Open letter turns eyes to theatre department
author: mac brock | a&c editor
Bad Blood director’s letter to students has some on the defence.
All eyes have been on the University of Regina theatre department since the release of an open letter by Bad Blood director Joey Tremblay last month. The MAP faculty partnered with local company Curtain Razors Theatre, for which Tremblay serves as artistic director, to present the department’s winter production.
The production, which chronicled Tremblay’s tumultuous journey through the Canadian healthcare system, featured an all-star alumni cast helmed by local comedian and frequent sessional instructor Jayden Pfeifer. The production led to a hit success, becoming the best-selling show for the department in nearly two decades and receiving acclaim from local audiences and Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck. The Carillon’s review called the show a “spectacle of a production…so enjoyable and captivating to an audience.”
“It was awesome to have been part of making such a great production,” said one student, who was a part of the show’s ensemble.
Though students traditionally make up the principal cast of the theatre department’s major productions, the faculty opted instead to partner with Curtain Razors to give students an additional opportunity to work alongside working artists in a more contemporary professional theatre setting. Students were cast in a supporting choral ensemble alongside the main cast.
“The students I worked with were wonderful…I actually think the blend of having students and professionals in the same show gave the show its heart,” said Tremblay of the show’s process.
Some students raised concern with the lack of speaking roles for student actors. “The work for the students in the class was much more concentrated on creative exploration and devising rather than pure acting and acting development,” said one ensemble member. “It is a different kind of learning, very much background learning…I think the attitude of the students who were involved in the production from beginning to end was just…hopeful.”
Another student of the faculty, who did not take part in the production, added that “the last time Joey worked at the university was a great experience for all the students involved…there was actually a lot of excitement to work with Joey.” Though they knew of “students for sure who seemed greatly upset” about the process, they noted that it “didn’t seem to be the norm.”
In her Carillon piece about the production, contributor and fourth-year theatre student Nicole Garies wrote, “To the great dismay of some students (including myself), it felt as though we were being left behind.” The ensemble was mostly comprised of younger-year students, alumni, or students outside of the department. Her perception of the production changed upon seeing the show, as she continues in her article to “express my deepest regrets to the unfortunate stigma,” adding that “I understand now the intention…to build not only a community of actors, but a home, an experience in integrating the world of student and professional to look back on for years to come.”
On March 24, five days after the show’s nearly sold-out closing performance, the celebratory tone shifted drastically. Tremblay posted an open letter addressed “to the Senior Students of the U of R Theatre Department” from the Curtain Razors public Facebook page. The letter addressed the students’ complaints about the project, calling their rejection of the opportunity “beyond comprehension.” He continued to write that students:
don’t want to be part of this community and [students] don’t care about new work…The senior students rejected the opportunity to be a part of the ensemble that would be instrumental in creating BAD BLOOD. Fair enough – you are free to make choices. But realize in a small community there are consequences to your choices. You burned a bridge… if you care to work with me and my company, I suggest you figure out a way to repair the bridge.
The post received a great deal of positive attention from the community, who called the letter “crucial to building strong community” and called Tremblay a “trailblazer.”
Students felt the initial shock right away. “It was unnecessary,” said one student. “It felt like we were put on trial for a lot of strangers who didn’t know anything about us.”
Tremblay, on the other hand, was surprised by the reaction. “I wasn’t shaming anyone,” he explained. “I wrote the open letter to explain that the perception from my end was an outright rejection of the project.”
The show, which has been in development for years, was selected as a combined effort between Curtain Razors and the MAP faculty to provide a collaborative opportunity between the senior students and a professional company.
“I worked tirelessly for two years actually, to fundraise and devise this co-production with the university theatre department,” said Tremblay in an email to the Carillon. “The bulk of Curtain Razors operations was focused on creating an opportunity for young performers to have an entry point into the profession…it was just a mystery to me that other students didn’t want to participate.”
Senior students took opposition to the reasoning behind their absence.
“There are roughly six senior students,” one student said. “Half of the students weren’t in the show, but the other half were involved.”
“The success of the show is exactly why I think the open letter was completely unnecessary,” says another student. “The students that chose not to be part of the production have their reasons, it should not have been taken personally.”
Since 2012, the theatre department has been offered as Bachelor of Arts. The transition from the fine arts faculty made the U of R one of the only academic institutions in the country not to offer a BFA option for theatre.
“People don’t realize that this is a class,” one student said, explaining that the BA option means the academic structure “doesn’t allow us to spend every waking moment on the show like conservatory programs do. People need to work, they need to keep their health in check, and they need to take classes that overlap with the rehearsal times.”
Their frustrations also extended to the rehearsal process for the show itself, adding that the show “had extra rehearsals outside the class time when students weren’t there…you’re always being caught up and things are changed…because the students aren’t there, roles and jobs within the show get assigned to other people.”
“We’re a small department,” one student says. “We cannot take every class the department offers, and sometimes those classes are the show being put on. No other student in any other department has to justify why they aren’t taking a class, and neither should we.”
Tremblay hopes students see the purpose in the letter and use it as a learning opportunity.
“The complexity of being a student is real,” he says. “But I was offering a prime opportunity in the profession you are studying. Make it work.”
Many students are reported to have written Tremblay since Bad Blood opened, and more since the letter was posted.
“It shows a great deal of maturity to send a letter to address the issue,” Tremblay responds. “The lesson in this for all students is that people work with people they build relationships with…it has very little to do with talent.”
Tremblay ended his correspondence with the Carillon with one closing thought: “Here’s my basic rule for building a cast…. The company has to be asshole free. Check egos at the door. If you can’t, then don’t work with me.”
Editor’s note: Student’s comments have been made anonymous. Multiple students declined to comment. The MAP faculty also declined to comment.