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.

Phoenix Theatre livestreams Problem Child

Phoenix Theatre is excited to be presenting their only public mainstage production of the 20/21 academic year: George F. Walker’s Problem Child, running at 8pm March 24-27 via their new broadcast-quality livestream. Tickets $15 per household via the Phoenix box office 

Learning livestream technology

During this time when we are not able to have audiences in our theatres, filming and livestreaming the work of our students is one of the only ways we can share our work with you. Thanks to the incredible support from UVic, a generous donor and Phoenix Theatre’s long-time sponsor iA Financial Group, the Theatre department has been able to obtain professional-quality livestream equipment.

Since the arrival of the equipment late last fall, production staff have been busy instructing students in the art of filming, live camera direction, video editing, and other skills, offering our students advantages that will take them into the future of theatre. While livestreaming is a necessity today, there’s no doubt that this technology will continue to be a key part of theatre outreach, even when we are able to return to our seats in the theatre.

Relearning theatre

For instructor and assistant technical director Simon Farrow, this process offered an opportunity to relearn how we create theatre. “True livestreaming for theatre—where the performance is filmed live while you are watching—is challenging,” he says. “We wanted to set the viewer’s expectation of the video production to be as polished as every other element of our Phoenix productions.” (Above, theatre student Jadyn McGregor works the livestream board.)

“A good livestream theatre experience requires all the other elements of the production to contribute as well,” Farrow continues. “The set design needs to offer access for good filming angles. Costumes need to translate over the screen. The lighting needs to be adjusted for camera exposure, the sound design needs to integrate well into the livestream mix and, of course, the actors need to adjust their blocking, already distanced for COVID guidelines, for the camera. All of the students working in these areas are reframing their work to the camera lens, rather than the auditorium.” (Below, Theatre student Brandon Sugden directs the livestream student team,)

About Problem Child

Stuck in a room. Stuck in the system. A desperate mother and her hapless partner are confined to a hotel room while they try to put their delinquent pasts behind them in order to regain custody of their baby. Problem Child is a gritty social comedy by one of Canada’s most prolific and popular playwrights, George F. Walker—best known for his fast-paced social comedies satirizing the woes of contemporary culture under the pressures of capitalism.

As the only public mainstage production this year, this play was chosen by director and Theatre professor Fran Gebhard to offer the fourth-year performance class challenging contemporary roles for their final required credits, all while maintaining physical distancing guidelines. As such, there will be two alternating, four-person casts featuring our fourth-year performance class for their final required credits; all performances will also maintain physical distancing guidelines. See the Problem Child website for cast schedule.


Putting it all together

Combining the new technology with the rehearsal process offered a spectacular and a positive learning experience for everyone in the Theatre department—all of which is being applied to Problem Child.

Fran Gebhard

“I’ve been a fan of George Walker’s work for years,” says Gebhard. With a cast of only four, it allowed our graduating students to be featured in two alternating casts, giving everyone complex roles and allowing for distancing on stage. “We rehearsed in facemasks and practised our social distancing to the letter. Our staging and blocking had to adjust to these protocols accordingly,” says Gebhard. “A daunting challenge? Yes! Different? Certainly. But we’ve loved every minute.”

“We’re natural-born theatre-makers,” Gebhard concludes, “and neither hell nor high water, nor even a global pandemic, can stop us from carrying out our work with joy.”

Read more in this Times Colonist article about how Fran Gebhard brought her years of experience in film and television to guide this livestream production.


George F. Walker’s Problem Child 
March 24, 25, 26 & 27, 2021

TICKETS: $15 per link/household
An easy-to-use, one-click link and password will be sent to you the day of your performance. All tickets come with a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee (within 24 hours of performance date for a full refund).

Charge by phone at 250-721-8000 at the Phoenix Box Office (no in-person or online sales at this time.)

Distinguished Alumni Talk: Mercedes Bátiz-Benét on supporting IBPoC voices

When it comes to working in the arts and theatre sectors, IBPoC artists (Indigenous, Black, People of Colour) face a number of barriers due to systemic discrimination—yet IBPoC artists have always created innovative and bold new work.

As Puente Theatre’s artistic director, UVic Distinguished Fine Arts Alumna Mercedes Bátiz-Benét (Writing BFA ’02) has a number of IBPoC initiatives underway—including the conVERGE micro-residency with Intrepid Theatre—that will help address the gap in mentorship and support across the industry and in our own community.

Join us from 12 – 1pm Monday, March 29 via Zoom to discover how Mercedes and Puente Theatre supports and amplifies IBPoC voices and perspectives in this important discussion with professor Adam Con, Acting Associate Dean of UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Register here for the free Zoom webinar.


About Mercedes

A multi-disciplinary artist, writer and award-winning director, Mercedes’ direction of Fado, The Saddest Music in the World earned Puente Theatre the $15,000 JAYMAC Outstanding Production Award at the 2020 Greater Victoria Regional Arts Awards.

Born and raised in Mexico, she moved to Canada in 1997 to attend UVic, where she earned both a BFA in Writing and a BA Honours in Philosophy; she also has a diploma in film production from the Pacific Film & New Media Academy. Approaching expression from as many angles as possible, she has worked as writer, dramaturge, theatre director, translator, adapter, actor, puppeteer, multi-media artist, screenwriter, film and video editor, cinematographer, and director.

In addition to her stage work, Mercedes did camera and cinematography for Look At What The Light Did Nowthe 2012 Juno Award-winning feature-length documentary about singer/songwriter Feist. She is also the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction editor at Bayeux Arts. In 2015, she was named a Distinguished Alumni of UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Learning from other cultures

“I think it’s paramount for local audiences to learn from other cultures, especially in the multicultural experiment that is Canada. We need to learn from each other so we have a greater and better understanding of what it means to be human,” she said in this 2015 interview.

“Every culture experiences life from a different angle, from a different point of view—and, in my experience, the more points of view you have, the more your understanding expands and deepens. I have a Mexican way of understanding and viewing the world, as well as a Canadian one, which enables me to develop a third point of view—a Mexicanadian one, if you like.”

New IBPoC initiatives

With theatres closed due to COVID, Mercedes has been busy this past year putting the JAYMAC Outstanding Production prize to work in developing various local IBPoC initiatives, including:

  • the conVERGE micro-residency with Intrepid, a mentorship program supporting emerging and early-career IBPoC artists to develop work in 2021
  • changing Puente’s WORKPLAY series into an annual playwriting residency for two emerging IBPoC playwrights (6-8 months of biweekly dramaturgical support, $1,500 per playwright, 40 hours of studio space, staged reading of the plays)
  • launching the Victoria Foundation-funded “Bridging the Gap”, a one-time initiative designed to support female IBPoC playwrights in the creation of new work (8 months of biweekly dramaturgical support, $6,000, a one-week workshop + presentation of their play with professional actors)
  • commissioning three IBPOC artists to create a 5 minute video piece each as part of a national project presented by the National Arts Centre
  • launching a Victoria chapter of The 3.7% Initiative, which was created by the Vancouver theatre company Boca del Lupo for the express purpose of helping women who self-identify as ethnically and culturally diverse, of Indigenous or of mixed-racial heritage find greater success in their performing arts practice.

Don’t miss the chance to hear her speak about the impact these various initiatives will have on Victoria’s arts community.

Susie Winter’s feature film screenplay started as student project

It all started with an empty boat floating on a lake. Screenwriter Susie Winters (BFA ’16) recalls driving alongside the vast expanse of Cameron Lake just east of Port Alberni when the image first drifted into her mind, inspiring what would become the screenplay for her first feature film, All-in Madonna.

Susie Winters (BFA ’16) wrote the initial screenplay for the film All-in Madonna while attending UVic’s Creative Writing program

Finding inspiration

“I feel like it’s a prompt you might find in one of those books 500 Writing Prompts or something. But that’s what came into my head,” Winters says from her home in Edmonton where that day it’s a bone-chilling -25 degrees Celsius.

As is often the case with inspiration, the empty boat on the lake is nowhere to be found in the final draft of Winters’ script, although there is a lake and there is a boat. But that sense of mystery and menace lurks beneath the surface of the story centring on 17-year-old Maddie. The teen attends public school for the first time, where she learns dark secrets about her father and must reconcile herself with the man she thought she knew and the things he may or may not have done. 

Melanie Rose Wilson plays a teenager in a small Vancouver Island town forced to reconcile with her family’s dark past in the feature film All-in Madonna

Facts into fiction

Set in the fictional Vancouver Island town of Blue Lake, the film is as much about small town life as it is navigating the social dynamics of being an outsider despite everyone knowing, or thinking they know, your history.

“I moved around a lot growing up… so I drew from being a teenager going into a new place,” says Winters, who grew up in northern Alberta. “I think it’s so interesting the first friends you make in a new place and how that comes with no context or politics… But what if that’s different when you go to a new place and everyone knows who you are, but you don’t know who anyone else is.”

Winters completed the initial script for her fourth-year screenwriting class at UVic as part of her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. From there she was introduced to director Arnold Lim and producer Ana de Lara. The team received a BravoFact grant (worth $32,500) to create a short film of All-In Madonna, which served as a calling card to secure a $125,000 Telefilm Canada Talent Fund grant and a $25,000 BC Arts Council grant for the feature.

Arnold Lim (centre) directs a scene in the feature film All-in Madonna

Local film, local filmmaking

Lim, who grew up in the small community of Blue River, BC, says he felt an instant connection to Winters’ script. “She really has a strong understanding of people and personality that goes way beyond the surface,” Lim says, adding, “Her understanding of human dialogue, human nature and her understanding of how the structure of a small town works—those were the things that really attracted me to the story.”

The independent film, which was shot in Victoria and around Vancouver Island, has started making the festival circuit, with screenings at the Whistler Film Festival and the Victoria Film Festival. While Winters acknowledges the finished product deviates slightly from the source material—there was a magical- realism element in the original script, new characters were added and others cut—along with the empty boat floating on a lake—she enjoyed watching her script move from page to screen.    

“It’s exciting to see what it gets transformed into,” says Winters, who currently works in the field of public art administration. “What drew me to screenwriting was the collaborative nature. And it was a good challenge to drop the ego a bit knowing there are three different people with a major creative hold on what happens. So I was prepared to let go, and I think what Arnold did was beautiful. It’s a beautiful film.”

—Story contributed by Michael Kissinger (BEd ’94) and originally published on UVic’s Alumni Relations website  

Theatre class assignment: mask movement

While audiences only know theatre school from what’s on the stage, far more goes on behind the scenes—even during COVID times—than most people ever see. Consider this full-face mask scene, created for an assignment in the fourth-year movement class in our Theatre department

Students were asked to create (or discover) a mask character based on previous improvisations, then work with partners in their class to develop a full storyline; they also had to consider design, and use their own props or costumes.

The assignment also encouraged them to consider movement as choreography and include music if they wanted. As this video by Theatre students Justin Little and Teddy MacRae demonstrates, a successful result requires creativity, practicality, imagination and discipline.   

Justin Little and Teddy MacRae