Thursday, 9 November 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Heather Davies

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Heather Davies trained in artistic direction with Gil Garratt at Blyth Festival


From Blyth to Summerland (and Back Again)

(September 25, 2017)

The last few months have flown by—it’s been a busy and creative summer.

In my earlier blogs I mentioned that this Theatre Ontario PTTP grant included the opportunity for me to be immersed in a company whose values and vision I deeply admire. However, I haven’t mentioned a moment that kept ‘popping’ into my mind throughout my time at Blyth. When I first decided to learn about artistic direction I was living in the UK and visited a number ADs in an effort to secure an unpaid residency with a company. During the first interview that I had with an AD he said, “You’re mostly going to learn through ‘negatives’, you know, you’ll learn what not to do in a situation.” That perspective, although pragmatic, was a little disheartening. At Blyth, I’ve been around countless moments, examples and modes of positive theatre making and arts leadership; it’s been an inspiring experience.

Blyth Garden Party
In June, there was a flurry of activity as the two ‘early openers’ (Lombardo and Berlin Blues) moved towards their opening nights. At the same time, I was busy rewriting a draft of a stage adaptation that I’m working on, Judith (original novel by Aritha Van Herk) and preparing to go work in Summerland BC. Gil and I continued our wide-ranging conversations about arts leadership as well as the creative process on Judith and I also continued enjoying rich conversations with the Blyth staff: John McHenry (Director of Marketing), Jen Stewart (Director of Development), Lisa Harper (Audience Services Manager & Volunteer Coordinator) and General Manager Rachael King. Everyone at Blyth generously included me in conversations about their process, greatly enriching my understanding of the particulars of working within a rural setting. The challenges of finding accommodation, broadening development relationships, theatre software programs, online marketing, the delicate matrix of gala events and volunteer coordinating are a few of the topics that we dove into as the months progressed.

By early July, with two shows open, I was close to completion on a new draft of Judith. Between attending board meetings, the opening of a new building, experiencing 1200 breeding sows under one roof at a ‘shower in, shower out’ farrowing farm, numerous visits to an organic farm, ongoing discussions and soaking up the atmosphere at Blyth I also had time and space to dive into further crafting of a story that I’m passionate about. Layers of research from interviews, a wide range of reading material and visits with local farmers have all found their way into this draft.

In mid-July I headed off to Summerland BC to become the first Artistic Director of an emerging multi-discipline arts festival inspired by the renowned Canadian writer George Ryga and the practical application of my PTTP experience began! 

Summerland BC is a little larger than Blyth (population 11000), however, there are many similarities. The short version of this part of the story is that the 2017 Ryga Festival went incredibly well. We held 19 events in five days (theatre, music, spoken word, workshops and author readings), had over 50 volunteers support the festival, fantastic attendance from people throughout the Okanagan valley and there is great excitement in the community about the festival. There are many people and factors that contributed to this success; it really did ‘take a village’ to make it happen and the team in Summerland were wonderful to work with. I also recognise and am very grateful for the enriched experience that I carried from Blyth to Summerland. Blyth conversations and experiences provided an ongoing resource and inspiration for me throughout the Ryga Festival preparation and events. I’m deeply grateful to Theatre Ontario and the PTTP program for the support provided, allowing me to focus in on arts leadership in a rural setting, with its unique conversations, delights and challenges. And of course, I’m immensely grateful to Gil Garratt and everyone at Blyth for their great generosity, wisdom and expertise. 

I’m back in Ontario now and was able to see the two ‘late openers’ (Ipperwash and The Pigeon King) on the main stage last week.  Autumn is about to arrive and the 2017 season at Blyth is drawing to a close. This time, the new connections, community and friendships, skills and experience I’ve gained will continue to inform, enrich and guide the way I lead a company, engage with collaborators and community and create theatre. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity—it’s been brilliant.

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2018.


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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