U of R theatre department looks to increase its visibility with new season
“Sometimes we get forgotten, and we need to do a better job of drawing attention to ourselves,” said theatre department head Kathleen Irwin. “And that’s very critical in the current economic climate because [if] we can’t draw attention to ourselves, we become forgotten and lose budget.”
Irwin’s department may be experiencing the squeeze of difficult economic times and declining attendance, but it is trying its hardest to not be forgotten by the university.
With attendance that has seemed to be steadily declining since 2006, the department has never come close to filling the 425-seat University Theatre in the last five years. Average seat attendance has declined from 185 seats per performance in the University Theatre in 2008-09, to 128 seats in 2010-11. The department has also seen a tightening of the purse strings for its productions, forcing it to downsize its productions each year.
“Most areas in the university are suffering from economic constraints right now, but within the theatre department economic constraints means reduced production, and reduced production means a reduction in our pedagogy,” Irwin said. “Our production and our pedagogy are linked completely. Without our productions we have no pedagogy”
Keeping productions afloat is key for the education of the students in the theatre program. The performances the department puts on every year are the final project to a semester’s worth of work.
Not everyone seems to appreciate the effort the students are putting in. Katy Tacik, a fourth-year acting student, is well acquainted with audiences that don’t take the productions as seriously as they would other class projects.
“When we did String of Pearls last year, we had a few rude people in the audience every night who would talk or shuffle papers,” Tacik said. “We saw some people asleep in the audience … It sucks when they’re forced to come for a class and they don’t take it seriously. This is like a class for us, and we put a lot of hard work into it, so the fact [they’re] being very rude and disregarding our hard work kind of sucks.”
But this season, the theatre department is running four “playful” productions that the department hopes will engage the student body in ways they haven’t done before.
“‘Playful’ is sort [of our] rubric we’re using for this season,” Irwin said. “We wanted something that would be catchy and fun. And I thought ‘playful’ fit the bill for that. It’s a little play on words, really.”
The season is scheduled to open with the department’s offering for the university’s centennial celebrations, The Passion Play, an “innovative hybrid-film-theatre installation piece acclaimed for its inventive take on the archival silent-film masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc”, which will be showing in the Shu-Box.
The department will then focus its efforts on Schoolhouse, the department’s first large-scale performance of the season and the first production of the season to use the open audition process.
“Opening up our casting process to the general student body [is] a way of making people aware of what we’re doing, and also to invite them into the department,” Irwin said. “Opening the casting to the student body gives us a range of types to cast from…. [I]t’s successful in allowing people who are enrolled in another area to dabble in the fine arts, to dabble in theatre, and to satisfy whatever creative needs they have.”
This open audition process generally seems to be working for both the department and the students.
“It was cool seeing people, like the younger students within the department, coming up to audition and people from outside of the department coming to audition, which I hadn’t seen before because I haven’t been involved in other productions that have open auditions,” Tacik said.
But with open auditions comes competition, which is something that Tacik didn’t see coming.
“[Gerald Lenton-Young, the director] didn’t make it seem like a big deal, [so] I wasn’t as well prepared as I should have been, whereas other people memorized their scenes and put a lot into it. So, I got a bit lazy I guess,” Tacik said.
But Tacik noted the open-audition process was extremely beneficial, even if she didn’t get as big a part as she had hoped.
“I mean, it was probably a true to life audition experience because Gerald didn’t really give feedback after we read our scenes … [but] I think it’s a good way to keep you on your toes,” she said.
The open-audition process isn’t the only way the department likes to keep the student body on their toes. This season, the theatre department has a few new tricks up its sleeve to reach out to a broader student body.
“The open audition process is one of our chief means [of getting students involved], but we are also always trying to aim the work that we do at various populations [on campus],” Irwin said.
“One of our efforts over the past couple of years is to make links with the First Nations University [of Canada] and to open up our process to indigenous youth,” Irwin said.
The department will host a playwright-in-residence this year, Yvette Nolan, in hopes of bridging the gap between the theatre department and the First Nations Univeristy.
“[Nolan will be] working on a script that has yet to be determined, but my hope is that it will be a script that will offer opportunities to aboriginal youth and non-aboriginal students in a way that many plays simply don’t or are not appealing to aboriginal students”, Irwin said.
The department is also working with the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) to subsidize one professional actor to come in and work with students on a production. But even with efforts like this, Irwin admits that it is “increasingly difficult to bring students into the area of theatre.”
There are a whole host of reasons for why it is difficult to draw students into the faculty of fine arts, but Irwin notes that one of the most important reasons is because careers in theatre aren’t usually very well-paying.
“In this climate, this economic climate, this political climate, a return on your education seems to be the prime motivation for going to school,” Irwin said. “[But] the financial return is not the only reason for getting a fine arts education. [There are] many other reasons for getting a fine arts [or] liberal arts education and that is just to educate the whole person, [to] cultivate an inquisitive, creative mind that is going to serve you no matter what you do.”
Irwin believes that this mindset keeps the theatre department moving forward in its attempts to become more visible to the student body.
“We’re trying to appear a little more out there in the public sphere and to try and, I think, give the sense to students that through theatre, you can open your eyes to the rest of the world.”