Theatre Roundtable: A Conversation between Streams

Compiled by: Amy Kingston

with special guests:

Alex Colle – 5th year Devised Theatre
Maggie Cook – 4th year Conservatory
Amy Kingston – 2nd year Performance Creation & Research (formally known as theatre studies)
Ella Wiecksowski  4th year Production and Design

Looking back on my first year as a York University theatre student, I remember streaming being the biggest deal. It practically ran every conversation in the halls, classrooms and residences. I also remember the confusion and vague answers that always seemed to follow every question asked by any of my fellow peers. My goal with this blog post is to give a more personal insight to what it is like to be in each stream from the students who have experienced it first hand.

What would you like students/people to know about your program that isn’t usually talked about or shown?

ALEX (Devised Theatre): I cannot stress enough the importance of what I’m about to say. Although there are some professors and students that say this, I believe it should be even more established in our day-to-day lives as theatre artists: If you want to be successful in this program, you need to bleed for it. And I’m not necessarily talking physical blood (although it has happened from firsthand experience); I’m talking about a day-after-day grind that shows you cannot live — cannot breathe — without theatre. I’m talking about doing what it takes to not just get the A+, but doing what it takes to take what you’re good at – whether it is costuming, or performing, or writing – and obsessively improving on it to make it something you’re great in. There’s a big difference between a great theatre student and a great theatre artist. Make this program your life. Attend events. Go to every single class. Connect with your professors. Rehearse. Practice. Practice. Practice. The results will follow, and your peers and professors – your future co-workers – will notice. (SEE: Whiplash by Damien Chazelle.)

MAGGIE (Conservatory): There’s a level of personalization that occurs with your work and between you and your classmates. It was something that was always talked about and suggested in passing, but was never really talked about in depth. When you’re with the same 15 people everyday, taking the same classes, you truly get to know everyone inside and out. Another thing is that you have to be ready and willing to open up about yourself, and sometimes that’s before you think you’re ready. Sometimes you need to dive head first into the work before you even think you can dip a toe in the water, but in the end that’s what makes you into a more fearless, unapologetic actor.

ELLA (Production & Design): So, theatre production is a great example of how difficult the transition from first year to second year is. You add so many hours to your plate. In first year, we’re dealing with approximately 20 hours of class with 15 hours of homework a week. On the other hand, second year production students deal with 48 hours of class and 20 hours of homework in a given week. Time management becomes an important thing! Also, the York mafia is super strong in production. If you work hard and are competent, you will be offered jobs left, right and centre — sometimes even before you’re finished and have your degree.

AMY (Performance Creation and Research): I would like people to know that there are many different reasons a student might choose to go into theatre studies. The first one is obvious: someone might want to study theatre! This might include someone who wants to get their undergrad so that they can move on to their masters, or a student who wants to better understand the theory of theatre to help improve and influence their art. The new name is called Performance Creation and Research, although I think the emphasis is sometimes placed on the research part a little too much.  The students in the program are not just researchers; there are all kinds of people in this stream, from talented, working actors, to costume, set and lighting designers (shoutout to those design students!!) all the way to students taking practicum to work on the Theatre@York season. It is a phenomenal stream for someone who might not want to focus on just one thing. It is a good way to continue to become a well rounded artist and get the chance to take the multitude of different classes that York offers.

What is a misconception you tend to hear about your program?

MAGGIE (Conservatory): Every year this rumour goes around and I think it is important to clarify: the fourth year actors have nothing to do with streaming. People always think that we ‘spy’ for the faculty and bring them a list of which first years should get in, but we absolutely do not do that. We have no say in who gets into the program: only the faculty knows that. That being said, we don’t mind helping first years with their audition pieces. We love being around the art and the artists. In the end, no one can help you get in except for yourself. Go into that room as yourself, live your truth, and be authentic.

ALEX (Devised Theatre): “But you’re in Devised. That’s an easy degree!” You know what? Sure. If you come to class, do your homework, go home, watch Netflix for a couple of hours, and sleep, I don’t see why one wouldn’t be able to grab an easy B in this program. But this is where I bring up the ‘theatre student vs theatre artist’ argument. If you genuinely want to improve your craft in this program – if you want to be hired by the time you leave this school – it’s going to take some hard work on your end to make that happen.

AMY (Performance Creation and Research): I am just going to come out and say it: a huge misconception is the concept that theatre studies is a default stream and sits at the bottom of this ‘stream social hierarchy’.  Yes, it can be the default to some students, but overall it truly is not. York is not the end all, be all of anyone’s career or life. Some people choose to not audition and to remain in theatre studies, while others do end up in the stream as their second, third or even last choice. It doesn’t make anyone any less talented or make them out to be a failure; if anything, it gives a student the flexibility to do what they want to do. This can include exploring other interests outside of this program or even within the faculty but outside of theatre, in the form of a double major or minor. It also gives students the opportunity to get an early start in the industry at the same time as taking classes. The true beauty of this stream that isn’t always talked about is that it gives you the chance to start auditioning and applying for shows and projects outside of York on your own time.  The possibilities within theatre studies are endless, not only at York, but in downtown Toronto and beyond.

What is a truth you hear about your program?

ELLA (Production & Design): Work hard, play hard! There are some days where you just finished a 12 hour work day, and then you head straight to the Ab to have a drink with your friends and fellow crew-heads. The amount of work that is talked about, and the running joke of never seeing your production friends once in the upper years, are definite facts. We’re just busy with classes during the day, crew positions at night, and somehow attempting to complete homework in the spare minutes in between. It is also very true about finding jobs and making those special connections where you are able to work right out of school. Also, within production, there are three sides to it: Design aspects, the technician parts, and then the management side of things.

What is your favourite thing about being in this program?

AMY (Performance Creation and Research): My favourite thing, hands down, is having the flexibility and time to do what I want to do. When I streamed, I was torn evenly between two programs but, ultimately, the flexibility was what confirmed theatre studies for me. It gives me a chance to take the classes I want to take within theatre (which happen to be more scene study and voice and speech classes) and outside of AMPD.  This is what allows me to complete my double major. It also gives me a chance to look for auditions and projects outside of York so that I can start networking and building my resume so that, when I graduate, I will have some experience under my belt. That is something that wouldn’t necessarily be possible with other streams due to their studio and time commitment. It definitely comes down to lifestyle and what type of program you choose that will help you get to where you want to be down the road.

MAGGIE (Conservatory): My favourite thing about being in this program is how uncomfortable I often find myself in class. I am always discovering how much I don’t know about myself – sometimes things that I would personally never choose to discover about myself. There have been moments in class where I have found and explored certain things about myself that I would prefer not to dive into and would never look at if I had the choice to never do it again. In the end, however, I know that, as an actor, it is required of me and I have to push past that initial uncomfortable feeling. Another thing that I love about this program is the people. Our Faculty is so open and so welcoming; it really makes this program so worth it.

ELLA (Production & Design): Hands down, the opportunities – not just in Toronto, but in Edinburgh, Scotland and the world. I was able to work on 17 shows in 2017 alone. I plan on breaking that record in 2018. There is so much variety of training in all aspects of production like technical direction, stage management, lighting design, costumes, and makeup, just to name a few. You’ll truly be prepared to do anything when you graduate from York.

ALEX (Devised Theatre): My classmates, for sure. It’s great coming into class every day knowing I’m going to experience a community of people that genuinely care for and accept each other for who they are. Devised theatre has such a wide range of incredible personalities that I can only describe with the word kaleidoscope. I’ve also never met a community of students so alive and aware of what’s going on in the world. It’s refreshing to be a part of that. I’m inspired almost daily by the drive these students have for their craft. I secretly look up to so many of my colleagues who genuinely want to improve their craft, and being the overly competitive guy I am, I try to do the same when I feel I haven’t stepped it up as much as them.

What is your least favourite thing about being in this program?

ELLA (Production & Design):  There are a few things that I find a little less than desirable. The production stream, although it trains you well for the professional world of theatre, has very long hours. Most days, you will be exhausted and just want to go home and lie in bed at the end of the day. The program is also very small, with usually fewer than 30 people each year. This can be great because you become a family really quickly but, just like a family, there can be lots of fighting between the love. It is also hard to get away from York, but the subway expansion is changing that.

MAGGIE (Conservatory): We’re human beings. I understand that it’s important for the art to give 100% of yourself, but some days I may only have 12%. We feel like we always have to be on, 100% of the time – not just because of faculty pressure, but because it is also a personal expectation that so many of us hold ourselves to. Just like the reality of the world outside of school, there are days where you have to put self-care time on the back burner due to deadlines and crazy schedules. You just have to get the work done first. During those instances, I don’t always have time to eat three balanced meals a day or go to the gym and do a full workout. At the end of the day, it is still a university and you are attending classes for a grade and, in the end, a degree.

What is one project you’ve worked on that you loved, and why?

ALEX (Devised Theatre): Site-specific assignment, for sure. In my first year of DT, we were given the skills to use a common environment to its full theatrical potential. With these skills, our assignment was to then find a place on York campus and create a site-specific piece of theatre there. Our group chose that big courtyard area between CFT, Burton, and ACW. In our performance, we used the space as an exhibit of sorts, which held captive three subjects that were used for study. This was in the middle of winter so it was freezing, but it was so worth it!

ELLA (Production & Design): Practicum! Depending on the position, it allows you to personally work with established directors in the industry. I have been working with professional directors for 3 years now. Nigel Shaw Williams was one of the first directors I worked with as an assistant technical director and, through that experience, I gained a connection for future references. Another class I loved is the Edinburgh class. You are able to travel and mount three shows overseas with the biggest theatre festival in world. Career management also taught me how to do taxes for the first time – YAY!

MAGGIE (Conservatory): I have two projects come to mind. The first is our Shakespeare voice mosaics that we did in third year. Each person picks a section of a Shakespearean text. Then you build a piece around that with whatever articles you’d like to form an art piece with Shakespeare as the thesis. The other project is one that I have yet to do: the character archetypes in fourth year. This is basically an exploration of a character through their body and voice. An example could be the judge, the bad guy, the other woman, etc. It becomes a form of storytelling through the archetype. It also doesn’t have to be a personal truth, and we get to write them ourselves! I have seen these shows each year, and every year they remind me of why I chose to be an actor. I’m so excited!

What is one project you’ve worked on and didn’t particularly like, and why?

MAGGIE (Conservatory): I value all the projects we are given because they all teach me a lot, one way or another. There aren’t any specific projects that immediately come to mind, but I do remember taking the most away from the bigger projects, such as unmounted and mounted shows. Little projects, such as specific assignments in class, were more tedious in a short amount of time and I found did not really give me the chance to fully immerse myself in them. In retrospect, I find that a lot of the projects that I didn’t like at the time, I didn’t like because I was pulling away out of fear. Of course you’re going to be scared of things: you’re a human being. It is important to acknowledge your fears but also to recognize them in the moment and give them a name.

ELLA (Production & Design): Projects can be good, but for production students they don’t really give you that real world experience like a practicum (or putting on a show) does. If I don’t see that a project has a practical, real-world use, I don’t usually like it. I didn’t really like the portfolios in our History of Visual Sources class; don’t get me wrong, I loved the class, I just found that the portfolios didn’t really apply to what I wanted to do. The portfolios were also a really time-consuming process: we needed to make 27 portfolios over 24 weeks, and each one took 12 hours or so to do.  It ends up being a lot of work – which some people enjoy, but I did not.

What is something you wished an upper year student told you in your first year?

ALEX (Devised Theatre): To take more risks in my first two years, particularly in the acting studio. Looking back at my scene study and monologue performances, I notice now that I played it way too safe with many of my acting decisions. I must have been such a bore to watch! I should have studied more. I should have rehearsed more. I should have gone to see more plays. I should have spoken with my professors to see how I could improve even more. And I know some might sigh at this, but I regret not taking notes in those classes! So much great advice from my acting professors has been lost because I refused to take notes in class. What a waste. Don’t make that mistake. Pick up your pen and WRITE. I also regret not getting out there more in my first two years. I was terrified entering university, and truly missed the pampered high school environment I had grown accustomed to. As a result, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked and this really affected my relationships with the people in the program. Working with the faculty as a SAM (Student Ambassador and Mentor) in my third and fourth years truly helped me become closer to York. If you have the chance to work with AMPD or even in another capacity with the university (GOsafe, art curator, Excalibur Publications, etc…), I highly, highly recommend it, as it will bring you closer to the York community as a result. Having a purpose is awesome. Who would have known?

ELLA (Production & Design): I got a lot of good advice in my first year. One piece that really sticks out to me is: don’t be narrow minded over what stream you are going into. If you do this, you won’t think stagecraft is dumb, you won’t think acting is dumb, you won’t think history of theatre is dumb. You’re here to expand yourself. Another bit of wisdom: the theatre program is small; if you choose to date around in it, just know that there is a chance that things might not end well, and you’re probably still going to see them around. It is a small world.

MAGGIE (Conservatory): That I am me, and that is enough. Samantha Brown, Patrick Fowler and Nathan Redburn helped me with my conservatory audition, and they told me that the most important thing is to stand at the door before I go in to my audition and say to myself that this is me and if they don’t like me, then that is too bad. It will never decrease my value if I end up not being right for a certain program or role or job. There have been assignments and moments in my life where I have felt lost or that I messed up, and I had to remember that I have to let that go in order to move forward with my life.

AMY (Performance Creation and Research): I was lucky enough to have wonderful upper year friends and mentors that gave me lots of great advice. The most influential piece of advice I was told was that York is not the end all, be all. Whatever happens when those lists are posted does not affect your value and talent as a person. Standing at the beginning of streaming and then at the end, after everything is all said and done, really shifts your perspective, and I didn’t think it would. You definitely see things in a different light and finally understand what upper year students were saying when they told you not to stress and to stop putting so much emphasis on streaming. The thing is, all you can do is be yourself and do work that is true to yourself; that might fit with what the faculty is aiming for that year, and it might not.  And that is okay!  Just like in the industry, nothing will truly end your career except for two things: doing something really terrible, and choosing to walk away.

Anything else you want to add? Final remarks, baby!

MAGGIE (Conservatory):  When it comes to streaming, the most important thing to take away is that you’re not defined by lists. There have been, and will continue to be, moments in my life where I wasn’t or am not on a list. I am a playwright but I wasn’t on the playwrighting list when it was released. I am a director but I am not on the directing class list. I just want to end this interview by instilling that you’re going to be more than just a name on a list. You’re going to go out and do things bigger than this. The best is always yet to come.

ALEX (Devised Theatre): “Get involved outside of academics!” SO true. I can’t think of a more wasted opportunity than constantly going home straight after classes are finished. Get out there and meet people, dammit! Go to the Ab, join a club, go to TSA events, see plays, see artwork, get a job on campus, do an intramural sport, explore, explore, EXPLORE. You’ll never get another opportunity similar to this school in your life. You’ll meet so many incredible people and learn so many incredible things if you take the time to put yourself out there. You’ll remember the people you meet and the new adventures you try – not that Friday night Netflix binge (which is not a problem in moderation, mind you).

ELLA (Production & Design): You will change every year and that is okay. Every program has its flaws, every program has its perks. Take everything with a grain of salt; it is all personal experience. You’re not necessarily going to find your passion at school; you’re probably going to find it through what you do outside of school. Class will drain you sometimes and then when you get out and see shows or even work on them, you will fall in love all over again. You came here for a reason and that is because you love theatre. That is the root of it all.

AMY (Performance Creation and Research): You are doing wonderfully – better than you usually think you are. It is a hard thing to live a life in the arts, but every second of it will be worth it in the end. Trust yourself, trust your intuition, and follow your heart. It will never lie to you. I find that, as we grow up, we start to ignore that feeling in our stomach that tells us what to do or how we truly feel, but it is so important to listen to it as you maneuver not only through York, but life. There is a reason you are here at this exact location, at this exact moment in life. I was told once to never hate where you are right now because where you are is crucial to where you want to go. Some chapters in life are required in order to get to the one where you want to be, but it doesn’t make the one you’re in any less special. In fact, it makes it even more special. One last thing: you are never alone. It may sound cliché but it is true and it is important to remember. There will be times in your life, and more than likely through theatre school, where you feel stressed and sad and alone. I promise you that there is someone else that will understand absolutely everything you feel and are going through. It just might seem a little harder to find. Talk to peers, upper years, friends, faculty, or even services provided by York; whatever you feel comfortable with. You are valued and important and the arts and the world will be better because of you.

*answers have been edited for length and clarity

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