Revival takes students beyond the stage

Adela Talbot // Western News

English and Writing Studies professor Kim Solga, along with an interdisciplinary team of colleagues, has revived the theatre on campus. One of her students, Caitlin Austin, is pictured below during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche last month, and with Stratford’s statue of William Shakespeare, outside of the Festival Theatre.

Theatre thrived on campus when poet and playwright James Reaney taught at Western from 1960 until 1992. It was the ‘heyday of performance’ in what was then known as the Department of English.

The theatre workshop of the time – a major player in the department’s history – was shut down in a round of budget cuts in the 1990s.

“It was one of those things you trim,” said Kim Solga, who teaches in the Department of English and Writing Studies today.

But a revival is coming.

THEATRESTUDIES_nuitblanche

Over the years, English professors still taught drama and performances, including Summer Shakespeare, continued to be produced, even though theatre had no formal home. That is, until now. With an interdisciplinary team from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, Solga formed the Theatre Studies program – now in its first year.

“We didn’t want to become something we’re not. We can’t have a conservatory program – we don’t have the resources for that – but we do have a whole whack of people here (in the department), and in Arts & Humanities, who are into performance in a variety of incarnations,” Solga said of the program’s recent formation.

Going forward, Theatre Studies will allow students in English and Writing Studies to pursue either a major or a minor module, topping their studies off with a capstone course called Destination Theatre. This course will take students to a major theatre city for a short residency to learn about the culture of theatre and what it means to be a working artist.

When she came to Western in 2005, Solga joined Joanna Devereux, M.J. Kidnie and Allan Pero, among other faculty members in the department, who had a background in theatre and performance. For years, things chugged along as she and her colleagues taught drama and included performance components in their classes.

Across the faculty, colleagues had expertise not only in traditional English drama, but in other European traditions, as well as queer performance, performance for social justice, First Nations theatre, dramaturgy and directing. This multi-faceted approach to theatre was what emerged as a would-be strength of a standalone Theatre Studies program.

“We’ve initiated this program with the goal of being multidisciplinary. That multidisciplinary perspective will give us the opportunity to give students not just Canadian traditions, not just British traditions, but other langue traditions in North America, around the world, European directors, sexuality and performance, race and performance, and so on,” Solga explained. “I’m thrilled. This gives us a place to live, to share and make knowledge together and to give the students those options.”

While Western doesn’t have the resources to form its own drama school, this kind of diverse program offering sets the program apart from similar programs in the country.

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“We’re working to make this a really eclectic experience of what theatre and performance means in the world today and, I hope, that’s where we will make our mark,” Solga said.

“We tried to look at interesting, innovative courses elsewhere, looked at best practices and we created a program rooted in scholarship, reading and thinking about what it means to watch theatre as a critical audience member, what it means to understand a play as a piece of dramaturgy for the stage. It also includes hands-on courses at Stratford.”

Current students, the first for the program, are taking core courses this term, and have taken trips to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to see stage and studio productions, as well as to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche arts festival.

Solga said graduates can go on to do a variety of things, including employment in the arts, education and even legal work.

“Friends have come out of a theatre program and stepped very naturally into the legal profession because of the way that profession demands you balance close critical work with the performance of the case in court,” Solga noted.

“For better or for worse, we’re living in a creative economy and students are learning what performance means in a culture, learning how performance is valued in this economy. This positions you to exploit it, and that is really what’s necessary for a creative worker in this economy. I’m quite confident students coming out of this program will do well.”