this is what I want to do with my life – so it makes me really happy to know that I’m pursuing what I want to do.

“MAD also really pushes your boundaries. If you’re a shy person they force you to break out of your shell. It’s also a lot of hard work. Every day you’re doing a lot. There are a lot of deadlines, and memorizing lines takes time. I feel like there may be more homework at a regular high school, but in MAD there’s more work at school.”

The MAD students are currently working on a musical production of Willy Wonka, a.k.a. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Heyligers-Hare and her peers are already hard at work creating masks and getting into their roles for the show, which runs from May 22 to 29. 

“I just love seeing our ideas come to life,” she says. “Especially in this play – I’m so excited to start making the set and the costumes. It’s going to be so awesome and out of this world.”

The MAD program has been a part of the community for 20 years, utilizing the Yukon Arts Centre when it first opened, and then moving to the Wood St. School about 10 years later. 

Jeff Nordlund and Mary Sloan have been running the show together since the early days, and their program has continued to grow in popularity. Each year more and more students apply, yet the class space remains the same. 

“We have a fairly rigourous application process because we have so many kids apply,” Sloan says. “This year we had about 100 kids apply, and most were for the first semester. By the time we got the first semester narrowed down we had 35 and we can only take 30. I think we took 31.”

The MAD program splits into two semesters. In the first semester of the school year they accept Grades 9 and 10 students, and the second semester Grades 11 and 12. However, because the interest has been much greater for the first semester they are going to change things a little next year. 

“Next year the first semester will be Grade 9 and 10 (students) who haven’t taken MAD yet, and then second semester will be returning MAD 10s, 11s and 12s,” Sloan says. “The second semester, especially for those kids thinking of going into theatre as a career, it’s a really good program. To me, this is what education should be. Everybody here wants to be here. The teachers want to be here. The kids want to be here. Everything they’re doing has a purpose and the end product is going to be seen by hundreds of people.”

Emily Farrell attended MAD from Grades 9 through 12 and graduated in 2003. After her time at MAD she studied theatre at Humber College in Toronto and has continued to put her theatre and stage knowledge to work. Farrell has stage managed for Gwaandak Theatre, Dawson City Music Festival, The Palace Grand Theatre, and countless others. She also produced the last season of Live at The Palace Grand. For her latest project she is back in Dawson City once again to work in the production office for the Gold Rush television show on the Discovery Channel. 

“MAD was definitely the beginning of that stuff for me,” Farrell says. “Probably the biggest thing it helped me prepare for was going to post-secondary theatre school. Mary Sloan, Jeff Nordlund, and the MAD program were a total blessing in my education and definitely formative for my career.

“It was the fact that I got to do practical, hands-on learning. We did do bookwork, and we did lots of reading of scripts and that kind of thing, but we spent probably 90 per cent of our time doing studio work. So it was physical and really engaging, and at the time it was just really what I wanted to do.”

While she gives MAD much credit, Farrell has put a lot of work into getting where she is today. Before she ever had jobs as a stage manager she volunteered for numerous smaller theatre productions and music festivals to learn the ropes. 

So while MAD and the other programs at the Wood Street School may not be a magic bullet to success, for people like Heyligers-Hare and Farrell who have known what they’ve wanted from a young age and have been willing to work for it, the Wood Street School programs are a terrific opportunity. 

“We learned work ethic, dedication, doing everything on time and being committed to a project,” Farrell says. “All those things help in any job, actually, and they helped me.”

Carl Christensen is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer