Tuesday, 14 July 2015

PTTP Profiles: Exploring Projects Funded by 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 a few of the current participants' experiences.

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

Emma Mackenzie Hillier
“Stratford in the Summer”

My program with Dramaturg and Stratford’s Director of New Play Development, Bob White, took a bit of a hiatus between March and June… we were saving up my hours for the start of The Last Wife rehearsals, by Kate Hennig. Rehearsals began at the start of June and it’s already been a fantastic experience to simply sit and watch everyone at work. Some background for those who aren’t familiar: Playwright: Kate Hennig, Director: Alan Dilworth, Stage Manager: Melissa Rood, Assistant Stage Manager: Katherine Arcus, Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell, Set & Costume Designer: Yannick Larivee, Sound Designer: Alexander MacSween, Dramaturg: Bob White, Original Dramatug: Andy McKim, Cast: Maev Beaty, Joe Ziegler, Sara Farb, Gareth Potter, Bahia Watson, and making his Stratford Festival debut is young one Jonas Q.Gribble (who makes us all swoon daily with his sweetness and his sense of humour.)

It’s a rehearsal hall full of people brimming with talent and fine-tuned expertise in their crafts. On one hand I’m always amazed at a new play development process, and on the other hand I was surprised and delighted to find that this room is run similarly to many others in which I’ve sat. It’s open, respectful, has a set of unspoken rules that aren’t broken, and sensitive to the needs of all involved. 

What is new to me in this instance is the time we’ve given to table-work; a luxury at other companies but the norm in this room because the time is available. And it’s necessary. Perhaps the one lesson I can take away from this stage in the process is that this amount of text work is vital… and it reminds me that in all my future endeavours, regardless of how little money is available, making the time for this type of textual analysis will make a better production. Part of my time at Stratford is reminding myself the best practises that are in place at these larger festivals and finding ways to institute similar devices into my own work as an independent theatre artist. Obviously this isn’t always possible, the companies with which I work don’t have the millions that Shaw or Stratford do. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t creative ways to incorporate those practises (e.g. voice and movement coaches, finding time for more table work, bringing the playwright in for that first in-depth analysis of the play.)

Working with Bob is always a delight. I’m a fairly straightforward person, I’m not one for talking around an idea as some of my peers are. That mode of artistic discussion and exploration actually made me feel like less of an artist for the first part of my career: while I desired a blunt approach to dissecting and understanding and the art some of my peers seemed more intent on discussing the philosophy behind it rather than the actual building blocks of a narrative, a production, an aesthetic, etc. As I developed as an artist and my career progressed I became more comfortable developing my own lexicon with which to discuss theatre. I had to; I didn’t understand the need to talk around an issue than discuss what was actually at stake. It’s been relieving and also exciting to work my mentor Bob White who exercises a similar approach to his work and to deepen the manner in which I approach mine. This has become an affirmation but also an opportunity to deepen my craft.

We’re still early into the rehearsal process of The Last Wife, only on week three right now, but already it’s evident that we’re developing a first production that is going to set an impossibly high bar. If you’re planning on visiting the little hamlet of Stratford this summer, I strongly encourage you to buy tickets for this show (and soon, as I believe the bulk of the run is already sold out!)

Catherine Ballachey is training in dramaturgy with Laurie Steven at Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa

At this point, I have been involved with Odyssey Theatre as their Dramaturgy Intern since early May. I started by meeting with Artistic Director, Laurie Stevens, to discuss the scripts for this year’s production, The Things We Do for Love. The production is a combination of three Spanish one-act plays which all share the theme of the passionate, and sometimes frantic, pursuit of love. The first two scripts - an adaptation of Chapter 25 of the classic Spanish novel, Don Quixote and an updated version of Garcia Lorca’s The Love of Don Perlimpin and Belisa in the Garden - were both written by Laurie Stevens herself. The third script is a new translation of Tirso de Molina’s Whether You Like It or Not (La Mujer Por Fuerza) by José Marìa Ruano de la Haza. Although Odyssey Theatre usually focuses on the Italian tradition of commedia del’arte and mask work, this is their first foray into the world of Spanish comedia. I read all three scripts and provided Laurie with dramaturgical notes with a focus on clarifying the text to bridge the gap between the word and physicality.

Catherine Ballachey in
rehearsal at Odyssey
Theatre in Ottawa.
In mid-May, we began a week-long workshop. It was an effective way to assess the state of the scripts and begin brainstorming ideas for staging and design. I assisted in every way that I could during the workshop in order to earn my position as observer. I felt that it might be strange for the workshop participants to have a silent observer constantly and carefully making notes for the entirety of the workshop. Fortunately, I was immediately proved wrong. Laurie encouraged me to speak up and share my ideas with the cast and designers. Although I felt tentative at first, I gradually warmed up to the idea and felt that I was able to contribute some dramaturgical insight to the process. I also sent Laurie notes every night and met with her regularly during the week to discuss my observations and the progress of the workshop. In short, although I was originally concerned that the cast would be apprehensive about a dramaturg observing their work, I felt I was welcomed into the group.

After the workshop, I was in regular contact with Laurie as the scripts and design progressed. Unfortunately, a public school workshop that I was to assist with was cancelled due to the work to rule action by Ontario teachers. I instead focused on researching New Play Development programs within the country in order to brainstorm ideas for Odyssey Theatre’s program that I will help implement in August. I also researched the historical context of the scripts and wrote the program notes for the production. After approximately a month of design and script development, I attended the first day of rehearsals with the cast.

Not surprisingly, the open and generous spirit from the workshop carried through to rehearsals. On the first day, the cast continued to be excited about working with these new scripts. They offered ideas about to develop the scripts even further, and I felt encouraged to do the same. Now that we’re halfway through the rehearsal process, that spirit hasn’t waned. Although I’m drifting in and out of rehearsals to maintain a bit of distance for dramaturgical insight, my notes and ideas are often welcomed in rehearsal. In short, I’m looking forward to seeing how the production develops over the next two weeks until opening night. I’ll continue to attend rehearsals and watch runs in order to provide dramaturgical notes under the guidance of Laurie. Once the production is up and running, I’ll begin the New Play Creation program stage of my internship. I’m looking forward to developing strategies for reaching out to playwrights and build connections with the creative community here in Ottawa.

Jasmine Chen is training in outreach with Marjorie Chan at Cahoots Theatre in Toronto

Jasmine Chen
I’ve been thinking a lot about why we do outreach. I recently sat down with my mentor Marjorie Chan, who has been creating and leading outreach programs for over a decade. We discussed the merits of outreach and why it is essential. Perhaps every theatre is different, but what we arrived at is this: outreach is not about audience building, outreach is about empowerment. Marjorie stated that her belief is that every person has the right to self-expression. By giving access to the arts, we hope that each individual may be able to find their own voice and have the ability to tell their own story. As I wrote about in my last post, Cahoots Theatre’s mandate is about providing a platform for marginalized voices. Crossing Gibraltar, their outreach program reflects this through their personal work with participants.

So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of WHO, WHERE, WHEN, HOW. What is special about Crossing Gibraltar is that from year to year the program can be radically different. What Cahoots does is pair their program with the current production in their season. Last season with The Wanderers, playwright Kawa Ada asked that the program be offered to newcomer women of colour. Next season with Ultrasound, a play written by a hard-of-hearing playwright, the program will be geared towards newcomer deaf/HOH emerging artists. By choosing a specific group of people, one needs to think carefully about their needs. What this means is a fair bit of research to see what arts access programs are currently available and what is there a lack of? Who are potential participants and what kind of exposure to the arts have they already had? What resources do we have that can provide an exciting opportunity to grow? In the past, most programs have been held outside the Theatre’s studio to provide easier access and convenience to our participants. For our next program, since the resource we are providing is our own tech equipment, we are inviting participants to work inside our professional set-up. Of course, timing is everything. It’s no good running a program if no one is available to attend. I think that outreach is about eliminating as many barriers as you can. If it means running the programs on Saturday afternoons and providing TTC fare, than that’s what is required. But who pays for that TTC fare and the cost of the program? That’s where things get a little more difficult.

Thankfully, there are many granting programs that seek to engage different communities. However, there are limited funds to go around. What I’ve learned in applying for grants is: dream big. Don’t let the fear of not getting the grant hinder you from applying for what you really want. As Marjorie says, “We’ll find a way to do it, no matter what.” Even if you don’t get the full amount you applied for, with creativity and resourcefulness you’ll find a way to serve the people you want to serve. If a four-day workshop turns into a one-day workshop, you will make that one-day workshop everything it can be. 

Outreach is more than just good intentions and opening doors, it is work. It is work that requires active listening, humility and perseverance. But with all that comes the connection that is built between people, an empathic bridge that leads to greater understanding. By giving a platform to other people’s voices, we can continue to create inclusivity and bring disparate communities together.

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2015.

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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