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.”