Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.) These are some of the current and recent participants' experiences.

Emily Oriold is training in general management with Deb Sholdice at Blyth Festival

(September 28, 2015)  Since December 2014, I have been doing a tremendous amount of research on theatre management and the role a General Manager or Executive Director plays within a theatre organization. The goal of this research has been—alongside Patricia Vanstone and Norm Foster—to found the Norm Foster Theatre Festival with our inaugural season planned for summer 2016. During this time of research, I reached out to many theatre administration professionals who were all very forthcoming with their advice and information. It quickly became clear that a mentorship would be a great asset and a very important learning experience for me in regards to having hands-on experience to discover, on a more practical level, all of the ins and outs of what it means to run a theatre company from a General Manager’s standpoint. One GM in particular has been a tremendous help: Deb Sholdice of the Blyth Festival Theatre. She has already begun to mentor me informally and suggested that perhaps the best course of action would be for me to train with her for six weeks in fall 2015 at which time she will be planning budgets, membership drives, fundraisers, outreach programs, preparing grants, etc. for her following summer season. This way I can work alongside her as she works in conjunction with the Artistic Director, reports to the Board of Directors, and prepares her budget and marketing plan for the coming season. It is a main goal of mine to learn the difference between balancing an operating budget vs. a production budget and to better comprehend the financial savvy it takes to manage a theatre company in Canada.

I have a long history with Blyth. I was a member of their young company for several years, director of their community-player-vignettes in The Outdoor Donnellys, and assistant director to Eric Coates on his production of Queen Milli of Galt. It is beneficial to my training in theatre management to go back to Blyth to continue to learn from a General Manager with whom I have an existing relationship.

My theatre career to date has been mainly in performance and direction, which have taught me a great deal about production. I do also have audience development, small business marketing, and house management experience. However, I lack the training in bookkeeping, accounting, contract negotiation, corporate sponsorship, private fundraising campaigns, and community development. Working alongside Deb in her offices will be an invaluable experience for me. I believe I will gain much more confidence and retention of general management practices by being able to work directly with Deb for a set duration of time and tap into her wealth of knowledge.

From this experience I am eager to learn how to manage and lead an entire season of productions – from hiring and casting, to payroll, to HR management, grant writing, budget creation, and, ultimately, conflict resolution. I also hope to gain a greater understanding of the importance of choosing the right arts marketing/advertising strategy on a limited budget. I seek to further develop my accounting and bookkeeping skills while assisting with audit preparations and, undoubtedly, adapting to unanticipated challenges as they are bound to arise.

I have read theatre management books, marketing documents, articles, and manuals; however, working in an actual theatre office will give me the hands-on training and experience I need in order to make the next step in preparing myself and my team at The Foster Festival as we get ready to launch our inaugural 2016 summer season. I strongly believe this training is essential in solidifying the success of this new Canadian theatre company. It is important for me to go on gaining as much knowledge and practical experience in this field as I can so that I may continue to hone my skills and approach theatre management independently, successfully, and with great confidence.

Furthermore, training in the offices of a theatre that has a common mandate and goal to ensure our Canadian playwrights have a voice will serve me well when learning how to identify the needs surrounding play development, new-play workshops, and production. 

Mary Elizabeth Willcott is training in directing with Kelly Thornton at Nightwood Theatre in Toronto

(October 5, 2015) Currently, I find myself in the thick of research. I want to learn as much as I can about the four faiths the play Unholy deals with: Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and Atheism. I’ve spent the last little while combing over the script, looking for anything in it that represents a gap in my knowledge surrounding these faiths. There are words and references to scripture and religious practice that I find myself looking up frequently. Google and Wikipedia are my best friends at the moment. The great thing about this play is it focuses a lot on hot topics in the media, most notably the right for a woman to wear the Niqab. The more I research the more excited I am to get in the room and start breaking down this script with the actors. 

This play stirs up a lot of emotions for me. The more I research the more I find myself trying to gain an understanding of women’s roles in a religious community and some of the traditions that surround women and faith. 

Traditions in faith have always been just that: traditions. Why question? But when you start digging to the bottom of why people practice what they practice, you start to reveal a wide range of views on how women should behave in their faith. Diane Flack’s writing reflects this well. Her arguments are clear and you feel like you’re watching a compelling tennis match as the debate unfolds. It inspires excitement and passion for the subject matter, and gives well-formulated thoughts to serve as a launching point for the real script work with everyone in the room.

In addition to Google and online research, I’ve made it a goal to sit down with someone from each faith and have a chat about what it means to be a woman in their religion. I recently visited my family in Newfoundland, and had an opportunity to sit down with my Aunt who is a retired Nun and chat with her about her experience. Her responses were surprising and very progressive. I absolutely loved having the opportunity to chat with her. Active research seems to be a thing I’ve always loved. It’s something I learned to do in theatre school and I find it fun and rewarding. The more you dive into a world and eat, sleep, and drink that world, the more you have to offer in the room. 

What I do find challenging is trying to look at the play as a whole from a director’s standpoint. This is a new skill I am developing and need to remind myself I am still very much a beginner in this process. I’ve been looking forward to sitting down with Kelly and the production team to go over the script and that is happening this week. I hope to gain some insight into what we will need for the production going forward, what I should be looking for specifically as far as the script, and learn about what I should be preparing to do in the weeks ahead.

Tamara Vuckovic is training in directing with Marianne McIsaac at Ryerson Theatre School in Toronto

(October 1, 2015) I have reached the half way point in my PTTP project and have accomplished a great deal since we started. All six shows of George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel are in a good place in the rehearsal process. We were able to have them all do a stumble through of their show this past week. Outside of rehearsal, my mentor Marianne and I have been meeting daily to discuss what I’ve accomplished that day and challenges I faced. We discuss our goals for the upcoming rehearsals, we plan the schedules with the Stage Manager, and we make decisions regarding the technical aspects of the show with the Production Manager. I have been a part of the set and costume meetings as the designs have developed over the past few weeks. As well as the discussions regarding lighting, sound, special effects, and marketing. 

The biggest way my mentorship has evolved from my original training plan, is that I am the Director of two of the six shows, and the Assistant Director of the other four. Originally I was going to be assistant directing all six shows, but Marianne bestowed on me the opportunity to direct on my own. Due to this increase in responsibility, this made for a lot more work, particularly leading up to my mentorship and throughout the first half. For example, besides having to have a very clear vision for my shows, I had to block both plays before we even started rehearsals.

It has been an excellent learning experience so far and Marianne’s guidance and support has been immensely helpful. We have shaped a way for me to take the reins on these two shows, while she is still able to teach me as we go along, and we are able to maintain a positive impact for everyone involved. We work very well together, as a duo directing team and I’m very excited for the second half of the mentorship. We now head into two more weeks of rehearsal, followed by a two week tech week, and six openings in three days.

Emma Mackenzie Hillier trained in dramaturgy with Bob White at the Stratford Festival

(October 7, 2015) I’m broaching the last day of my nine-month internship with Bob White, Director of New Play Development at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on my time here since January. The internship, structured to take in as much of Bob’s duties as possible, was well designed as I’ve had the opportunity to learn about his personal style as a dramaturg, the role of a dramaturg in a large institution and in rehearsals, and how to bring your experience as a dramaturg to a theatre’s particular new play development portfolio.

This experience has been enriching and rewarding. At the time of my application I was looking at a career primarily rooted in freelance dramaturgy, which is a very different position than as a dramaturg for a company. I was very lucky, shortly before my internship began at Stratford, to be invited to join the Storefront Arts Initiative as their Dramaturg. The opportunity couldn’t have been more timely, as my time at Stratford has influenced and informed my position at the Storefront. During my time with Bob he brought me up to date on the plays currently in development with Stratford, I observed rehearsals for The Last Wife by Kate Hennig and a workshop of a new play in development by Rebecca Northan and an amazing group of improvisers, and participated in the preparation and execution of the 2016 Playwrights Retreat. All of these opportunities have influenced and changed my perspective on my role as a dramaturg, as well as my relationship to institutional play development.

Sebastien Heins, Emma Mackenzie Hillier, and Kat Sandler
at the Stratford Playwrights' Retreat.
The last leg of this internship has been focused on the Stratford Playwrights’ Retreat. It’s a three-week period in which eight playwrights are invited to stay in Stratford and work. Work meaning, “whatever you need to do” – I think that playwrights and writers often feel the need to simply sit down and write, even without a direction. Certainly, that is the job… to write a play you have to write. But playwrights aren’t often afforded the time to reflect, to let ideas develop and grow in their mind before putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper.

The benefit of this retreat is that there are no expectations placed on the playwrights, it’s entirely up to them how they use the time. If they wanted, they could watch Netflix all day, do research, read, or paint their nails it’s entirely up to them. This year’s Playwrights’ Retreat is made up of a wonderful group of artists, who actually did use the time to write, and would often work together in a local coffee shop. As I write this last report I’m also half-watching one of our playwrights pack up her day’s work to head to a collective dinner at the Festival Theatre. Which brings me to the only other requirement of the Retreat: that playwrights eat meals together four times a week. Stratford has hosted the entire group admirably well.

This past year I was charged with beginning a Playwrights’ Unit at the Storefront Arts Initiative. Having been able to experience the Stratford Playwrights’ Retreat gave me many new tools and strategies for bringing together a group of people who are pursuing individual projects in the same field. Perhaps most important was bringing everyone together to break bread, have a meal, drink some wine, and set a convivial tone for conversations that often tackled difficult topics. Perhaps more importantly, I had the opportunity to attend meetings with Bob and the playwrights at the retreat, this was a master class in how to have one-on-one meetings. One of the difficulties of being an emerging dramaturg is having access to sometimes highly sensitive meetings with playwrights. Dramaturg-playwright relationships are forged on trust and mutual respect. The skill required to be in these meetings is forged over time, and without access to these meetings an emerging dramaturg is often left guessing at how to have them.

As an end to my internship with Stratford I would like to thank Bob White at Stratford for accepting me as his mentee, he’s an incredible mentor and anyone working with him should count themselves lucky; the cast, creative and production team of The Last Wife, who graciously allowed me to observe the rehearsal process; Rebecca Northan and her group of improvisers who made me join in their warm-ups and made me the better for it; and the Playwrights’ Retreat, who invited me into their process and gave me much more than they know; the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which allowed me to join them for much of this season. And most of all I’d like to thank Theatre Ontario and the Ontario Arts Council who made this internship possible. This has been a hugely rewarding experience for me and it would not have been possible without the financial support that the Professional Theatre Training Program offers.

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2016.


Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.


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