Thursday, 26 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 participants' experiences.

Yunjeong Faline Park is training in theatre administration with Niki Poirier at Roseneath Theatre (Toronto)

(October 30) I began my fifteen weeks of training with Roseneath Theatre, mentored by Niki Poirier, full of expectation and excitement. When I started, there were two unexpected big changes to the company. First, the company’s fall show had been moved from the first half of season to January 2016 due to the possibility of a teachers’ strike. Roseneath is a Theatre for Young Audiences which means its performance schedules and many other areas are directly affected by any job action in the school system. Second, the Production Manager left her position so there is currently a search on for a new Production Manager to begin in later December. In a positive way, this has allowed me to learn and work on projects with more focus and less pressure.

Staff meeting at Roseneath Theatre
Each week I’m with a different department. I started with Managing Director, Natalie Ackers on writing and preparing the Ontario Arts Council touring grant application by filling out forms and making sure everything was put it in the correct order. I also assisted Natalie with preparing a multi-layered and multi-year budget spreadsheets by using my knowledge and skills of the Excel program.

As a charity, Roseneath Theatre has an annual audit which started at the beginning of October. Since they are in transition of hiring a new bookkeeper, I was able to do most of the bookkeeping records including payroll, bank deposit, transaction record etc. by using the knowledge and skills from a bookkeeper class I took as a night course last year. I prepared the audit files and accounting records to make sure they were in accurate order. When the audit started, Niki and I assisted with any requests that the auditor needed. As a result, the audit took less than a week to process.

In the week with Artistic Director Andrew Lamb, I received instructions on how to use the Casting Workbook website and was explained how it works for him and other directors in this field. He gave me a list of actors he wanted to audition, so using the Casting Workbook I set up the audition times and made an audition schedule list for their upcoming January show.
I also attended PAONE meeting (Professional Arts Organizations Network for Education) with Andrew where I networked with people who are working in the Arts Administration.

In my weeks with Production Management I have taken on the responsibility of keeping track of the rehearsal hall rentals. I have also assisted Niki with set restorations for the upcoming performances by speaking with the contracted technicians to see how the set can improve and helping with research on the materials that to be used to do this.

Roseneath introduced an after school drama camp for grade 2 – 5 every Thursday afternoon for eight weeks. This is a new program for the company. I was able to assist the Education and Marketing Manager, Gretel Meyer Odell the first drama camp day to make sure everything ran smoothly.

Roseneath Theatre's booth
I also had the opportunity to attend a marketing conference, held by the Catholic Curriculum Corporation, called “Faith Meets Pedagogy”. I helped set up the booth and explained to educators what Roseneath Theatre does, giving a brief synopsis of plays of this season and how our work effects young audiences.

Working with Niki and watching how she works with multiple departments has given me a good sense of confidence in the work I have done so far and I believe that I will also be able to manage a variety of administrative positions after this placement is complete.

Through the last half of training I will be working with and learning about Social Media, Marketing and Tour Management as well as deeper step into departments that I have already assisted in these past two months. It seemed quite a challenge to switch my career to a completely different field, but I’m seeing good results and can see myself as a good fit with Arts Administration. This training has proven that I can work with confidence, and I strongly believe that I will achieve my goal by the end of this program.

Camila Diaz-Varela will train in digital production management, online community engagement, and digital curation with Sarah Garton Stanley at SpiderWebShow

(November 11) As part of this PTTP cycle, I’m going to be working with the Makers of SpiderWebShow, training in Digital Production Management, Online Community Engagement & Digital Curation. The word ‘online’ and ‘digital’ are important ones here, because the SpiderWebShow is a website that experiments with how Canadian theatre, technology, and the internet can intersect. If you haven’t come across it before, you can check it out here:

This is a map of where the Makers and collaborators of the
SpiderWebShow are based, generated by the Performance Wiki
I first came across the site when I interned for the Rhubarb Festival 2 years ago – my boss at the time, the amazing Laura Nanni, asked me to look up an artist that the festival was interested in and send her a digital sample of their work, and I found myself stumbling into the rabbit hole that is the SpiderWebShow archive. There are so many projects quietly living and growing on the site that all have the explicit mission of exploring how theatre and the internet can converge to serve each other. I had honestly never seen theatre artists behaving like this before. They were making 30 second audio clips of their own thoughts, writing critical articles on + for their communities, theatre and otherwise, posting mini audio plays to be experienced at home, curating photos of theatre in process. It all felt very much like a playful, authentic grab at something – possibly at communicating their processes as artists, but certainly at playing with a new online theatrical form. 

I was really inspired by it. At that time I’d just graduated from a music theatre performance program and felt like I had been in a music theatre bubble most of my life. I wanted to get inspired by what lay beyond, so I was focusing on getting to know my Toronto theatre community. I was also trying to expand my skill set by learning music production software on the side, and recording and editing my own music. At this point, I thought that these worlds would always be separate, but when I found SpiderWebShow, I saw a living example of how digital and live forms can converge and actually be performative and engaging.

Since then, I’ve been keeping tabs on the site. Watching new projects grow and especially following the #CdnCult mag’s new editions. This summer, I was working on a small project for the SummerWorks festival Conversation Series, and approached one of the founders of the site, Michael Wheeler, about using their PerformanceWiki ( as a platform for a document I was creating. Since he’s so awesome, he invited me into the fold, and things have snowballed to the point where I now have been offered the opportunity to work with the Makers of the show for the next four months. I am beyond excited about this.

I’m hoping to learn several things – first, how to efficiently work with artists who are not the in the same physical space as me. I have plans to work with artists who live in other countries, and we certainly don’t have the budget to travel for bi-weekly rehearsals. What can our distance provide us as creative fodder, rather than an obstacle? How can we create a nurturing, creative digital space for us to work in? I have a hypothesis that there’s something in the tone and speed of correspondence that affects productivity and creativity, and in turn, the product. Kind of like when you’re working in an office, and the kind of attitude/jargon you use to discuss things affects the vibe of the workplace. The process forms the product, right? I think I can learn a lot about this from the folks at SpiderWebShow, especially since these artists have way more experience with large-scale, long-term collaboration than me. In the few meetings I’ve attended so far, I’ve been surprised with how generous, friendly, and open the ‘bosses’ have been. I expected a much more authoritarian style of leadership, for some reason, but it’s been very nurturing and human. I really like that. I’m hoping to get some clarity on how they manage that, and why.

Another thing I hope to learn is how to curate an engaging, theatrical online space. One of the things I do know coming into this training is that building anything online requires some prerequisite technical knowledge. This can be overwhelming to learn and at times slow going, because sometimes even digital robots don’t want to obey commands. So that has to be taken into account in the curation of any artistic online work, because sometimes you don’t have as much time as you’d like to ponder and edit the piece – you’re just trying to get the link/tool/platform to function in the first place. Sometimes you have a deadline and you assemble the pieces you’ve got, and post them as is. I’m really curious how that process can be less stressful, and how to support the Makers in a meaningful way during the process. I’ve never been a production manager in a live theatre setting, only a creator and performer, so this is gonna be a learning curve I think.

I’m also really excited to connect with what theatre artists are doing across the country. Through SpiderWebShow I’ve already met so many people I’d never get the chance to meet, because I have never been in the same space as them. For example, I haven’t been to Vancouver in 10 years but the other day an incredible artist + person who lives there, Adrienne Wong, taught me how to make ponies ride across my Gmail chats. I know I’ll be learning professionally useful things (not just ponies), but at the core, I think SpiderWebShow is about connecting our Canadian theatre community using the internet, so somehow, I think it applies. 

The intersection of theatre and the internet is cool, because theatre is about sharing stories with other humans in the same space – so, human connection (among other things. I know this is a grand statement. Stay with me here.). And the internet is about sharing and connection too, but sometimes it’s not as human – it can be more data based, and troll-y, and media centered. Since the internet is a very new, growing, Wild West of a form, how can we make it be more human? How can Canadian theatre artists create an online space that is nurturing, and creative, and connecting/ed, and relevant?
I’m really excited to ask these questions with the artists behind SpiderWebShow. I’ll let you all know how it goes.   

Claire Burns is training in general management with Beth Brown at Nightwood Theatre (Toronto)

(November 16) In the past six months the Storefront Theatre has really evolved. We have gone from an ad-hoc rental venue to a theatre with a curated season—this fall we’re hosting six plays between September to December. My mentorship with Beth Brown at Nightwood has proven thus far invaluable in terms of the development of our organizational structure at Storefront.
I sort of slid into the role of Managing Director in late 2014 and to be honest, didn’t have much idea of what that role would encompass. Beth has been a real mentor in that I can talk to her about pretty much anything to do with the organization and she is always patiently guiding my decisions while being completely non-judgemental about some of the issues that we face.

On a more basic level, the internship has helped to develop knowledge around systems like accounting, bookkeeping, fundraising and leadership. As well as working with Beth to learn more about being a managing director I have also been afforded the opportunity to sit in on rehearsals for Diane Flacks’ new play, Unholy, which had its first workshop performance at the Groundswell Festival this October. As an artist/administrator who has written and directed my own plays this was an incredible opportunity to witness how a company like Nightwood works through the development of a script. It was great to be able to be in the room with the actors and great director, Kelly Thornton.

The more I learn about the disparity of female leadership in theatre—vis a vis directors and Artistic Directors, the more I believe that I would like to develop my skills and become an artistic director in the future. I’m excited to see how Nightwood curates their season, what speaks to the leadership of the organization and upon what they ultimately base their programming decisions. As a female artist and a feminist it has been an absolute boon to be working alongside Nightwood in any capacity and to be working with such strong, intelligent women has not only allowed me to grow as an administrator it also comforts and inspires me that a female based theatre company actually exists in Canada. After all - Girls Rule the World!

Michela Sisti will train in directing with Ross Manson at Volcano Theatre

(November 16) One week to go before I officially begin my mentorship with Ross Manson and Volcano Theatre. That exquisite build-up of anticipation that comes with starting a new project is beginning to play itself out inside me. Every now and then I get a little taste of what’s to come when I am cc’d in a email sent by a member of the company about some new aspect of rehearsal preparations.  I feel like I did when I was a kid waiting at my window before a big family event, the excitement rising in me in waves each time a new car pulled up to the driveway.

The big event radiating from the far end of these seven days is Century Song, a stunning piece of interdisciplinary theatre about one person’s journey through time and art and into the present moment.  It is a work inspired in part by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and it is performed to unearthly effect by the incredible soprano-dancer, Neema Bickersteth.  From a laptop screen in the in the quiet of an empty house I first watched a recorded video of Century Song’s National Arts Centre premier.  Even from a tiny screen the force of Neema’s performance and the story of endurance and vitality that was being told moved me.  It affirmed my obstinate hunch that art has the power bring us a little closer to facing the perplexity of our existence with bravery and with open hearts.  I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to work with Ross and the Volcano Theatre team as assistant director on preparing this show for its 2016 national and international tours.

Century Song is a project that encompasses so many of the questions and challenges that have intrigued me since I began my first stubborn blind stumbles into directing.  It has been helpful for me to think of these questions/challenges as tensions in content, form and process that must be keep taught and vibrant, rather than problems that need to be resolved.

The first of these tensions is between, on the one hand, those rich internal worlds of yearnings and visions that we all have within us, and on the other hand, the objective reality that we are part of a picture that is infinitely bigger than ourselves.  When I first met Ross I shared with him that I wanted to be involved in the creation of theatre that showed human lives within the context of a larger whole.  We are not just ourselves, I had ranted, we are part of a society, part of history, part of a very strange species of big-brained primates, part of the universe.  I think Ross smiled – whatever he did it was disarming – and he said something like, “Century Song, in the end, is about the journey of a person.”  I am going to take that with me into next week’s development period. I’m also going to carry those words into all of my own future directing work.  It’s obvious, but sometimes what is most obvious is what we forget. Theatre in the end is about people; it’s about connection.

The second point of fascination that I’ve flagged as I enter my mentorship with Volcano Theatre is the tension that exists among the multiplicity of art forms that are at work in Century Song.  In addition to Neema Bickersteth’s holistic integration of contemporary dance and operatic singing, Century Song, brings together live instrumental music, visual art from across the 20th century and animations by Germany’s fettFilm.

I see this work as a continued experiment in the layering of meaning. Each choice in movement, music, visuals, narrative, has its own colour, its own frequency. Putting these elements together is like building harmonies in music.  During my mentorship I want to continue honing my instincts for recognizing what precisely these elements are bringing out in each other.  What choices create consonances or dissonances? When are these elements bringing out the best in each other? When are they getting in each other's way?  Though asking these questions again and again I want to move towards ever-greater specificity in making artistic choices and to hone a method of working that contains and channels creative free-flow into lucid moments of theatre.

This brings me to the third tension I want to explore during my mentorship.   It is a tension of process and it exists between discipline and spontaneity in the rehearsal room, between restraint and freedom. During the development week I will be involved in I will have the opportunity to observe how Ross and the team work toward clear artistic goals while remaining open and connected to a creative process that is in essence chaotic and intuitively driven. The choreographic content of Century Song has so far been generated from improvisations and then sculpted into a series of precise actions to be repeated in performance night after night.  How Ross and choreographer Kate Alton work with Neema to prepare a Century Song that is newly and viscerally lived each night is something I am very curious about.

During the next few months Ross will be leading a team of artists who are each specialists in their respective fields.  A huge part of his work as a director will be creating the conditions for everyone to excel at what they do best and guiding these talents to co-operate as one body.  This spirit of complicit√©, of working together towards something awesome, something that can be shared with other people, is what I am looking forward to the most.

It is Monday November 16th. The sun is shining and people are walking the streets of Toronto with miraculously unzipped coats.  I’m going to join them while it’s bright. 

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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