Distinguished Alumni Glynis Leyshon’s most distinguished career

She is one of Canada’s most respected opera and theatre directors, with an enviable career working with the most prestigious performance companies in Canada. She’s been the artistic director of two theatre companies of national repute, was the head of the Opera as Theatre Programme at the Banff Centre and has conducted courses at such diverse locations as UVic, UBC, the Victoria Conservatory of Music and William Head Penitentiary. Also the recipient of Canada’s Commonwealth Medal for her contributions to the arts, Glynis Leyshon can now add the distinction of University of Victoria Distinguished Alumni to her already impressive resume.

2016 Distinguished Alumni Glynis Leyshon

2016 Distinguished Alumni Glynis Leyshon

But surprisingly for someone so closely associated with Canadian theatre, her academic career culminated in 1973 with a BFA from History in Art. “Who knew that having an art history degree would be so incredibly useful for a theatre director?” Leyshon says with a good-natured chuckle. “In many ways, I can think of no better background—the eye training alone was incredibly useful, but also having the insight and vocabulary to work with designers on sets and costumes.”

Leyshon was honoured as the 2016 Distinguished Alumni for the Faculty of Fine Arts at a special Alumni Week event on February 2 at the Royal BC Museum, alongside 11 other alumni from various faculties. (It was doubly rewarding to have her present at the awards, given that she had survived a harrowing stabbing in Toronto less than eight weeks prior.) Leyshon now joins the likes of previous Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Esi Edugyan (BA ’99), Michael J. Whitfield (BA ’67), Mercedes Bátiz-Benét (BFA ’02), Carla Funk (BFA ’97), Paul Beauchesne (BMus ’88), Deborah Willis (BA ’06), Valerie Murray (BA ’78), author Eden Robinson (BFA ’92) and Andrea Walsh (BA ’91).

Dr. Susan Lewis, acting Dean of Fine Arts, applauds Leyshon’s achievements and her selection as a Distinguished Alumni. “Glynis Leyshon exemplifies the best qualities of a Fine Arts alumna,” she says. “Based in Art History, she also performed onstage at the Phoenix while a student and experienced the full value of studying across the arts. Glynis honed what she learned at UVic to become one of Canada’s top opera and theatre directors. Bravo and congratulations!”

Seeing the world through new eyes

Indeed, it was the then-called History in Art department that originally brought Leyshon to UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts from her home in North Vancouver. The first in her family to even consider getting a university degree, she says she came to UVic seeking “a classic liberal arts education more than theatre training. My parents weren’t viewing this as a trade school, but as a true educational experience for me.” She speaks highly of her art history training, describing it as being “key to my work.”

“In Art History, they wanted you to take German in translation and to have a basis in English, History and many other cultural disciplines, so when you were looking at a work of art it wasn’t an isolated aesthetic event, but a culmination of the life and history of the people who were making it, why and how they were making it, and what they wanted to say with it,” she says. “The importance and the power of what we do and why we do it, how looking beyond surface aesthetics in a work of art, can be powerful and meaningful beyond a fleeting sense of interest.”

A scene from Leyshon's production of Where the Blood Mixes

A scene from Leyshon’s production of Where the Blood Mixes

It was also while taking museum conservation classes at the Royal BC Museum that Leyshon became aware of the importance of cultural diversity. “Being introduced to the extraordinary First Nations collection and the richness of that culture at the RBCM started what has become an arc in my ongoing career—to the point of working with Margot Kane and Kevin Loring on his Governor General’s Award-winning play Where the Blood Mixes.”

“Truly inspiring” is how Dr. Erin Campbell, current Chair of the Art History & Visual Studies department, describes Leyshon. “Glynis affirmed for me the value of studying art history,” says Campbell. “Her example showcases the essential truth of the discipline—that it not only enriches our lives but is also at the heart of all things cultural, encompassing literature, history, theatre, design, and languages. It develops the mind, the eye, and the heart, enhancing our our ability to engage with the world of culture. Her outstanding career as a theatre director demonstrates that a degree in art history can have surprising results, leading one to embark on unexpected career paths and unforeseen adventures.”

All the world’s a stage

While pursuing studies in art history and museum conservation, Leyshon also took some theatre classes back in the pre-Phoenix days when Theatre operated out of the old army huts on campus. “Of course, this was in the era when you could take a degree in one department and work in another, and that served me very well,” she continues. ”Because while I was in that building a lot, I was never officially in the theatre department.” She did, however, spend a couple of years working with Theatre professor Carl Hare in his famed Company One. “It was one of those magical experiences you never forget,” she recalls.

Given that she was studying in the early 1970s, it was also a time when the importance of Canadian content was emerging. “We had the passion and excitement of developing insight into Canada’s own cultural identity, rather than simply studying work from Britain or the US. We were really trying to create work from our own experiences and Carl Hare’s Company One was an important part of that exploration.”

A familiar name to longtime Victoria residents, Leyshon served as Artistic Director of the Belfry Theatre for 11 seasons, from 1986 to 1997. (Indeed, she was even one of less than 10 people in the room when the idea of naming it “the Belfry” came up in the late 1970s.) She directed over 25 productions at the Belfry, and was instrumental in heading a capital campaign that allowed the theatre to purchase and renovate their landmark heritage building. She also reduced the company’s accumulated debt and helped refine the Belfry’s artistic mandate by focusing on contemporary and Canadian work by the celebrated likes of Morris Panych, Dan Needles, Michel Marc Bouchard and fellow UVic alumna Joan MacLeod, among many others.

Following her Belfry tenure, she became Artistic Director of the Playhouse Theatre Company in Vancouver from 1997 to 2009, and has since directed for the likes of the Shaw Festival, the National Arts Centre, Citadel Theatre, Canadian Stage, Tarragon Theatre, Bard on the Beach, Theatre Calgary, among numerous others. On the opera front, she’s directed acclaimed productions for nearly every Canadian company—including Pacific Opera Victoria, Vancouver Opera, L’Opéra de Montréal, Calgary Opera, Opera Hamilton, Edmonton Opera, Ottawa’s Opera Lyra, among others—and has created over 20 new productions for POV alone.

Words of wisdom for students

Leyshon delivering her popular speech at the Distinguished Alumni Awards

Leyshon delivering her popular speech at the Distinguished Alumni Awards

With all that cultural work behind her, does she have any advice for current (and future) Fine Arts students? “If you’re ambivalent in any way, do something else,” she says with characteristic frankness. “Only enter this arena if, in your heart, you can’t see yourself doing anything else. It is going to be difficult . . . but if you have a passion for it, then follow that dream with every bit of discipline you have. Then, if the stars align—and they need to, because it’s always going to be a challenge—then you to may have the gift of working in the arena of our emerging Canadian culture.”

Currently working on the world premier of a new opera—Ours, chronicling the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s tragic WWI Battle of Beaumont Hamel, set to debut in summer 2016 at St. John’s Opera on the Avalon—Leyshon, was back on campus as recently as November 2015 directing a new version of the POV WWI opera, Mary’s Wedding. And watch for her to be back at the Belfry in April 2016, directing the 40th anniversary production of Puttin’ on the Ritz.

When asked if it’s easier or harder for Fine Arts students to find their way these days, Leyshon doesn’t pull any punches. “It’s never been easy and I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy. Truthfully, I didn’t get my degree in History in Art as a career move. I wanted to learn as much as I could about something I was passionate about.” She pauses and chuckles again. “But I don’t think a lot of guys at IBM have a solid career path right now either.”

The business of the arts

Leyshon also highlights the importance of entrepreneurial thinking.

“Life is about listening intently not just to the logistics of finding a job but the passion of making a life—if you listen hard, you’ll find your way,” she says. “Be brave about it, because nothing today is a done deal for reliability; there are no cradle-to-grave job opportunities anymore. You have to make your work as you need to; artists have to be entrepreneurial and business people, and if you have the talent and heart for it, you will find your way. There are more opportunities in a more diverse range of the arts than ever before—BC is a centre for a lot of digital technology—which are open to people. But you need that talent, passion and discipline to move forward.”

Looking back on both her academic years and career in the arts, Leyshon muses about the importance of Victoria as a cultural centre. “We’re very lucky in this community that you don’t feel totally lost in a huge landscape,” she says. “We are fortunate to be part of a really passionate community that supports music, theatre and opera, as well as literary, visual and performing arts. There’s an appetite and interest in the work we do, which is quite different than how people feel across the country.”

Considering that UVic continues to add an impressive number of figures to Canada’s ever-increasing cultural canon—from the established likes of pianist Eve Egoyan, playwright Joan MacLeod, sculptor Kim Adams, artist Robert Youds, director Dennis Garnhum and novelist WP Kinsella to next-generational names like novelist Esi Edugyan, composer Rodney Sharman, playwright Janet Munsil, artist Althea Thauberger, and actor Sara Topham, to name but a few—does Leyhson feel there is something about UVic that fosters such extraordinary creativity?

“I do,” she says. “UVic has fostered something beautiful here. Sometimes it feels like Canada is a wasteland filled with beer and hockey, but all those Canadian clichés—the poetic ads where kids play hockey—that’s not us. We’ve had to find other ways to express ourselves as Canadians. That critical foundation came from UVic and was absolutely vital to where I’ve been able to develop my craft.”

Carl Wilson’s Tears

If you’re the kind of person who cries at movies, take heart—you’re not alone. Whether the tears are of joy, sadness, or cathartic relief, Carl Wilson says crying in response to culture is commonplace. This year’s Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecturer in Journalism and Nonfiction for the Department of Writing, Wilson’s March 3 public lecture “The Taste of Tears: When Pop Culture Makes People Cry” will examine these often public displays of emotion.

WR_wilson3_sm“I’m interested in exploring why everyone’s comfortable with comedies making us laugh—but, when culture makes us cry, we often feel ashamed or manipulated,” says Wilson, a prolific journalist whose latest book will focus on what’s happening when entertainment makes us cry.

The author of the critically acclaimed essay collection, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Wilson’s “thought experiment” uses Céline Dion’s music to encourage readers to consider what forms of culture they value and scorn, and why.

Music critic for Billboard magazine and Slate.com, Wilson is currently teaching the upper-level Writing course “Pop Life: Writing About Contemporary Pop Culture.” At the lecture, he will read selections from his manuscript in process, as well as reflect his current research on cultural weeping and catharsis.

Listen to this CBC interview with Wilson ahead of his lecture, or read the story here.

As the 2016 Southam Lecturer, Wilson is offering students the benefit of his experience as a contributor to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Pitchfork, The Nation, Exclaim!, Spin and others—including nearly 15 years as a feature writer and editor at The Globe and Mail. “One of the reason I like to work in pop culture is that it’s a more immediately accessible and relatable form,” he says. “Whether or not you’re deeply versed in the history of those forms, it’s a medium you have direct access to that works as a conversation with other people through this common experience of popular culture.”

let's talkReprinted in 2014 as a stand-alone edition subtitled “Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste,” Let’s Talk About Love now includes additional essays by the likes of novelists Nick Hornby and Sheila Heti, musicians Owen Pallett and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana), cultural critics Ann Powers and Sukhdev Sandhu, scholars Daphne A. Brooks and Jonathan Sterne, and many others. And while not quite as popular as Ms. Dion herself, Wilson’s book has sparked debates about taste in the music-writing community as well as on blogs and podcasts, in cultural studies departments and across traditional media outlets ranging from The Village Voice to The Colbert Report. It even got a shout-out from actor James Franco on the red carpet at the 2009 Oscars.

“Different forms of culture are lenses through which we can look at our lives and society,” says Wilson. “It’s more about engaging in dialogue with the work than a knee-jerk thumbs-up/thumbs-down reaction. When you’re writing about music or movies or books, you can write about anything; it potentially encompasses all experience.”

Wilson is the ninth person to hold the prestigious Southam lectureship, following the likes of Jo-Ann Roberts (CBC’s All Points West), acclaimed author Richard Wagamese, journalist Terry Glavin, sports writer Tom Hawthorn, satirist Mark Leiren-Young, Sandra Martin (Globe and Mail) and Charles Campbell (Georgia Straight).  It is made possible by a significant gift from one of the country’s leading publishing families.



Fine Arts in the spotlight at Ideafest

As millennia of human progress and innovation has proven, ideas can change everything. And ideas once again take centre-stage on campus with Ideafest, UVic’s annual research festival. Running from March 7-12, Ideafest celebrates some of the brightest minds and ideas on campus and this year’s festival showcases 50 outstanding events—of which the Faculty of Fine Arts is involved in more than a dozen. Ideafest offers yet another opportunity to demonstrate how essential creativity and culture are to UVic’s core research strengths.

dove_smThe annual Fine Arts panel discussion helps kick off the first day of Ideafest, when we examine “All The Rage: Art in Conflict Zones” from 5-7pm Monday, March 7 in room A240 of the Human & Social Development Building. Global conflict causes destruction & chaos, yet inspiring & enduring creative works are forged in those same fires: consider Picasso’s Guernica, Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. From the Holocaust to Syria, Rwanda, Israel, Cambodia and other conflict zones, Fine Arts faculty members offer a timely & provocative panel about how good art can emerge from terrible events. Moderated by Dr Susan Lewis, Acting Dean of Fine Arts, our panelists will include David Leach (Writing), Suzanne Snizek (School of Music), Allan Antliff & Marcus Milwright (Art History & Visual Studies), and Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta (Theatre). The audience for last year’s panel was literally filled to overflowing—we had people sitting in the hallway—so be sure to arrive early . . . although we have booked a bigger room this year! Full details here.

Earlier that same day, Writing professor Lee Henderson will once again be participating in “Graphic Ideas @UVic” from noon-2pm Monday, March 7, in McPherson Library room A0025, alongside Visual Arts instructor David Gifford. Henderson’s most recent novel, The Road Narrows As You Go, was all about the 1980s comic book industry and he also teaches a graphic novel elective for Writing, so he knows well of which he speaks. Discover who else is involved with the panel here.

LSQEver wonder what it’s like to be Artist-in-Residence at UVic? Find out when the School of Music presents “A Day in the Life of the Lafayette String Quartet” from 11am-2:30pm Tuesday, March 8, in rooms B125 & B037 of the MacLaurin building. One of the most renowned string quartets in North America, the LSQ has garnered international acclaim as a talented, all-female string quartet for nearly 30 years. Since 1991, the LSQ—made up of Ann Elliott-Goldschmid, Joanna Hood, Pamela Highbaugh Aloni and Sharon Stanis—has held residency at the UVic School of Music, sharing their passion for chamber music with students and the Victoria community. This event offers a rare opportunity to accompany the LSQ as they rehearse new material, discuss their work, and workshop with students—all in a day’s work! This event will feature an open rehearsal (11am-12:30pm), a brown-bag lunch discussion with the LSQ & their students (12:30-1:30), plus a chamber music masterclass workshop (1:30-2:30). Find out more here.

IF_AT test_smThat same day, the Department of Theatre is examining “The Power of Myth” from 12:30-1:30pm March 8 in the Phoenix Theatre. Myths, legends and fairy tales are a central part of all cultures around the world. But how can Applied Theatre practitioners use them to deal with traumas and difficult experiences, and how do those experiences vary in different cultures? Theatre professor and scholar Warwick Dobson will explore the Applied Theatre techniques used throughout his 40-year career as theatre director, school teacher, drama consultant, educator and professor. Event includes a participatory workshop on the story of the traditional Tamil folk-tale, Kandarubia. See more here.

Also on Tuesday, March 8, Visual Arts students will be participating in the “Pecha Kucha Biomedica & Poster Social” from 3-6pm in room B150 & the foyer of the Bob Wright Centre. The Centre for Biomedical Research is a collaborative collective of scientists, clinicians and research trainees investigating important problems related to human health and medical application—and this year, they’ve paired some graduate students with Visual Arts undergrads to help them illustrate their ideas. See what Jacob Wong Pang and Alexandra Santos have come up with. Read more here.

clever inventionsThe Department of Visual Arts is offering the four-day exhibit “Clever and Pleasant Inventions,” running March 8-12 in the Fine Arts courtyard. Drawing on the late 16th century French book La Premier partie des subtiles et plaisantes inventions (Clever and Pleasant Inventions) by J. Prevost—the oldest known book on the topic of prestidigitation—this visual arts exhibit will attempt to bring the book’s text and illustrations to life through student drawing, sculpture and installations. Organized by Visual Arts instructor David Gifford. See what else is happening here.

One of the best aspects of Ideafest is how it offers opportunities to showcase both faculty and student research, with the latter being on display in the annual Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards (JCURA), running 11:30am-3pm in the SUB’s Michele Pujol room, upper lounge and hallway. The JCURA fair presents a rare opportunity to connect with the next generation of Canadian researchers and will feature over 100  inspiring projects, ranging from the latest in biomedical technologies to the politics of decolonization. Nearly a dozen Fine Arts students will be participating, including Claire le Nobel (Music), Ellery Rose Lamm (Writing), Hollis Roberts, Kyra McLeod, Luke Fair (Visual Arts), Irina Ridzuan, Jesse York & Saromi Kim (Art History & Visual Studies), and Nicholas Guerreiro (Theatre). Click on each of their links to see what they’re all working on. Also, two of the JCURA Music recipients—Aliayta Foon-Dancoes & Elizabeth Gerow—will be doing their presentations in the Phillip T. Young Recital Hall from 4:30-5:30pm.

Meigs_Nik West22015 Governor General’s Award winner and Visual Arts professor Sandra Meigs will be one of three UVic national award winners sharing the stage with Chancellor and acclaimed broadcast journalist Shelagh Rogers for the panel discussion “When Ideas Come to Life,” running 7-9pm Wednesday March 9 at the Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave. Celebrated scholars astronomer Sara Ellison and ethnoecologist Nancy Turner will join Rogers and Meigs in conversation, as they exchange stories about what it’s like to create knowledge for a living. How has research shaped their professional and personal lives? How do they view their roles as intellectuals in modern society? This intimate look at the life of the research-intensive scholar promises to be a fascinating evening. Note: this event is free, but it does require booking tickets with the Belfry Theatre.

VenusThe ongoing Syrian civil war has brought us all sorts of headlines about the wanton destruction of artworks and archaeological sites, which makes the Department of Art History & Visual Studies panel discussion “The Destruction of Art”—running 4:30-6pm Wednesday, March 9 in room C108 of the Strong building—very timely indeed. If you’ve been disturbed by the recent demolitions of UNESCO world heritage sites or upset by the idea of artworks being attacked in galleries, you may be surprised to learn that the destruction of art is a common practice. But why do people—including artists—destroy art? Join our panel of art historians as we debate if the destruction of art can be justified and how it figures as an artistic practice. Presenters include Allan Antliff, Evanthia Baboula, Erin Campbell, Marcus Milwright, and Astri Wright. Find out more here.

Also on Wednesday, March 9, is “Magical Mushrooms: Composers to Decomposers” from 7-9:30pm in room D115 of the MacLaurin building. Presented by UVic’s Centre for Forest Biology, Visual Arts professor and composer Paul Walde will be highlighting his own fascinating with mycological art with his pieces “Interdeterminacy (for John Cage)” and “Music for Mycologists”. This marvelous, multimedia medley of science, music and art offers a trip through UVic’s Lorenzen Ceramic Mushroom Collection, as well as the latest UVic research on fungal symbionts and pathogens. See more here.

Meet the future of Canadian literature when Department of Writing MFA students step into the spotlight with “Brave New Wordsmiths,” 6:30-8:30pm Thursday, March 10, at the Copper Owl, 1900 Douglas Street. A group reading night featuring the literary talents of K’Ari Fisher, Stephanie Harrington, Annabel Howard, Robbie Huebner, Danielle Janess and Susan Sanford Blades. These graduating MFA students will offer short readings from their final projects—and future books—ranging from  works of fiction, creative nonfiction, drama and poetry, as well as introductions by their faculty supervisors. Read more here.

Art History & Visual Studies instructor Jamie Kemp will be discussing medieval illumination and bookbinding as part of “Medifest,” running 3-7pm Saturday, March 12, in the Hickman building. A medieval fair of ideas, crafts, demonstrations and conversations, Medifest offers access to the middle ages via calligraphy, geometrical art, stained glass windows art, dance, story telling, crafts, music and magic, along with a pair of fast-paced lectures. But before that, the medieval manuscript round-table “Medieval Minutes” will run 2-3 pm in Special Collections room A003 at McPherson Library. Find out more here.

Games Without FrontiersFinally, Fine Arts is excited to be participating in “Games Without Frontiers 2.0” from noon-5pm Saturday, March 12, in the A-wing foyer of the MacLaurin building. This “pop-up idea arcade” unites professors, graduate researchers, undergrads, K-12 teachers and students, game designers, artists and curious citizens from across Victoria to explore the social and educational power of digital games. Panels of UVic faculty and guest experts will discuss games in education, games to improve mental and physical health, virtual and augmented-reality games and the fine art of game design. In demo rooms, visitors can try games by UVic faculty, students and local studios; use an augmented-reality app to learn a language; discover the learning potential of MinecraftEDU and Mario Maker; and so much more. In a hands-on “hackathon” participants will pitch ideas for how interactive media can help overcome the challenges of integrating new refugees into the community. All demos and talks are free and open to the public. Hosted by UVic’s Technology and Society Interdisciplinary Program, Technology Integrated Learning Unit, and the Faculties of Education, Fine Arts and Social Sciences. Click here to see the full schedule.

Off the stage and into the world

Clare Mathison discovers Thailand

Clare Mathison discovers Thailand

The best way to gauge the impact of your work is always to test it in the field. For Fine Arts undergrad Clare Mathison, that meant getting out of UVic’s Phoenix Theatre and onto the world stage . . . in Thailand.

Mathison was only the third student to participate in the Department of Theatre’s exchange with Bangkok University, established in 2013. Now graduating with a BFA with Distinction, Mathison spent the first five months of 2015 living and working in Bangkok, where she helped design sets and lights for a number of different productions, ranging from classics like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hedda Gabler to the recent Broadway hit Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

“It was a really great experience being immersed in such a hands-on learning environment,” she recalls. “It was a big adjustment learning how to work ‘the Bangkok way’—which meant learning how to work effectively in another culture.”

While the theatrical basics may not dramatically change from stage to stage—the design skills she developed working on such recent Phoenix productions as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Picnic and Unity 1918 would work just as well in Thailand as in Canada—Mathison did have to adjust to the different environment, and language.

Mathison has a taste for international studies

Mathison has a taste for international studies

“They have so much patience in Thailand, and tend to be more understanding with the people they work with,” she says. “They are incredibly kind and generous hosts for international students; it honestly would have been so much easier for them to just work with other Thai students, but they always included me in their projects.”

Theatre professor and exchange leader Allan Stichbury has high praise for Mathison. “Clare was an exceptional student both here and in Bangkok. The chair of Bangkok University’s Performing Arts department told me how thrilled he was to have her designing in their department, and said that she brought the importance of attention to detail to a new level for their students.”

Describing her as “a great ambassador for the Theatre department, UVic and Canada,” Stichbury was told that Mathison “helped Bangkok University students understand that you can stand up for what is right and or important while at the same time being respectful, open-minded and adaptable.” Mathison also makes it clear how she also benefitted emotionally from her time overseas. “It was invaluable to learn from them, and then try to implement it back here—learning how to roll with the punches instead of letting everything stress me out.”

Mathison explores Bangkok's rich culture

Mathison explores Bangkok’s rich culture

And while what she describes as “the awesome program, facilities, faculty and staff” of the Theatre department has well-prepared her for what she hopes will be her next step—designing lighting for the music industry—the Richmond-BC raised Mathison also realizes the opportunities that came with studying at UVic. “The Bangkok exchange was so much more than I ever hoped for—I learned so much more about myself and the world than I thought I was going to.”

Her advice for future Theatre students? “Don’t get discouraged,” she says. “You’re on the bottom of the heap in first year and it may seem like you’re not getting to do the stuff you want, but you soon realize it’s an essential foundation to bring everyone up to the same level. After that, you’ll work your butt off.” Any final thoughts? “Go on exchanges!” she says with a quick laugh. “Go to Bangkok!”

Graham McMonagle has designs on the future

While the majority of Department of Theatre graduate students are working professionals looking to further their academic credentials, Graham McMonagle is truly exceptional. A professional dancer for 20 years and the co-founder of Victoria’s Canadian Pacific Ballet company, which operated locally from 2007 to 2014, McMonagle lacked any pre-existing Bachelorate degree—which means he had to be granted “exceptional entry” status by both UVic’s Graduate Studies and Senate.

Graham McMonagle with one of his Wild Honey designs

Graham McMonagle with one of his Wild Honey designs

But a hearty recommendation from Theatre professor and Royal Society Fellow Mary Kerr, together with four years experience working as a cutter in UVic’s costume shop alongside instructor and head of wardrobe Karla Stout, paved the way for McMonagle’s current work designing costumes for the latest mainstage production, Wild Honey, running February 11-20 at the Phoenix Theatre.

“I knew getting my MFA would be challenging visually and mentally for me,” says the soft-spoken but quick-witted McMonagle. “Design has been a lateral stream with dancing my whole life and, as I come to the end of my dancing age, this is as much a moment to begin anew as it is to wind something up.”

McMonagle, whose professional design credits are many and numerous, studied at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and apprenticed in the National Ballet of Canada’s costume department, as well as serving as Resident Designer at Columbus Dance Theatre. “Design plays a huge role in theatre, especially dance theatre,” he says. “Design is half of dramaturgy, and I’m really stimulated by that.”

His skills are being put to the test with Wild Honey, a comedic rewrite of Anton Chekhov’s first unpublished play, as adapted by British playwright Michael Frayn (Noises Off). Heavy on love triangles and the kind of country estate-entanglements for which Chekov is known, McMonagle says his designs are less “slavish historicism” and more “anachronistic hybrid” of the kind of “dirty luxury” director and Theatre professor Peter McGuire is bringing to the stage.

Wild Honey director Peter McGuire

Wild Honey director Peter McGuire

McGuire himself is yet another theatre professional who sought to enhance his career by earning an MFA at UVic in the late ’90s. “I walked away from a very lucrative career in Ontario to come back here,” says McGuire. “For me, it was the right thing to do. It was both a reinvention and a renewal of spirit.” Not only did his MFA further his career, but it also sparked a love of teaching evident in his latest production.

Wild Honey has always been on my list of shows to direct,” he says. “It’s a great fit for all of our students and has great design options for set, lighting, sound and costumes. A show like this really speaks volumes about the opportunities for students in the Theatre department.”

“I’m excited to be working with Peter, and to be working on this play,” says McMonagle, as he flips through colourful sketches of his costume designs. “There are multiple ways to draw an audience into a narrative: Peter wanted to use 1900 as an anchor, but his visual association with the principal actor was more the shirtless, greasy-haired, 1970s Keith Richards.”

Platonov (Jack Hayes) and Anna (Arielle Permack) in Wild Honey, at UVic's Phoenix Theatre until Feb 20 (Photo: David Lowes)

Platonov (Jack Hayes) and Anna (Arielle Permack) in Wild Honey, at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre until Feb 20 (Photo: David Lowes)

As a result, expect the 15-person cast to be sporting a mix of “skirts and jeans, rubber boots and overalls, caps and traditional dresses . . . in a way, we’ve created our own 1900-by-way-of-1970 Russian country look. It’s beautiful, because both of those periods were about landed people who were becoming lost from their anchored place and experiencing disintegration, substance use, and a kind of disaffected glamour. ”

McGuire can’t emphasize enough the importance of costume design. “A good actor will look at a good costume design and really see their character—they may have read the script and been thinking about their role, but will look at the sketch and understand their character so much more. Costumes really help to tell the story.”

McMonagle clearly enjoys the challenge of costuming, creating something that’s as relevant for the actor’s process as it is for the audience’s enjoyment. “There’s a balance to be drawn between how directly we reveal something to the audience: if I help the actor to reveal their role, I am in fact revealing something to the audience—but if it impedes the actor, then I’m diminishing their role.”