Dennis Gupa: from sea rituals to applied theatre and science

Dennis Gupa in February 2021. (Photo: John Threlfall)

The idea of artists working with scientists is nothing new to Dennis Gupa.

A PhD candidate in UVic’s theatre department, Gupa is also the current artist-in-residence with Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), a UVic initiative. He sees the artistic residency, launched by the Faculty of Fine Arts and ONC two years ago, as a natural fit with his doctoral focus on Indigenous sea rituals, climate change and sustainable ecology.

While Gupa’s term at ONC will wrap up this spring, he’s also finishing his doctoral work in applied theatre under the supervision of theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yetka, whose experience in community-engaged research includes projects in Indigenous language revitalization through theatre with children in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, young people in Brazilian favelas, young women in rural areas of Cambodia and students with special needs in schools in The Netherlands.

As with any applied theatre practitioner, Gupa also wants to use the tools of theatre and drama to help bring about social change and build a sense of community—and, in his case, to attempt to grapple with the gravity of global warming especially in the island nations of the world.

Applied theatre, traditional knowledge and climate crisis

Having grown up in the Philippines, Gupa has witnessed firsthand the threat of extreme weather events. With his country being a former colony—extending across 7,600 islands and known for its maritime history, marine diversity and Indigenous population—the parallels between the Philippines and Vancouver Island are clear to Gupa. He says this is probably the reason he decided to do his grad studies at UVic.

“By looking at the experience and knowledge of local people—who have been experiencing these climatic events for so many years, but are not really given a lot of opportunities to tell their stories—we can learn from their knowledge and wisdom,” he says. “Our poetries and songs renew our kinship with the ocean.”

Gupa’s research focuses on traditional ways of knowing, as well as storytelling and applied theatre, and how these elements can be drawn into important discussions and dialogue in support of social justice, community participation and climate action.

A youth theatre project in 2015 co-directed by Gupa for a rural high school “glee club” in the Philippines. (Photo: The Perfect Grey | ASEAN Center for Biodiversity)

And he very much believes in bringing people together to share stories. Gupa says, “I create interdisciplinary work with a kinship among knowledge disciplines. One of the fascinating functions of an artist is being an interlocutor, bringing people together to share our stories.”

He conducted field work in the Samar-Leyte region of the Philippines, working closely with local elders on the island community of Guiuan, where the super typhoon Yolanda in 2013—one of the deadliest on record—first made landfall.

Strengthening connections between art and science

Sharing stories is exactly what Gupa has in mind with the ONC initiative: recently repositioned as an opportunity for Fine Arts graduate students, the ONC artist-in-residence program exists to strengthen connections between art and science, and ignite cross-disciplinary exchanges around the major issues facing oceans today.

“This residency program comes at a time of crisis in ocean sustainability,” ONC chief scientist Kim Juniper. “Science-art collaborations such as this one bring together the insight and power of two ways of looking at the world, and will hopefully lead to new understanding and greater benefits for our ocean and our future.”

While the pandemic is complicating Gupa’s original idea to create an immersive, ONC data-fueled performance experience involving the Filipino diaspora community—including playwright Karla Comanda, classical singer Jeremiah Carag, Philippine-based composer Darren Vega and Vietnamese-Canadian actor Thai-Hoa Le—Gupa is still hopeful about uniting these two worlds during his spring 2021 residency.

“How can we share our stories with the scientists, and what does that mean to them to listen to immigrants?” Gupa ponders. “How does our history of exile connect with the history of climate disaster? We’ve never really tapped into that or discussed it in a scientific space.”

For Gupa, the ONC residency is less a challenge and more a cumulative opportunity between his artistic and academic pursuits.

“There’s a lesson in fluidity that this water is teaching me and I’d like to bring that to the fore in my work … it’s not just a fascination, but water is so embodied in my work as an artist. It’s beautiful but it’s also dangerous. We cannot wait any longer for inclusive and deeper collaborations to make things better for all living things in this earth—both seen and unseen.”

Ces Bersez, Dennis Gupa, & Francis Matheu in “Murupuro/Island of Constellations” at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2018. (Photo: Migrante Manitoba FB web page)

Social justice for the seas

“When we think of the water, I think of social justice,” Gupa adds. “As an archipelagic country surrounded by water, the Philippines have been suffering from ocean disasters due to climate change: resources are depleting, coral are bleaching, fish are dying and the waters are warming so the fish don’t have food. So what do they do? They migrate, just like Filipinos—fish are the first climate refugees.”

Gupa has also been looking at how climate change has impacted Canadian Filipino diaspora communities, with whom he created and then toured a highly collaborative theatrical production in 2018 (Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg).

Gupa performing the mask of Imelda Marcos during his production of “Murupuro”. (Photo: Fiona Ngai)

Interdisciplinary conversations on global issues

In addition to collaborating with ONC at UVic, Gupa was a visiting graduate research fellow at UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society in 2019/20 and a recipient of a 2017 student research fellowship from the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at UVic. He is also a Vanier Scholar.

“Scientists spend hours in their labs thinking about their work, similar to what theatre and performance artists do in their rehearsal spaces,” he says. “We’re all exploring and searching for meaning; this kind of interdisciplinary conversation simply lets us be better adjusted to global issues.”

Gupa also spent a decade at the University of the Philippines Los Baños where, in addition to teaching theatre, he was named the first head of the Office of Arts and Science Fusion Program.

In 2011, Gupa received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council (established by John D. Rockefeller III) for six months in as the director-in-residence with Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York City.

His collaborative work has also won support from the British Columbia Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, World Bank Manila Office/Australian Agency for International Development, ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity and the Dharmasiswa Scholarship through the Indonesian government’s Ministry of Education, among many others.

Gupa has an MFA Directing (Theatre) degree from UBC and an MA (Theatre) from University of the Philippines.

Gupa wearing a traditional Filipino malong at a local beach in Victoria. (Photo: John Threlfall)

Follow the social media feeds of both Fine Arts and ONC for developments on the artistic residency this spring.

Theatre & Writing students ignite at Belfry’s SPARK Festival

One of the best parts of being a Fine Arts faculty in an arts-rich city like Victoria are the opportunities available to current students through our associations with local cultural institutions. From Pacific Opera Victoria and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to Open Space and the Belfry Theatre (to name but a few), our students don’t have to wait to graduate to gain valuable first-hand experience working alongside professional artists, technicians, designers and directors.

Case in point: the Belfry’s annual SPARK Festival, running March 8 to 25. Beyond their outstanding lineup of fascinating shows — including the monologue Who Killed Spalding Gray? written and performed by Canadian theatre royalty Daniel MacIvor, who previously worked with Department of Theatre students to present the world premiere of Inside at the Phoenix Theatre in 2011 — SPARK 2018 offers current students in both the Theatre and Writing departments the chance to show their talents to Victoria’s wider community.

Noted playwright Janet Munsil

Playwriting students will have the opportunity to present scenes from shows-in-progress at a special New Play Cabaret. Working in conjunction with student actors and directors from the Theatre department, SPARK audiences will enjoy scenes from new plays by Department of Writing MFA candidates Janet Munsil and Elliott James, and fourth-year undergrads Sarah Pitman and Alaina Baskerville-Bridges.

The free New Play Cabaret starts at 7pm Sunday, March 18, in the Belfry’s lobby.

Talented Fine Arts students and alumni are also heavily on display during SPARK’s annual free Mini-Play Festival, which offer short 10-minute productions staged all over the Belfry’s building — from hallways, offices and storage rooms to the basement and the attic, you’ll never know where you’ll see one of these micro-plays.

This year’s Mini-Plays feature work by Theatre alumni Pamela Bethel, Charles Ross (of One-Man Star Wars fame), Monica Ogden and Tony Adams, current Theatre student and 2016 City of Victoria Youth Poet Laureate Ann-Bernice Thomas (directed by fellow student Karen Saari), plus Writing alumni Kai Taddei (formerly Kat Taddei), and Visual Arts alumna Lindsay Delaronde, currently Victoria’s Indigenous Artist In Residence and creator of Pendulum, the contemporary Indigenous artist showcase recently seen at the Belfry.

Have you heard? Mini-Plays are back at SPARK!

This year’s Mini-Plays are all commissioned by the Belfry and inspired by 6ixty 8ight, a new play by former Department of Writing instructor Charles Tidler. But be warned: most Mini-Plays only offer space for less than 10 people, so be sure to get there early to get a spot.

Mini-Plays run in two batches March 14 -17, and March 21 – 24: Wednesday/Thursday at 7:00 & 7:15 pm and Fridays/Saturdays at 7:00, 7:20 & 7:40 pm.  Week one features Lindsay Delaronde, Charles Ross, and Monica Ogden & Tony Adams, while week two features Pamela Bethel, Kai Taddei, and Ann-Bernice Thomas.

Also on view during the SPARK Festival is the annual Belfry 101 Live presentation, a new play created and performed in just one short week by local high school students. This year, Belfry 101 is directed by Theatre alumna Erin Macklem, and local improviser par excellence Dave Morris of Paper Street Theatre. Belfry 101 Live starts at 7:30 pm on Sunday, March 25, on the Belfry’s mainstage.

En’owkin alumna Krystal Cook

Also part of SPARK is the new play reading of Sunday in Sodom by noted playwright Jordan Tannahill, which is being performed by a number of Phoenix alumni including Trevor Hinton, Paul Terry, Jack Hayes and Laura Jane Wallace, as well as longtime Theatre professor Jan Wood. That free reading starts at 7:30pm Monday, March 19, in the Belfry lobby.

Finally, Krystal Cook, an alumna of the En’owkin International School of Writing — which jointly awards the Indigenous Fine Arts Certificate with UVic’s Writing department — is part of the creative team behind Why We Are Here!, a site-specific pop-up choir production on Monday, March 12.

Cue the spotlight!

Celebrating 50 years of great theatre

This fall, UVic’s Department of Theatre will celebrate 50 years of creating great theatre—and great artists. Along they way, the Phoenix has also created some incredible moments on their stages. Generations of students (literally, they have several second-generation students from alumni families!) have become successes in the world of theatre, or wherever life has taken them.

Season-Brochure-coverThis year, UVic Theatre is celebrating not only their history but also their alumni, knowing full well these students—past and present—are what truly make the Phoenix such a special place . . . a place where young people become artists, and friendships are formed that last a lifetime. Whether alumni or treasured audience members, we  look forward to celebrating with everyone who has been touched by the Phoenix over the past five decades.

To mark its 50th anniversary, the Phoenix Theatre has expanded its usual fall “Spotlight on Alumni” into a three-week 50th Anniversary Alumni Festival. Internationally acclaimed artists and alumni have been invited to present five different shows during the festival, running from October 11-29.

Self-proclaimed “professional geek” Charles Ross — best known for his One-Man Star Wars Trilogy — will present all of his one-man nerd trilogies: One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, One-Man Lord of the Rings, and his newest, Dark Knight: A Batman Parody. These pop-culture hits have taken this alumnus around the world, from New York to London and Dubai to Glastonbury, including stops in Singapore, New Zealand, and even Lucasfilm’s Star Wars conventions!

50thProlific writer, performer, director, dramaturg and international Fringe icon, TJ Dawe will remount his play The Slipknot, which was performed as the very first “Spotlight” presentation in 2003. Dawe regularly performs his 14 autobiographical solo shows around the world. His play Toothpaste & Cigars (written with theatre alumnus Mike Rinaldi) inspired the Daniel Radcliffe movie The F Word. In The Slipknot, Dawe performs a spellbinding comic monologue about three equally lousy jobs—from stock boy, to driver, to post office customer service. In turns hysterical and heartbreaking, frantic and thoughtful, The Slipknot offers wise observations on relationships, Santa Claus, recreational Gravol, and why you should never put meat in the mail.

Cirque du Soleil clown and co-comedic director of Zumanity in Las Vegas, Shannan Calcutt returns for the festival with her hilarious solo show, Burnt Tongue. Calcutt, who is also a writer, actor and instructor, is best known as Izzy, the charming and radiant clown with a keen sense of timing and a razor sharp wit. In Burnt Tongue, Izzy has met a man on the internet and decides this is the guy for her! She arrives for their blind date wearing a wedding dress insisting she’s just “totally prepared to be spontaneous.”

This is all in addition to the Phoenix’s 50th Anniversary Mainstage Season, featuring Department of Theatre students, which begins in November with Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the Christopher Hampton play that was adapted into the Oscar-winning film, here directed by professor Fran Gebhard. In February, MFA candidate Alix Reynolds will direct Gut Girls by Sarah Daniels. With sharp dialogue and dazzling humour, Gut Girls is set in the Victorian era against the backdrop of women’s struggle for emancipation. The season closes with Nikolay Gogol’s The Inspector. Directed and adapted by professor Linda Hardy, this 19th-century Russian satire about greed, hypocrisy and corruption is no less relevant in today’s political landscape.

50thSite-screen-wwwThe Department of Theatre is also inviting all of its graduates to come back to campus for the 50th Anniversary Alumni Reunion, happening over the November 11-13 long weekend. The Phoenix will host three days of events for alumni to reminisce with old friends, and department faculty and staff.  “It will be an exciting weekend,” says Department Chair Allana Lindgren. “There are already hundreds of alumni interesting in coming—and bringing their families with them. The Department is looking forward to reconnecting and hearing what everyone has been up to in their lives and their careers.”

Phoenix alumni can learn more about these events on a special 50th Anniversary website the department has created. As well as the reunion weekend and Alumni Festival, the anniversary website also features a complete history of the Phoenix Theatre presented through a fun interactive timeline of the department’s growth, the plays they have produced, their faculty and when they worked, as well as many successful alumni and when they graduated. Alumni can send in their own biographies to be posted or share stories and photos from the past.

Vic-Fair-69Generations of Phoenix alumni have become successful artists, working across the world and playing important roles in Canada’s cultural institutions, including Michael Whitfield, Resident Lighting Designer for 35 years at the Stratford Festival; Denis Garnhum, most recently the Artist Director of Calgary Theatre and soon to be at The Grand Theatre in London ON; and Nathan Medd, the Managing Director of English Theatre at National Arts Centre. Many other alumni have created their own theatre companies that have become part of Canada’s cultural landscape, including Britt Small and Jacob Richmond of Atomic Vaudeville and the Broadway-bound hit Ride the Cyclone; Peter Balkwill of Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop; Ingrid Hansen and Kathleen Greenfield of the now Toronto-based SNAFU Dance Theatre; national three-time Canadian Comedy Award winners and CBC comedy writers Chris Wilson and Peter Carlone of Peter N’ Chris; and Kate Braidwood of Portland’s Wonderheads, to name but a few.

Here in Victoria, our faculty and alumni have been a driving part of the theatre community for the past 50 years, beginning in the early days with the Campus Players, Company One, and the adventurous city-wide fine arts festival, Victoria Fair (1969-71). Our alumni have founded enduring Victoria theatre companies like Theatre Inconnu (1978), Story Theatre (1981), the Victoria Fringe Festival and Intrepid Theatre (1986), the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival (1991), Theatre SKAM (1995), and, more recently, workingclasstheatre (2009) and Impulse Theatre (2011). The Department of Theatre is proud of the legacy these alumni have created for our community.

The Department of Theatre is also in the process of planning many other activities during the year, including an exhibition of Phoenix play posters at the UVic Archives, a human library event and historical displays. Stay tuned for more details!

MFA exhibit offers mix of practices

MFA POSTER[3]Always looking for a new way to present work, the Department of Visual Arts has changed the format of their annual exhibition by graduating students of their MFA program. Rather than presenting one large exhibit featuring all the graduating MFA students, this year’s exhibition has instead been split into two different sections. The first, a three-week rotating Solo Series, ran in March; now, the final three exhibitions by graduating MFA artists Kerri Flannigan, Breanna Fabbro and Victoria Murawski will be on display.

The exhibit opens with a reception from 5 to 8pm Friday, April 29, and then runs noon-4pm daily to May 6 in the Visual Arts building.

Engaging with Kerri Flannigan's work

Engaging with Kerri Flannigan’s work

Kerri Flannigan’s Catching Stones, Throwing Hammers uses drawings and archival footage to map the exterior of Woodlands, a now-defunct institution for the intellectually disabled, using changes wrought to the building’s façade since the mid-19th century to explore the institutional borders of exclusion. Flannigan is a Victoria-based interdisciplinary artist who explores methods of experimental narrative and documentary through drawing, writing, projection, and performance. She has shown locally and internationally, and is a recipient of the Best English Zine at the Expozine Awards (2011 and 2014) and runner-up to the inaugural Lind Prize (2016).

As part of her thesis defence, Flannigan will also present The Secrets of Naming Clouds, a performance accompanied by moving image work, projections, sound and live-narration; this 40-minute performance begins at 6pm on Thursday April 28 at the Intrepid Theatre club (2-1609 Blanshard), with thesis defense to follow. The performance itself will draw on utopic universal languages such as Blissymbols, an “anti-word” language designed to eradicate miscommunication and Láadan, a feminist language created to end patriarchy. These idealized forms of communication are interwoven with coming of age stories; home videos and choreographed dances, dating bans, classroom conversations on consent, teen-girl vigilantes and a family trip to LA in pursuit of minor celebrity Adam Sessler, my sisters crush.

Breanna Fabbro's "It Held Only Briefly"

Breanna Fabbro’s “It Held Only Briefly”

Breanna Fabbro’s It Held Only Briefly is a series of paintings that depart from the normative apperceptions of still-life in the traditional understanding of an object sitting still in space, but accede the moments before an object meets its final position. Objects are constructed out of shredded canvases and given life through actions such as tearing, raveling, and tossing. These moments of suspended motion are mobilized through painting the memory and experience of interactions with the objects as it relates to the space or scenario it is set against.

Apropos to life and mortality in the still-life canon, these works are a return to life and its inherent momentum, subsumed by discovery, failure, and regeneration. Objects in the world are alive – we make them alive with our constant interaction with them. Like food in still-life paintings that depict decay, all objects have a life. Fabbro’s work depicts that movement and process of coming and becoming.

Part of Victoria Murawski's "Coming Forward in Waves"

Part of Victoria Murawski’s “Coming Forward in Waves”

Victoria Murawski will also present her work in the exhibit, Coming Forward in Waves.

Now complete, the Solo Series in March featured work by graduating MFAs Tristan Zastrow, Ryan Hatfield and Rachel Vanderzwet.

Joan MacLeod wins the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre

Siminovitch Prize winner Joan MacLeod

Acclaimed Canadian playwright and acting Department of Writing chair Joan MacLeod has won the 2011 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre. With a prize of $100,000, the Siminovitch is Canada’s richest theatre award.

“For well over a decade now my time to write has been steadily diminishing,” says MacLeod. “The Siminovitch award changes all that. What a generous and perfect gift. What a great reminder of what drew me to writing in the first place—there is joy to be found in creating a piece of writing.”

The Vancouver born-and-raised MacLeod is the author of nine plays, including such beloved works as The Shape Of A Girl, Amigo’s Blue Guitar, Homechild and Toronto, Mississippi. The Tarragon Theatre production of her latest play, Another Home Invasion, is currently on a national tour, and The Shape of a Girl has been produced continuously since its 2001 premiere. MacLeod’s plays have been translated into eight languages and she has received numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Drama and two Chalmers Canadian Play Awards; this is her second time on the Siminovitch list, following her nomination in 2005. MacLeod also graduated from UVic’s Department of Writing in 1978—where she has taught since 2004.

“The jury wanted to recognize Joan’s unique voice, her masterful storytelling and the impact that her work has had among audiences in Canada and beyond,” noted jury chair Maureen Labonté, “Joan is a master of expressing the profoundest human emotions, putting to paper the vulnerability, the compassion, the weaknesses and strengths of the human spirit. Moreover, as a teacher, mentor and role model, she has no doubt inspired a generation of new Canadian theatre artists.”

Joan MacLeod was joined at the Siminovitch Prize gala in Toronto by former UVic MFA student Sally Stubbs and Department of Writing colleague Maureen Bradley, along with Fine Arts associate dean Lynne Van Luven (taking photo)

But while MacLeod may be cutting back on her teaching duties in the near future, don’t count her out of the department anytime soon. “It’s a very rewarding job,” she told the Globe and Mail about her position at UVic. “I love my students and I’m honoured that the teaching part of me is also part of this award.”

One unique aspect of the Siminovitch Prize is its designation of a $25,000 protégé award; MacLeod has chosen Toronto playwright Anusree Roy as her protégé, whose plays Brothel #9 and Pyassa have each won a Dora Award for Outstanding New Play.

Named for renowned scientist Lou Siminovitch and his late playwright wife Elinore, the Siminovitch Prize has awarded over $1 million in prizes since its 2001 debut. Previous winners include Toronto playwright Daniel MacIvor, Vancouver director Kim Colier and Calgary designer Ronnie Burkett.

Media coverage of MacLeod’s win has been brisk, with noticeable features in the Globe and Mail (“I’m so far from being the bright new thing, so it just feels great to be celebrated like this. It’s not something that happens often at this point in someone’s career.”), MacLean’s magazine (“”This is the big one. For a playwright in this country, it really doesn’t get better than this and it isn’t anything that I had imagined.”), CBC, the Vancouver Sun and the front page of the local Times Colonist.

MacLeod also offered praise for her days as a student in UVic’s Department of Writing: “They believed in my voice and thought I had talent,” she told the TC’s Adrian Chamberlain. “That really meant a lot to me.”