National symposium at UVic addresses acting methods

If you’ve ever seen actors at work—on stage, on screen, on the street or on television—you’ve seen the results of the kind of pedagogy happening daily in the Department of Theatre. But now a first-of-its-kind national symposium co-organized by theatre professor Conrad Alexandrowicz is questioning and examining traditional acting methods, as it addresses what’s been described as “the crisis of actor training in Canada

Conrad Alexandrowicz

Conrad Alexandrowicz

From March 6 to 8 at UVic, Acting Training in a Shifting World will welcome 34 instructors from the majority of Canadian post-secondary drama institutions, ranging from universities and colleges to conservatory programs. “Basically, we’re looking at who we’re teaching and what we’re actually training people to do,” says Alexandrowicz.

Following up on the October 2014 issue of the journal Canadian Theatre Review, which was dedicated to changes in actor training, the UVic symposium will address issues ranging from diversity in gender, sexuality, physicality and ethnicity to funding challenges, new teaching methods and philosophies, postgraduate and company-based training models, and the gap between acting institutions and the professional world.

“We want to reflect a much broader picture: who’s actually living in Canada and what kind of theatre people are making across the board, not just what goes on at festivals and mainstream stages,” he continues. “We’re training people to do a range of things and we need to include a whole different set of approaches to realize that goal.”

For his part, Alexandrowicz specializes in innovative performance techniques that address issues central to the human journey—relationships, gender, power and the nature of the performance event itself. “Realism is only one style of theatre,” he says, “yet we treat it as though it’s a given, as though it’s the sine qua non, when it’s not.” Rather than accept conventional theatrical procedures and forms, Alexandrowicz instead draws from a number of genres and disciplines, deconstructing and recombining them in startling ways—as seen in his direction of last month’s widely lauded Phoenix Theatre production of Lion in the Streets and 2014’s Mother Tongue, his SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary work based on the poetry of Lorna Crozier and Erin Moure. He is also the artistic director of Wild Excursions Performance.

Alexandrowicz working with students

Alexandrowicz working with students

Admitting that both the US and the UK are ahead of Canada in these study areas (“I hate to say it, but it’s true,” he grumbles), Alexandrowicz is keen to affect change from within. “Why are university acting programs simply reproducing all these discriminatory and oppressive patterns that operate in the larger culture?” he asks. By way of a positive counter-example, Alexandrowicz points to Diana Belshaw, head of acting at Humber College and co-editor of the 2014 CTR issue, who notably reconfigured Humber’s theatre department into a performance lab and workshop for creating new work. “We need to diversify our approach so we’re covering more bases.”

As a member of one of Canada’s leading theatrical training institutions, Alexandrowicz is also excited the symposium is coming here. “It’s good for UVic to host a discussion where we’re questioning all the things we’ve taken for granted for decades—that acting always comes out of a printed script,” says Alexandrowicz. “We’re under a lot of pressure to think of theatre training as a greater part of a liberal arts education, so we should be including people from all across campus, people who want to learn about performance but have no interest in professional acting per se.”

He points to the potential performance benefits to be gleaned by forging connections with faculties like law and business, and the increasing popularity of events like TED Talks and UVic’s own IdeaFest, where scientists and thinkers need to be able to effectively communicate their ideas and research. “I really want us to offer this kind of experience to students across campus; we need to democratize how we teach acting to make the experience of learning about performance available to a whole range of people from other disciplines.”

Alexandrowicz pauses and chuckles. “One person even asked if we should still be teaching Shakespeare, so pretty much everything is on the table right now.”

This piece originally ran in the March 2014 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper

Undergrads in focus at JCURA

While much of the high-profile research and creative activity on campus tends to happen at both the faculty and graduate student level, let’s not discount the foundational work being done by our undergrads. As such, the Faculty of Fine Arts is once again proud to feature the work of 10 students from four separate departments in the annual Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards.

March 4_JCURAFirst instituted in 2009-10 as the Undergraduate Research Scholarship program by then Vice-President Academic and Provost—and now UVic President—Jamie Cassels, the JCURAs are designed to provide support for exceptional undergraduate students who might otherwise not be able to obtain a direct research experience as a part of what we anticipate should be a truly formative learning experience. With the award nomination process administered by the Learning and Teaching Centre, on behalf of the Provost’s Office, the annual JCURA symposium is one of the highlights of IdeaFest.

You can read full abstracts on all 110 entries here, from almost every department on campus, but we’re just going to note the Fine Arts contributions—which you can find out more about in person at the JCURA symposium running 11:30am-3pm Wednesday, March 4.

The Department of Art History & Visual Studies is in the lead with three JCURA students this year. Aimee Hawker (supervised by department chair Catherine Harding) is focusing on the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi for her JCURA project. “An essential site of veneration and pilgrimage, it is visited by thousands of pilgrims each year,” she writes. “It also houses the most expansive narrative program that survives in Italy from the 13th and 14th centuries, with masters such as Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini and Giunta Pisano taking part in the Basilica’s decoration.” Her project examines the current research on the degradation of the frescos of the Upper Basilica and the restoration and conservation efforts carried out by the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (I.C.R.).

A clip from Holly Cecil's William Morris film project

A clip from Holly Cecil’s William Morris film project

Fellow AHVS student Holly Cecil (supervised by professor Erin Campbell) presentation is “A Joy to the Maker and the User”: The Arts & Crafts Movement in Canadian Collections, which traces the origins of the British Arts and Crafts design movement to its reception in Canada, by analyzing several representative objects in our Legacy Art Galleries collections. “Uniting beauty and function, these works of art allow us to trace the movement and its appeal to Canadian collectors,” writes Cecil.  Her project will culminate in website-friendly short films, like this foundational William Morris film project she created.

When planning the summer 2015 Legacy Art Gallery exhibit on Katharine Maltwood and the Arts and Crafts movement, curator Caroline Riedel notes, “The inclusion of Holly Cecil’s work . . . also underlines the mandate of the Legacy Art Galleries to foster research and learning through art and, where possible, to showcase the work of faculty and students who work with our collection.”

At work on VISA's Peoples Apothocary

At work on VISA’s Peoples Apothocary

And AHVS’s Laurie White (supervised by professor Allan Antliff) is considering the aesthetic and ideological role community gardens play in our contemporary visual culture. “Through the aesthetic medium of the garden, these shared outdoor spaces promote social interaction and connection to nature and are in this sense works of ‘social sculpture’, a term coined by German artist Joseph Beuys,” she writes. “Whether they grow food or flowers, community gardens are an outlet for creative and political self expression and form an important part of counter-cultural struggles in the West today.” She will be looking at gardens as works of art in themselves, both on an aesthetic and socially transformative level, and will consider local community gardens with artistic connections, such as Vancouver Island School of Art‘s People’s Apothecary.

Meanwhile, Department of Writing student Cody Gies (supervised by professor Lee Henderson) proposes to write and illustrate a weekly/bi-weekly alternative webcomic that will explore and make use of various structures and techniques of the medium. “Inspired by ‘rubber hose’ animation and the highly imaginative works of Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Brandon Graham (an influential Vancouver cartoonist with Victoria connections), I hope to write a surreal fantasy focused on the journey and relationship of two protagonists,” says Gies. “I plan to research and incorporate an interactive narrative experience through use of links, gifs, games, etcetera, embedded in the sequential art.” You can check out both a digital and limited-run print version of the comic at the JCURA fair.

Watch out, Writing profs—Flexer has diagrams

Watch out, Writing profs—Flexer has diagrams

Also in Writing, Jerry Flexer (supervised by Writing chair David Leach) will be examining the very thing he spends days listening to: creative writing pedagogy, with an emphasis on creative nonfiction. “My research will consider two dominant approaches,” he writes. “The product-focused approach invites students to read published works and emulate, while the process-focused approach relies on a step-by-step process to gradually develop learners’ creative writing skills. One area of debate is whether a method based on a process of any kind can be effective. Some creative writing instructors, as well as some published writers, attribute artistic writing to talent and hard work, something instruction does not provide. I will argue for the importance of including a process focus in creative writing instruction because research suggests it better meets the expectations and needs of learners.”

Over in the Department of Visual Arts, Elizabeth Charters (supervised by professor Robert Youds) is examining sculptural practice is space. “I’m interested in how we interact with the space of the constructed environments we find ourselves in,” she says. “Inspired by everything from street lamps and neon signs to the objects displayed on a living room mantle, I am curious about the physical and psychological impacts that various artificial environments­­ have on our way of living. How we move through and interact with the space that is immediately found around us, whether it is in the private or public realm, can be reflected in our body’s relationship to the space and the objects within it.” Charters’ eventual goal is to challenge the viewer’s ideas about lived spaces, providing a platform for both a bodily and psychological understanding of the self within the space of an urban setting.

instagram-to-compete-with-snapchat-with-new-bolt-appAnother Visual Arts student, Hovey Eyres (supervised by professor Lynda Gammon), is looking at the impact of Instagram. A social media application that produces 60 million photographs per day from 200 million users around the world, Eyres notes that “love” and “me” are two of the most popular tags used to describe these photos, with “selfie” not far behind. “These photos reflect my generation’s desperate search for identity and acceptance in today’s society,” she says. “By reproducing these images with pencil and paper, I redefine their context and provoke questions about Instagram, identity, and society. The images’ content is recognizable and familiar, yet the materials make them surprising and stimulating.” Her drawings ultimately reflect issues including publicity versus privacy, appearance versus reality, and the individual versus society.

One last Visual Arts student is Olivia Prior (supervised by Jennifer Stillwell) whose work in the realm of art and technology focuses on “the cohesion of technology, space, and light, by creating interactive installations that generate results unique to each engaging participant.” Her JCURA presentation will use light to examine the control that the physical presence of each participant has in a space, by using various methods to measure values of proximity, sound, or touch. “The light and methods of physical measurement will aim to remove the notion of control, and use technology as a way to reflect the ongoing activity in the space.”

Jerzy Grotowski

Jerzy Grotowski

Finally, we have two Department of Theatre students presenting their research. Emma Leck (supervised by Theatre professors Allan Lindgren and Conrad Alexandrowicz) will be examining the theories of two international theatre artists: Polish experimental director Jerzy Grotowski and Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold to determine how external actions can inform emotional states. “This research promises to augment the actor’s process and illuminate issues involving the relationship between body and self,” she says.

And Chase Hiebert (supervised by professor Jan Wood) is engaged in a project that will “explore a technique of acting that engages and involves the audience in a cathartic experience. This research promises to reframe the actor/audience relationship in ways that emphasize the need for empathy.” You’ll have to visit the JCURA symposium to find out more on that.