Hope & joy created by Applied Theatre field school

People who have mostly known only poverty and suffering have now found new hope, a sense of joy and a stronger community thanks to a recent University of Victoria Applied Theatre field school in India.

In a scene written by Vadevil, Jayamma and he speak with the Isha students while trying to find food and water (photo: Laura Buchan)

In a scene written by Vadevil, Jayamma and he speak with the Isha students
while trying to find food and water (photo: Laura Buchan)

Led by PhD candidate Matthew Gusul, 13 Department of Theatre undergraduate students traveled to India’s Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry regions to participate in the field school throughout October and November 2014. Gusul, an Applied Theatre practitioner who has done similar fieldwork in Mexico and Guatemala, has been working with the 80 people in Tamil Nadu’s Tamaraikulam Elders’ Village (TEV) for the past two years. By positively highlighting the life experiences of TEV residents and the 750 young students of the Isha Vidhya Matriculation School—both of which were created after the 2006 tsunami to address issues of displacement and vulnerability—Gusul, his students and a team of Indian directors encouraged these seniors and rural youth to perform their own stories, develop strong community relations and create new lines of dialogue across generations.

We first wrote about Gusul’s Intergenerational Theatre for Development plans back in October 2014 while he was planning the field school. “I really want to look at how the community is affected by this process—the performance and process leading up to it should be absolutely wonderful, filled with fun and joy and laughter,” Gusul said at the time. And it sounds like that’s exactly how it came together.

Culture from the inside out

UVic Student Kathleen O'Reilly reads to Isha School Children (photo: Nikki Bell)

UVic Student Kathleen O’Reilly reads to Isha School Children (photo: Nikki Bell)

“Everyone had a wonderfully dynamic and very emotional experience,” says Gusul. Upon arriving, the undergraduates started familiarizing themselves with India and teaching English and basic theatrical exercises at the Isha school, while Gusul himself instructed the UVic students on neo-colonialism and its legacy in India. “The school is filled with first-generation learners—which, in India, means they are the first member of their family to ever attend any school—and of the 15 students who became part of the theatre company, only two of them had parents who could read or write,” he says. “One of our students used the phrase, ‘Getting to know culture from the inside out,’ which is precisely what we did.”

With participants ranging in age from nine to 90, Gusul and his students worked to develop a sense of intergenerational playfulness, as well as train three Indian directors in their unique facilitation style. “We didn’t want to overload anyone with a lot of information,” Gusul explains. “Playfulness and storytelling is how this style of theatre should work. When you introduce the young & the old, natural playfulness will happen; that’s the beginning point of rehearsal, then you transfer that over to story-sharing, and use those stories to create performance.”

Something old, something new

The final performance at TEV (photo: Aisling Kennedy)

The final performance at TEV (photo: Aisling Kennedy)

The field school culminated on November 27 with intergenerational theatrical performances at both TEV and the Isha school—a totally new kind of theatre in India, which Gusul makes clear would never have happened without the presence of the field school. “The first time they even started thinking about this was back in 2013 when I first went to this community,” he says. Yet despite the vast cultural distances between the instructors and participants, and the age difference between the performers themselves, the final performances—rooted in the personal experiences of the children and elders—was, as Gusul put it, “a triumph.”

“To create a piece of theatre from something that was spontaneously told to something put on for an audience in just three weeks was truly remarkable,” he says. “They really stepped up to the plate. When it came time to shine, they shone.”

Gus and his newly adopted Indian Grandmother Jayamma (photo: Blair Moro)

Gus and his newly adopted Indian Grandmother Jayamma (photo: Blair Moro)

Gusul was particularly moved by one participating elder named Jayama, who shared her own story: traded for a piece of farmland as a dowry, Jayama and her husband worked the land for years until he died, then all three of her sons turned to alcohol and abuse, which is how she ended up in abandoned in the elders’ village. Even worse, the last of her sons died from alcoholism only days before the final performance, with Gusul himself driving her to the funeral.

Yet despite all that, Jayama insisted on performing. “She told me that she was really sad to have lost her son, but felt fortunate to be in the elders’ village as she had gained so many adopted sons—including the village manger and myself—and would never want to do anything to disappoint us. She said she still wanted do the performance, because it was so important to her,” he recounts. “This speaks directly to the power of what theatre can offer someone: how important it was for her to tell her story, and how important it was for us as a global community to listen. When you want to talk about the absolutely most under-privileged person in the world, it would be from someone in her position: she’s 80 years old, can’t read or write, and had been abused and abandoned by her sons. ”

Making a better world

Dr Warwick Dobson addresses participants at the Isha School  (photo: Blair Moro)

Dr Warwick Dobson addresses participants at the Isha School (photo: Blair Moro)

Gusul’s PhD advisor, Theatre professor Dr. Warwick Dobson, joined the field school towards the end of the process, and praised his efforts of all the participants. “The relationships they formed with the elders and students from the different locations were exceptionally strong, and this speaks volumes for their commitment and dedication to the whole Intergenerational Theatre project,” he says. “The final performances were truly magical events. What has been particularly impressive about the whole initiative is that Matthew took great care to involve two Indian directors from Pondicherry University in the devising process.”

Even though the UVic students have now returned, the success of Gusul’s project has ensured it will continue. One of the Pondicherry directors will continue working with the company from January to June 2015, with three more intergenerational theatre companies to be formed in other parts of India over the next 12 months thanks to the support of the HelpAge India NGO, who have supported this initiative from the beginning. “It has been a truly transformative experience for all of us who were fortunate enough to be a part of it,” says Dobson.

UVic students, Nikki Bell, Aisling Kennedy, &  Katelyn Clark, create a 'Happy Machine' with Jayamma & boys from the AIM for SEVA Cuddalore Boys home (photo: Laura Buchan)

UVic students, Nikki Bell, Aisling Kennedy, & Katelyn Clark, create a ‘Happy Machine’ with Jayamma & boys from the AIM for SEVA Cuddalore Boys home (photo: Laura Buchan)

Gusul himself will return to India in June, but sees success as more than just the field school’s imapct. “The Tamaraikulam Elders’ Village is a beacon of hope for elders everywhere in the world,” he says. “It’s filled with people who were poverty-stricken beggars, dayworkers and farmers their entire lives . . . but they aren’t given money, just food, clothes, a roof over their heads and a place to pray and do recreational activities. If you’re an abused elder in Peru, in Africa or here in Canada, it’s inspiring that such a place does exist and is actually making a difference in people’s lives. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. It’s more than just a pie-in-the-sky ideal, it’s proof that a better world is possible.”

Gusul praises both UVic and the Department of Theatre’s Applied Theatre specialization—for allowing him to further develop his research into intergenerational theatre. “This is a highly unique project,” he says. “Intergenerational theatre only exists in a few pockets in the Western Theatre world, and this has been the first attempt to spread this methodology to another culture in another country. It is often assumed that people who are in poverty or are very undereducated would struggle to articulate their thoughts, feelings and stories if they were given a platform to have a voice. But this project—and specifically the methodology of intergenerational theatre with the connection to intergenerational playfulness—has shown it is possible for impoverished, undereducated elders and youth to have a voice.”

UVic student Chelsea Graham & TEV elder Srinavisan enjoy their time at the Isha School (photo: Aisling Kennedy)

UVic student Chelsea Graham & TEV elder Srinavisan enjoy their time at the Isha School (photo: Aisling Kennedy)

Ultimately, it’s Jayama’s story that Gusul holds closest to his heart, knowing the difference Applied Theatre has made in her life. “I’m really happy that for one single night, we could take one of these elders and help her become a storyteller for her community, he says. “She can tell her story of going through poverty and oppression her whole life, and can now proudly stand up in this village and declare her story. It’s wonderful.”

—This piece originally ran in the January 2105 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper. Matthew Gusul will also be the keynote speaker at the 18th annual Visual Impetus Graduate Student Research Symposium in the Department of Art History & Visual Studies, running January 23 & 24 in Fine Arts 103.

 

Alumni find love at the Phoenix

Most people come to UVic in pursuit of education. Two Phoenix alumni, however, found love and a life together in theatre

“It feels like coming full circle,” says alumna Kaitlin Williams (BFA’09).

Mack Gordon & Katlin Williams in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Mack Gordon & Katlin Williams in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Ten years ago, Williams met Mack Gordon (BFA ’08) when they were two fresh-faced first-year students in the Department of Theatre. Now married, they return to the stages of the Phoenix Theatre for our annual Spotlight on Alumni with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, running October 9-18, 2014.

Update: due to popular demand, this show has now been held over, with two extra shows added—8pm Friday October 24 & 2pm Saturday October 25.

“Kaitlin and I are blessed to work together as often as we do,” says Gordon. In 2012, they were cast as Peter and Lucy in Pacific Theatre’s much-loved adaptation of the classic Narnia tale.

Read more about the pair in this Times Colonist interview. And you can read some of the reviews here, where the TC calls it “enjoyable”, “engaging” and “charming,” while CVV Magazine says “there is much to praise in this production.”

Written and published in 1950 by C.S. Lewis, this novel is the first and most well-known story in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Ron Reed, the Artistic Director of Pacific Theatre, adapted The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the stage, setting the play years later when Peter and Lucy are adults. Stopping off to tour their Uncle Digory’s house they find themselves returning to the same spare room where the old wardrobe sits and begin to recount all the adventures they had as children. Their imaginations take over: using only the furniture in the room and a few old coats from the wardrobe, they travel back to Narnia—bringing the audience along with them.

A seasonal favourite, Pacific Theatre has remounted this play many times to great acclaim since it first played in 1998. Over the past few years, Williams and Gordon have toured this show across the province sharing the clasic story with many BC communities, including stops at Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre, West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre and, of course, the play’s home: Pacific Theatre. This presentation at the Phoenix Theatre brings the play to Vancouver Island for the first time.

Williams & Gordon in Barkerville

Williams & Gordon in Barkerville

Not many of us get to bring our spouses to work, but for Williams and Gordon, acting together makes their careers more rewarding. They keep an eye out for projects where they can perform together, whether it’s playing fiancés in the Jessie-winning production of The Foreigner or Mr. Jake and Nellie Webster, a gold miner and his wife at Barkerville Historic Town. “We joke that we are a 2-for-1 package,” laughs Williams.

Besides the built-in convenient carpool, working together makes a big difference on stage. “Sharing the stage with someone you already trust completely allows you to take risks that you might otherwise be apprehensive about,” says Gordon. “I sometimes feel akin to husbands and wives who work in the circus on the flying trapeze; our first safety net is always each other.”

Having their show selected as the Spotlight on Alumni presentation this year also means an opportunity to share post-graduating advice with current students. “Our comprehensive education helped get us involved in many areas of theatre, not just acting. The skills and connections we gained—whether backstage, studying marketing, working in the box office, or collaborating with community groups—have kept us working in theatre over the years,” says Williams.

Both actors have busy and multi-faceted careers that provide what they call their “patchwork pay cheque.” Gordon is an actor for theatre, film, and TV and also writes his own plays, works as a director—he recently assisted director Meg Roe (BFA ’04) at Bard on the Beach—and does simulation acting for training purposes. Williams has performed on stages around Vancouver and was also the Community Engagement Manager for Pacific Theatre, where she began right after university as an apprentice. She now finds acting takes up all her time.

Kaitlin Williams in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Kaitlin Williams in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

For Williams especially, this show is close to her heart. As a 12-year old girl, she attended Pacific Theatre’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and watching the actors transform into the story’s various characters—from Mr. Tumnus and the Beaver, to the evil White Witch and the mighty lion Aslan—inspired her to become an actor herself. “Not only am I performing in this same play, but I get to perform with my husband at my side, at the school where we met, 10 years later! It feels like coming full circle—times 10!”

—Adrienne Holierhoek

If you’re planning to attend The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, take a look at our entire Phoenix season. For the regular ticket price of just two plays, you could attend all four plays by subscribing to the entire season for only $48. Or, choose just three plays for only $36.

India field school spotlights intergenerational theatre

The buildings may have been repaired, but two key segments of the population in the southeastern coastal region of India are still struggling to overcome the effects of the 2006 tsunami: seniors and rural youth. Now, a new UVic field school hopes to bring a sense of joy to these marginalized people by creating India’s first intergenerational theatre company.

Matthew Gusul (centre) during a field trip to the region last year

Matthew Gusul (centre) during a field trip to the region last year

Led by PhD candidate Matthew Gusul, 13 Department of Theatre students will be traveling to Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, India, to participate in the two-month field school. Gusul, an applied theatre practitioner who has done similar fieldwork in Mexico and Guatemala, has been working with the 80 people in Tamil Nadu’s Tamaraikulam Elders’ Village (TEV) for the past two years.

By positively highlighting the life experiences of TEV residents and the 750 young students of the Isha Vidhya Matriculation School—both of which were created after the 2006 tsunami to address issues of displacement and vulnerability—Gusul will work with a team of Indian directors to encourage these seniors and rural youth to perform their own stories, develop strong community relations and create new lines of dialogue across generations.

Matthew Gusl_India8_smMany of the seniors at TEV were alive at the time of India’s independence in 1947 and offer rare opportunities for living history. But the idea of meeting the needs of seniors is still relatively new in India; in 1947, life expectancy was about 42 years, while today it’s closer to 64.

“India has a new population they don’t know how to deal with—they don’t have old age pensions or facilities for seniors,” says Gusul. “And when disasters happen, seniors are the last in the pecking order of importance. Often seniors tend to get put off to the side in what are commonly referred to as ‘granny dumps.’”

Intergenerational Theatre for Development is one example of the kind of community-engaged research happening at UVic, where undergraduates have the opportunity to take dynamic hands-on learning experiences beyond the traditional classroom and into communities around the world.

Matthew Gusl_India4_sm“Our students are there to bear witness to the process of getting this company up and running and creating the first performance,” says Gusul. He is working with the NGO HelpAge India, which will act as the organizational home for the theatre company. Once Gusul and his students arrive, the company will begin rehearsing with intergenerational theatre techniques used by the GeriActors and Friends in Edmonton, and Roots and Branches in New York City. The first performance will be on November 27, 2014.

Matthew Gusl_India3_sm“I really want to look at how the community is affected by this process—the performance and process leading up to it should be absolutely wonderful, filled with fun and joy and laughter,” says Gusul. “We really use the idea of intergenerational playfulness. You see it on the bus all the time: a young person will sit next to an old person, and the first thing the old person does is make a joke, then they start laughing together. It’s the same with seniors and their grandchildren. That’s what the company works with.”

Following the field school, the company’s Indian directors—Pondicherry University’s Dr. Bala Pazani and Sugantha Lakshmi, along with Dean of Performing Arts Dr. K.A. Gunasekaran as Creative and Cultural Consultant—will take what they learned from UVic’s theatre artists and adapt the model to be culturally appropriate for India.“Even though we have this desire to help, there have been a lot of projects with the exact same motivations that have really gone awry,” says Gusul. “Often times theatre projects with NGOs and in development situations can almost become tools for teaching or message giving—and you can see that in India right now. But we view theatre as more of a process, more about the celebratory nature.”

Matthew Gusl_India2_smKey to the whole project is its ability to survive and grow after Gusul and his students return to UVic in December. “Part of what I’m trying to do is make sure we’re as little involved as possible with the actual theatre work,” he says. “We’re there to support the idea getting generated and going; then it’s about the India community taking it on. Ultimately, it’s up to them—I can’t be too much of a cook in their kitchen.”

While Gusul notes success can be difficult to measure when it comes to theatre for development (“it’s a struggle for our entire discipline,” he admits), he’ll know the field school will have done well by the smiles on the participants faces. “The most important thing is to have one of the best days TEV has ever had, where the entire community is laughing and sharing a generational experience.”

411: the FA update

Gosh, what happened to October? The fall semester seems to be flying by as quickly as the leaves whipping through the Fine Arts courtyard. But the season isn’t the only thing changing on this side of the Ring. Here’s a quick update of what’s happening inside our own faculty.

Visual Arts

Nicholas Galanin is this year’s Audain Professor of Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest. The Sitka-born Galanin is a multi-disciplinary Tlingit/Aleut artist who has struck an intriguing balance between his origins and exploration in new perceptual territory. He’ll be teaching here through to the spring 2013 and, like previous Audain Professors Rebecca Belmore and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, will have an exhibit in the Audain Gallery in September 2013.

• Winnipeg artist Jennifer Stillwell began her tenure-track position this semester. Stillwell’s practice in sculpture, public art and video has brought her considerable attention, as noted in this earlier post.

2bears

• On the sessional front, Thomas Chisholm returns as sessional instructor this year, as does recent Interdisciplinary PhD grad Jackson 2bears. Chisholm was recently announced as a finalist in the 2012 RBC Canadian Painting Competition, while 2bears picked up his MFA in Visual Arts back in 2004, and is also teaching with Writing professor David Leach as part of the Technology and Society minor.

• Longtime painting professors Robert Youds and Sandra Meigs are both back from their academic leave this fall, and Lynda Gammon is going on leave in January.

Theatre

Steinberg and Armstrong

• The Department of Theatre has two new sessional instructors this year: Bronwyn Steinberg in the fall semester and Michael Armstrong in the spring. Armstrong is also an MFA candidate for the Department of Writing. Both will be teaching Theatre’s Public Speaking course.

• Also new in Theatre is Catherine Plant, who has been hired as the new Audience and Client Services Liaison person. Be sure to say hello to her when you catch the Phoenix’s upcoming production of The Good Person of Setzuan, running November 8 to 24.

Music

Lewis-Hammond

• Associate professor Susan Lewis Hammond is currently the acting director of the School of Music through to the end of December 2012. Hammond joined Music back in 2001, received tenure in 2007 and has long been active in the interdisciplinary Medieval Studies program, University Senate and as library representative for the School of Music.

• Sessional instructor Gary Froese has stepped up this year as the director of the UVic Chamber Singers.

• Trumpet professor Louis Ranger is on study leave this fall, and is currently being replaced by sessional instructor David Michaux.

Writing

Kevin Kerr

• Noted Canadian playwright Kevin Kerr is the newest permanent addition to the Writing faculty and, no big surprise, he’ll be focusing on drama. Kerr studied theatre at UBC and Langara College’s Studio 58 in Vancouver, was was playwright-in-residence for the University of Alberta’s Drama Department, and is a founding member and artistic associate of the famed Electric Company Theatre, with which he has co-written several plays including Brilliant!: The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Skydive and Tear the Curtain. Kerr also received the 2002 Governor General’s Award for playwriting for his acclaimed piece, Unity (1918).

History in Art

• It’s a busy time for study leave in the History in Art hallways, with Allan Antliff, Anthony Welch and Victoria Wyatt all out for the fall semester. Wyatt is also away in the spring, when Erin Campbell will be on leave as well.

Dudley and Parry

• As a result, continuing sessionals for the 2012-2013 academic year include 18th century visual art and culture specialist Dennine Dudley and author and frequent Malahat Review contributor Mitch Parry. Also rounding out the sessional list for the fall are Asato Ikeda and Laura Marchiori, with spring teaching duties going to Lesley Jessop and current PhD candidates Melissa Berry and Susan Hawkins.