Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Stories from the Summer Theatre Intensive: “A Week at Theatre Ontario” and Advanced Directing with John P. Kelly

By Valerie Bogan (Ottawa, Ontario)

As I walked into the classroom at Trent University on a hot August morning, John P. Kelly sat casually with a twinkle in his eye. He was waiting for his five eager students to arrive to begin his Advanced Directing Course. John had given us a list of playwrights to study and we arrived with paper in hand ready to start the day.

“Arrogance,” was the first thing he said. “To be a good director, you must have a certain degree of arrogance.” Then a wide smile spread across his face and I realized he was serious. Yikes! And so began one of the greatest learning experiences of my theatre career.

The 2016 Advanced Directing class
The students in the course all varied in experience. From Sergio and Carey with their large bodies of work in both musical and straight theatre, Bodene (our secretary and number one note taker) with a fair number of plays under her belt and readying herself for her next big production, and Mary Lynn a teacher preparing for, I believe, her first directing job outside of her yearly high school students, but with a whole bunch of stage management experience. I brought 28 years of experience in all aspects of theatre including directing three plays. We shared so many of our experiences and it was absolutely wonderful to be with this group of folks who all spoke the same language.

During our week we learned that although arrogance is an asset, there are many more qualities needed to be a good—or even great—director. I admit that I had at least one day where I thought to myself “I do not belong here.” John was quick to quiet that little crisis of self-confidence. We all very much belonged there and he proved it to us by the end of the week.

The course consisted of analysing scripts, working on pace, style and realism, creating effective acting spaces, interacting with actors, designers and directing staff, and so much more. We covered pretty much every genre of play possible. Having admitted to John that I was not a huge fan of farce, he assured me that by the end of the week I would be converted. I am!

"100 most important" plays ever written exercise
John is a very clever man who has read and directed a great number of plays. On the first day, he spoke often about putting together a list of the “100 most important” plays ever written. And so, the challenge began. These were not necessarily plays that we liked, had actually directed or had large commercial success. They were plays that over time had become important not only on stage but in literary circles. The plays, ranging from 405 BC to 2010, are a collection of classics from authors such as Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Wilde, Coward, Shaw, Miller, Beckett, Healey, Pinter, Mamet, Stoppard and many more.

In the evenings students from all four courses would gather in the common area on an empty floor (you can imagine the racket a bunch of theatre people can make) and talked theatre over a well-deserved libation. We were all pretty excited to share the insights from the day. Many folks knew each other, having either worked together on community projects or having met at previous courses. The out-of-classroom learning was often just as valuable. 

Birthday boy Mark Crawford reading at the Summer Courses
Another really exciting event was when guest playwright Mark Crawford came to read from his latest play, The Birds and the Bees which premiered at the Blyth Festival in June 2016. He also read from his two other plays, Stag and Doe and Bed and Breakfast. Mark is an extremely personable and massively funny man whose plays appeal to all. Despite it being his birthday (thanks for the birthday cake Rachel Kennedy), he stuck around answering questions and sharing his writing experiences with us. 

Our time in Peterborough was made complete with the wonderful programming offered by the staff of Theatre Ontario and Trent University. Our rooms were comfortable and clean, the food kept us fueled for the day, and people were very welcoming. Our dear Rachel Kennedy even spent time with us in class subbing in as an actor as we stumbled through scene work—a real trooper that one!

Theatre Ontario is a great place to learn, both from amazing course conductors and from each other. I wouldn’t change a thing, and look forward to another wonderful week to come!

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