Theatre Studies launches a conversation on arts

Long a campus passion, Western’s latest attempt to refresh its theatre roots looks to create a community, not only across campus, but throughout the region.

“London has a very passionate theatre scene,” said English and Writing Studies professor M.J. Kidnie. “We want to create an opportunity for people to talk to each other, share ideas about theatre. We want to encourage a ‘culture of theatre’ in this community – and Western has a huge role to play in that, in terms of supporting and sustaining that culture.”

On March 3, Western formally launches its Theatre Studies program with a two-day celebration. The centerpiece of the launch will be a staging of Milton’s Paradise Lost, adapted and directed by Montreal-based performer Paul Van Dyck.

The whole event is crafted to stress one of the program’s main goals – community.

“We have a really vibrant performing arts scene, and so many of our students and faculty are already involved in it,” said English and Writing Studies professor Kim Solga. “The Theatre Studies program will allow us to formalize our existing links between campus and community and build on them in the future – for everyone’s benefit.”

Housed within Arts & Humanities, Theatre Studies is designed as a multidisciplinary liberal arts program, involving a combination of in-class and external learning experiences covering topics such as theatre history, practice, review and critique, as well as arts management. There are studio classes taught in conjunction with the Stratford Festival of Canada, as well as a third-year Fall Production course.

Destination Theatre serves as the program’s capstone course, in which students journey to London, England, or New York City for a two-week intensive experience that includes theatre outings and workshops with specialists.

Both a major and a minor will be offered.

Kidnie said the desire for a drama program has never gone away at Western since the closing of Drama Workshop in the 1990s.

Once housed in Conron Hall, inside University College, Drama Workshop was a popular pursuit for those who had interest in the stage. However, in 1996, the program was closed. In 1999, the English department officially withdrew its English and Drama Program.

Complicating matters at that time, renovations to Conron Hall made drama production almost impossible to stage. And so, theatre went somewhat dormant.

“Drama Workshop was a vital, exciting magnet for people who wanted to pursue theatre,” Kidnie said. “But since the late-1990s, drama has been hobbling along. But it would never go away – it was just starved for resources, for interest. But there were always those who kept it alive.

“People want to make theatre. People want to go to theatre. You can starve it. But you cannot kill it.”

Kidnie and Leonard cited a number of folks who kept breathing life into theatre on campus, including English and Writing Studies professor emeritus Richard Green, Writing Studies Director Kathleen Fraser, famed alumnus Al Waxman, BA’57, among others. In recent years, they credited theatre’s continued existence to both students – Theatre Western through the University Students’ Council and the King’s Players at King’s University College – and English and Writing Studies professor Jo Devereux, who has directed Western Summer Shakespeare.

“Jo has been absolutely a lynchpin in keeping theatre at Western a practical, living thing,” Kidnie said. “Summer Shakespeare. Fall performances. She was doing these before there was a course credit, before there was any money. She was doing it simply for theatre.”

Theatre remained ‘unofficial’ until three years ago, when English Chair Bryce Traister gathered a small group of people together to revive theatre within the department. The program started quietly in 2014, and began its first public push in September 2015.

Caitlin Austin will be the program’s first graduate this spring.

The new Theatre Studies program is not designed to train actors, organizers stressed. Instead, the program will train minds to think about theatre, analyze performance, critique it, understand the economics of it, as well as consider theatre in terms of how it works within a community.

Kidnie sees the program as elevating the discussion of theatre across all areas.

“Good theatre deserves good review,” she explained. “There is a critical conversation where people are quite dissatisfied with the quality of arts journalism right now in relation to the theatre. There is a perception that theatre reviews are no longer productively feeding back ideas and pushing theatre – it is just a yes-no, good-bad thing and not really engaging with the craft as a craft.”

Solga pushes this program is about more than theatre – it is about moving forward as a society.

“Theatre Studies is so much more than just theatre training,” she said. “It’s a way to study how performance works in the world, how it powers the ‘creative’ economy, how it shapes our roles as citizens in a democracy. It’s essential training for living in 21st-century Canada.”