In Loving Memory of Catherine Silverstone

Friends, it’s that time again: time for our summer hiatus. Those of you who have been longtime readers know that Kelsey and I have been on a journey these past two years to begin transforming The AC into a community-owned space, one that can reflect more than just the teacherly musings of two White women working in central Canada. That process has been up and down, but 24 months later, we have a plan. We will share more details about that plan as our work evolves, but we will say now that it rests on two principals: turning this space over to a broad range of new voices, and setting those new voices up for success by providing as much material support as we can.

Those two things – ceding space for new voices, and holding that space with proper support so that those voices can stand up and be heard – are essential components of all great pedagogy. I learned this from someone our community of theatre and performance scholars lost on 4 October last year: Dr Catherine Silverstone, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Queen Mary, University of London.

Catherine smiles into the sun.
Dearly missed!

Although I was *technically* senior to Catherine when we worked together at QM in the early 2010s, I instantly found her to be a teaching mentor. Cat was, simply, the finest teacher I’ve ever known.

It was therefore my honour and privilege to be asked, shortly after Cat’s death, to prepare a tribute to her for Contemporary Theatre Review‘s Backpages section. I knew right away that the tribute had to foreground Cat the teacher, and I knew too that I had to involve her students in its making. In late October we gathered on Zoom, still wet with our tears, to share joyous memories of Cat’s leadership inside and outside the classroom, her remarkable humility and grace, and her exceptional capacity for listening, learning, and making space for and with students (including student-peers like me).

I received the offprints of our finished work yesterday, and it’s my pleasure to share (with permission) the text with folks here on the AC.

Read and remember a remarkable scholar and teacher; think of your own teaching mentors; and remember, too, the hard hard work we’ve all come through, knowing better days will come, and will come soon. See you in September.

Kim and Kelsey

***

(To read this in print, or online as a PDF, please visit Contemporary Theatre Review [issue 31, numbers 1-2] via T&F journals here, or via your home library’s holdings.)

Pedagogies of Care: Remembering Catherine Silverstone

By Kim Solga, with support from Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer

A hot summer evening, and I’m rushing; I’m late for dinner with my new colleague Catherine Silverstone. I should have arrived ten minutes ago, but I misjudged, as usual, the length of my journey, and now I’m running desperately from London Bridge station, rounding at speed onto Bermondsey High Street, panicking as the minutes tick by. What will she think of me, stupidly late for a meal she’s arranged to help orient me to my new gig at Queen Mary? Sweat cleaves to me in the gently waning sunlight as I collide with bins and people along the pavement, finally arriving, panting, out of breath, mortified. 

And there she is: sitting quietly at a window open to the breeze, with a glass of wine and her phone, patiently waiting. Instead of even a hint of frustration she offers me the biggest smile, a chair, her open arms. If I’ve inconvenienced her there’s no sign of it; no sign of frustration or bother at all. I’m instantly calmer, and I’m instantly present to her. We begin to chat like old friends, even though we are not that – not yet anyway. But we will be.

This was the Catherine I knew: abundantly generous, consummately professional yet also high-spirited and cheeky, never less than fully human. No detail was too small for Catherine’s attention; all the little things, as she knew, mattered. And so did every student matter because, as Catherine understood, from our students we have so very much to learn. So, when CTR approached me to craft a short remembrance for Catherine, I knew it had to centre her students—as she never failed to do. I’ve shaped the reflections that follow from memories shared by Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer during a chat on 30 October 2020. My heartfelt thanks to them all.

Good Times

Many peers knew Catherine as a passionate, eclectic scholar, as at home with Shakespeare as with Derek Jarman. Her students, however, know something more: that for Catherine, there was no hierarchy among the many elements of her labour. All were—as she would turn her favourite phrase, with a glint in her eye—“good times.” 

Jarman and Shakespeare were as important to Catherine as the work of preparing quality class materials, of attending (as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary) to student concerns over water fountains and malfunctioning microwaves, of reading PhD chapters with such care that each sentence might warrant comments or track changes (something lovingly known as “being Silverstoned”). This equivalence was, for Catherine, political: nobody has the energy to interrogate the elitist structures separating “the Bard” from the amazing queer artists who follow if they haven’t had a warm lunch or a proper drink of water. As HE teachers it was our duty to attend to it all.

The cover of Cat’s first book, Tragedy in Transition, edited with Sarah Annes Brown

What’s at Stake?

Ben remembers Catherine asking him this all-important question during a supervision; it resonates with all of us, and “it will never be out of me,” he notes. Catherine’s politics as a queer feminist were everywhere palpable; her firm sense of social justice informed all aspects of her practice as a teacher, a colleague, a scholar and a leader. Anna recalls how important Catherine’s sense of social justice was to her own decision, now, to pursue a career in human rights law; “If Catherine were in another job, she’d be a human rights lawyer!” Mojisola adds. For Catherine, politics was not a position one adopts; it was a practice one lives, folded and leaved into all aspects of being and working. At stake for her was the work of the political, not the glamour of ideology.

Anna and Mojisola remember that nobody was prouder of their queerness, more open about it, and yet for Catherine queerness was never about her, the work of anti-racist justice was never about her. Anna remembers Catherine’s classroom as a safe space in which to “learn to love one’s queerness”; Mojisola honours Catherine as someone with whom, as a Black woman, she felt safe “in terms of race,” someone who never boasted about her allyship: “she just got on with it.” She recalls that Catherine was always first to check her privilege as a white, educated person from a settler colony, always first to put her power to work for those with less. 

Teaching with People’s Palace Projects

Mojisola offers a remarkable example of this work in practice. As Director of Teaching and Learning, Catherine realized that a handful of students in the Queen Mary BA Drama program were on track to earn 2:2 degrees, but could do much more with a bit more support; she pulled their names, saw in them the traces of historical underprivilege, did some maths, and made it possible for them to be mentored to better degree outcomes. Quietly, no fuss—but lives were changed forever. Sarah remembers Catherine committing exactly the same graft to the work of TA support: she convened difficult discussions, took flak for the department, set boundaries, offered space to share openly, then made attainable promises around wages and conditions and got proper results for the young people who needed them most. “Doing the boring stuff, paying attention to details, looking at structure,” Mojisola notes, leaves in Catherine’s wake a legacy of what Sarah calls “real, tangible, difficult change.”

Pedagogies of Care

Our conversation, Ben reminds us, keeps coming back to this word: care. Every aspect of Catherine’s work for, and conduct among, her students and peers was infused with a “sense of civic care.” To be Catherine’s student was to encounter someone who was always willing to be vulnerable, because she saw herself as no more nor less than them. She was even more nervous than the MA candidate sat in front of her at interview, happy to share that she, too, found these sorts of formal public situations awkward, uncomfortable. She was someone who listened to your words with mouth slightly open, eyes alert, seeing you, hearing you—but properly. She was someone in whose classroom you knew you needed to be, because what teacher takes such serious interest in the most mundane things, always giving you the benefit of the doubt, listening with infinite patience, knowing she can never understand the circumstances shaping the moment in which you come to her in need?

Anna calls Catherine “powerfully unassuming”: extraordinary in her capacity to elevate our ordinary lives, to lift up tiny details for generous attention, precisely because it’s the little, human things that so affect our capacities to teach and to learn. Catriona, Sarah, and Caoimhe were all Catherine’s PhD supervisees at the same time, and yet, they recall now, they all emerged with independent writing styles, separate senses of scholarly self, because as Catriona puts is, “the way that Catherine shaped you as a scholar was about the way you think.” Mojisola calls this Catherine’s capacity to demonstrate the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu: “Ubuntu means, I am who I am because you are who you are. I am me through you and you are you through me.”

“Perhaps Your Problem Contains its Own Solution”

Catriona parrots this Catherine-ism and we all laugh, delighted for a moment, remembering. And then a pause. What, dearest Catherine, is the solution to this problem, this great loss of ours, our loss of you? There may be only one: to live your legacy as you would have done, with no ego, with firm allyship, with strongest commitment to the most vulnerable among us and also within ourselves. 

Mojisola made a list to help us imagine what this solution might look like. Catherine would have loved it (after being embarrassed for a moment to be caught in the spotlight, of course).

Listen without prejudice.

Listen without bias.

Listen without interrupting.

Attend to the detail.

Dig as deep as you can.

Don’t be afraid of boredom. (The boring stuff is what gets the job done.)

Turn the question around.

Wait patiently for the answers.

Accept people. Believe your students. Then they will feel believed in.

Don’t be afraid of the mundane work that is part of dismantling discrimination. 

Let your students teach you. Everyone is an expert in their own lives.

Give praise generously, when it is due.

Never forget to love, to be loved, and to dance.

What we’re taking with us: three term-end tips from Kelsey (#ACsurvivalguide)

Holy smokes, we made it through another bizarre, shaped-by-the-pandemic semester!

Image Library | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC
This is the organic shape of Covid-19. The specific shape of your pandemic experience may vary.

I haven’t yet had time to do full reflection and inventory from the teaching year (aka, I’m still marking!!). But, already, I know that the last eight months have drastically impacted how I approach teaching. Here are the first three things I’m “taking with me” beyond this topsy-turvey COVID-19 era.

1. Slow down.

For many, this has been a mantra for the pandemic as a whole. For me, it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn (and relearn) throughout the year in the classroom.

I have a lot of energy as a human and a teacher. On top of that, I value multimodal learning that offers students a range of entry points to engage with material. By extension, my lessons have traditionally incorporated lots activities: there’s a cluster lecture, a close read, then a scavenger hunt!

Slow Down - ELGL
Good advice from a turtle.

Online teaching looked me in the eye and said simply: it’s too much.

Because, here’s the thing about virtual teaching: simple tasks, like sharing documents for peer review, take longer. This extra time-taking has forced me to slow my lessons down and give more time to fewer activities. You know what? My classes are better for it. The simplified lessons give students more time to engage with one another and sink into tasks. Moving forward, I will definitely pare down my lesson plans to hone-in more, and offer more time and scope for settling into the task at hand.

2. Do the same work for myself that I’d do for others.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like, and am good at, planning, scheduling, and organizing. When I first started teaching, I used to schedule and organize administrative tasks like marking. As I’ve transitioned from part time to full time teaching, my workload has ballooned, and I’ve often forsaken this prep work for myself.

“Organize” is one of my favorite eight-letter words.

This year, I had two courses with TAs. To support my TAs, and their transition to online teaching and marking, I did a lot of extra scheduling and administration such as providing detailed instruction sheets for their assigned tasks.

In doing this work for my TAs, I also did it for myself. Clear workload breakdowns in advance of performing said work? Super useful. Pre-written explanations for common structural or grammar issues? Way faster. And who came up with these teaching hacks? I did.

This reminded me that I need to 1) remember the value of front-loading administrative and planning work and 2) use my own skillset to not only support others but also myself.

3. Leverage the online tools.

In the fall semester, I took attendance manually (with the backup of zoom) in my classes. (For those concerned with access, there were alternate options for those that couldn’t attend live sessions). At the end of that semester, collating and cross-referencing my messy notes with zoom’s weird output format took me an eon.

The title of this children’s book, Just a mess, accurately describes my attendance-taking process in the fall semester.

For the second semester I had time to learn the attendance tool on Moodle (my school’s online learning platform). It took me twenty minutes to set up, and it allowed students to record their own attendance and log it in the system. Not only was this quicker and easier for everyone, it also helped ease student anxiety because they had access to their own attendance record.

It’s easy to huff and puff about technology, and there is no question that zoom freezes suck, but this was a good reminder that the tools can be helpful too – if we take the time to explore them a bit, when we have that time and space.

As I continue to get distance from the semester, I’m sure I will uncover more reflections to share. But these feel like a meaningful start and a good reminder that even in the strangest of times, there can be improvement and learning.

An Interview with Our Very Own Kim Solga

AC readers, I have exciting news. Our very own Kim Solga has won the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching at Western University!

A standing ovation from the crowd! So much applause! A dance party (at a safe distance)!

Happy dancing, for and with Kim!


“The Pleva”, as it’s known at Western, is the university’s top achievement in teaching for tenured faculty (there are other prizes for faculty on shorter-term contracts, and pre-tenured faculty – a prize Kim also won in 2009). In this win, Kim joins several other distinguished former winners in her department (English and Writing Studies), one of the most decorated band of teachers on Western’s campus. (Read more about Kim’s win here.)

Being thoroughly herself, though, Kim is wary to do too much horn-tooting. So, rather than fan-girling over Kim’s pedagogical excellence in a post of my own, I decided to interview her to get her most up-to-date teaching reflections.

Kim in a snap taken for an earlier Western News story about teaching. Due to COVID, no snazzy new snaps were taken of teaching winners this year. Which Kim thinks is JUST FINE.

KELSEY: Teaching as activism has been a central tenet of your pedagogical practice. How has your understanding of teaching as activism evolved in the last five years?

KIM: Great question. When I first used the phrase “the activist classroom” it was 2011, and I was thinking of activism specifically in terms of “activation” – activating students’ imaginations, engagement with big ideas, curiosity; empowering students as informed citizens, helping them to believe in their own value and worth as smart, capable humans.

Today, the popular landscape of “activism” has changed significantly and importantly – this is something I’ve been very aware of as the AC has changed over time, too. And although I’ve never identified as an activist (specifically because public activism takes LOADS of work that I do not do, but which I very much respect and admire), I have come to recognize activist teaching as teaching that, among other things, informs and invites students to think carefully about activist practices in the world at large.

This year has provided a really useful example of what I mean by this. The activism in my teaching over Fall/Winter 2020-21 has manifested as:

  • a firm commitment to work in decolonizing ways in all of my classes, and to shape my winter-term class, which I talked about in my last post, specifically around Indigenous performance and decolonizing initiatives in Toronto’s performance industries;
  • a focus on Indigenous and Black anti-racist activism in my fall-term class, Performance Beyond Theatres, which I teach in conjunction with a course in Community Psychology at Western as well as City Studio London;
  • incorporating information about social movements like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Idle No More, Me Too, and much more into classroom discussions and readings whenever possible;
  • introducing students to the ways in which scholar-practitioners in applied theatre and performance create work with and for communities in the service of social change every day, and giving students the chance to try their ideas out in practice.

I want to emphasize here that, for me, a lot of this work is about learning as we go, too. Like every settler scholar not steeped in Indigenous studies, I’m learning how to practice decolonial pedagogy, and getting plenty of things wrong. And I’m not trained as an Applied Theatre practitioner, either. So this has been about reading new stuff, talking to colleagues and inviting them to visit the class on Zoom, inviting loads of artists on the front-lines of performance activism to come speak and share work with us, and of course paying everyone properly.

I guess that means the short answer to your question, Kelsey, is: for me today, activist teaching means continuing to be humble about what I don’t know, learning from those who do, putting energy into that learning and making it a transparent process with my students, and sharing all the resources at my disposal (including my university’s money!) to support those for whom activism is not just pedagogy, but hard-won action.

The cover of Kim’s 2011 issue of Canadian Theatre Review: The AC is born!

KELSEY: Awards offer opportunities to reflect but also look forward. Where do you envision teaching taking you in the next five years? In what areas are you looking to develop your practice?

KIM: This is, in fact, not the only teaching award I’ve had the honour to receive in the last 12 months; last June I was named one of Western’s new Experiential Learning Innovation Scholars. That’s a project-based prize, and it’s going to fund a new cross-faculty course I’m cooking up called Building A Creative Campus.

The class pivots around the core Performance Studies concept that “performance” as we study it is interdisciplinary, and PS is the fulcrum around which the gathering and cross-hatching of new ideas in a range of fields can pivot. (Natalie Alvarez talks about this brilliantly in the interview she gave for my 2019 and 2020 publications on theatre and performance in the neoliberal university; read it here.) The class will feature 15-20 undergraduates from up to 8 faculties at Western engaging in a fall term of exploration with guest speakers from medicine to social work to engineering to policing, followed by a winter term Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) placement in our community of London-Middlesex County, Ontario. I’m working on it with my colleagues Sandra Smeltzer (a media and CEL scholar) and Mary Daley (a math guy who is also a data scientist and a musician).

That project is a full-on teaching-research commitment, and it’s got a very steep learning curve attached. I’m already discovering how to build large-scale mixed-methods surveys as part of my pre-assessment work, and in the fall Sandy and I (along with two grad students and two undergrad researchers) will be running focus group discussions with stakeholders from all across our campus. The course will be built in 2022 and run in 2023; while it runs, I’ll be coordinating it, and also helping to measure our qualitative data. (Everyone in the class will be a research subject. I get a headache thinking about the ethics applications I’m going to be filling out!!)

Over the next 5 years, then, I expect to learn a lot about best practices in teaching research (and to contribute my own learning to those!), to work a lot more collaboratively with both peers and students on teaching projects, and also to gain a crash course, thanks to Sandy, in quality CEL pedagogy. She’s researching (among other things) CEL and mental health, and that’s a really exciting and important avenue of pursuit.

KELSEY: Who or what is inspiring your pedagogical thinking right now?

KIM: As the above suggests, my terrific teaching peers and students inspire me! But apart from that (which has always been the case), I’m doing a lot of non-academic reading.

I’m investing in bedside memoirs: I recently read a new biography of Hannah Arendt, On Love And Tyranny by Ann Heberlein; there’s Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am I Am I Am waiting for me when my current book is done; and I just ordered The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which I somehow missed when it was released. I find the combination of thoughtful argument and accessible prose, plus the strategy of storytelling as critical engagement, not only moving but also an important reminder that positivist, Eurocentric, jargon-filled argument-building is not the only way to say the things and sound smart while saying them.

I take these ideas into my classrooms when I explain to my students that creative essays are welcome, and then help them visualize what that might look like; I also use these ideas to remind me, and them, that storytelling – critical thinking embedded in worlding narratives –  is the method practiced by many of the Indigenous scholars and artists I admire, and exposing students to these methodologies (and their attendant worldviews) is urgent work.

Personally, though, my memoir obsession is also selfish: I’ve been thinking for a while now about writing one of my own, and I want to learn how. I want to tell the story of my background, of becoming a professor after being the first person in my entire family to go to college. I think it will be a teaching memoir too, at least partly, because the story of my growing into my career is all about the amazing, supportive teachers I had along the way.

KELSEY: What are the most pressing questions for post-secondary teaching as we brave the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2021?

KIM: I am excited to report that I’m about to go on sabbatical, so I don’t care! BWAHAHAHAHA!

IF ONLY. Kim’s backyard is very sunny in the mornings, though.

No, seriously. Joking aside, I think every one of us who is burned out and 30 seconds from bursting into tears – students, staff, faculty alike – need to take at least a couple of weeks this summer to Just. Stop.

Stop and reflect. What did we learn? About ourselves? Our universities? Each other? Our systems? We need to think about what to keep and what to change. About what to build.

Things I learned include:

  • office hours/meetings while walking the dog are amazing and refreshing and creative;
  • I need a new laptop;
  • developing and sustaining functional movement is way more important than lifting your PR or maxing out your reps (go here to get a clearer picture of what I mean – don’t think I don’t like a nice kettle bell swing!);
  • more and better technology allows us to innovate in our classrooms, and we need to invest in the tools and the training and the people to support it all, at a structural level;
  • the climate emergency did not go away, so thinking sustainably in all elements of course design (and when planning conference engagements…) remains urgent;
  • nothing beats live in person, at least 75% of the time. Performers know it best: face to face generates learning that cannot be replicated on a screen, no matter how hard you try. Let’s keep our new tech, sure – there are lots of times it’s amazing. But let’s never take our in-person interactions for granted ever again.
Kim’s students learning in the fall air, 2017.

KELSEY: Totally superfluous question. Academic conferences are largely still online, meaning that Summer 2021 won’t have the typical conference circuits. What are your summer 2021 plans?

KIM: Honestly, gardening! Sitting on my back porch. Walking my dog and riding my bike. This may be the first summer in history I don’t have to travel – can’t go anywhere! – so I’m going to embrace it. All summers, truly, should start with us giving ourselves a nice break.

What We’re Taking With Us Part III: Concession and Absorbing Crisis (#ACsurvivalguide)

Dear Kim,

In your last post you wrote about resource sharing as one of the things you wanted to take with you into the post-COVID world.

That world that seems ominously far away as we dive into the third wave in Canada, but I am, nevertheless, picking up on the “carrying with us” thread. This is because I am both optimistic that the pandemic still has a horizon and also because the topic I want to explore here has been on my mind all week: concession.

In academia, “concession” is one of the many formal words (like “accommodation”) used to describe policies and practices that allow students to postpone and/or make-up, redo, or otherwise account for missed classes, assignments, or exams. While concession can apply to predictable absences or missed work (as a result of ordinary things like religious observances or work obligations), it often comes up in relation to crisis.

Thanks to the pandemic, the last year has been an extended exercise in crisis.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed two important things about our year in crisis:

1. All students (and teachers and administrators), even those who are excelling, are living in the middle of widespread societal crisis, whether we realize this moment-to-moment or not; and

2. As a result of #1, I’ve had ample opportunity to engage with concession policies at my university.

This engagement has helped me reframe my conceptualization of concession.

A new approach to an old problem.

In the spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the shutdown of in-person learning at many colleges and universities. A few students had the capacity and means to adjust to the changes: low care responsibilities, stable income and shelter, access to private work space, up-to-date technology, a sturdy WiFi connection. Most students did not, and barriers ranged from childcare and interpersonal responsibilities to technological issues to health and wellness challenges.

As a result of the sudden change, most institutions agreed that online learning in Spring 2021 was a crisis and enacted institution-wide policies such as pass fail options.

Then, in fall 2020, the state of crisis got a bit fuzzy. Colleges and universities acknowledged that virtual and hybrid learning models were not “business as usual” but most reverted to “normal” or near normal evaluation policies. Pass fail options were limited or restricted.

The institutional buffer was gone, but the barriers and challenges remained. By October, 2020 my inbox was filled with concession requests. There were so many, in fact, that they were hard to organize.

I didn’t feel good about only granting concession to the students asking. Certainly, students rarely turn down deadline extensions. But, when over half the class is sending panicked emails requesting them, that signals a larger problem.

So, I took a more global approach: I extended deadlines, shortened assignments, and created alternate options for all the students in a class. I won’t lie, however. I hesitated before each change, because every single adjustment involved additional labour for me. I forged forward anyway, however, because while my fall semester was busy, I was low on care responsibilities and feeling healthy and well. I knew I could take on the work.

This was not true for all of my colleagues and friends. They had to make different decisions.

This helped me identify one of the core facets of concession: the capacity to absorb labour.

Like a sponge, concession is all about absorbing the effects of a mess.

Beyond questions of definition (what constitutes a crisis), concession creates work for people. Sometimes, it creates work for a lot of people: the student who has to send emails and arrange meetings; the instructor who has to decide next steps; the administrator who has to communicate with both the student and the professor.

Who is willing and able to absorb the work of crisis?

Asking this question encouraged me to create concession policies that were both fair and low-labour for everyone. One of my proudest moments of the fall was going to the chair of my department to discuss a course-wide concession, wherein students could opt out of the final assignment and still do well in the course (within limits).

My idea was approved. And you know what? No one “worked the system.” Everyone who used the “off-ramp” needed it, and it was significantly less work for both me and the students as compared to my usual concession processes.

I wouldn’t necessarily use this precise concession again, but I will absolutely carry the principle with me. Concession is not only a question of fairness and evaluation; it is also a question of absorbing the work that crisis creates.

What about you, Kim? Has the pandemic helped you reframe any parts of your thinking?

Sharing our resources better: more thoughts on what to bring with us post-COVID (#ACsurvivalguide)

Kelsey,

In your last post you brought up the question of mentorship in the Zoom era, and what aspects of that often-frustrating but occasionally remarkable experience we need to port with us when the Tardis door opens post-COVID.

This week I want to think about another aspect of COVID teaching that has lessons to offer the After Times: sharing our resources more wisely.

It takes imagination, and generosity, to make a thriving (theatre) ecology.

My inspiration for this one comes from the large experiential learning class I’m currently teaching at Western, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. (NB: I stole this title and concept shamelessly from my dear colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, Department of Drama, which runs a course of the [nearly] same name focused on London’s theatre ecology. What can I say? Winning formula.)

The Before Times: spectators experience “Death of the Sun” at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, 2016

In the Before Times, TOCAP (as I call it) took 40+ students from three difference academic programs, plus me and a TA, to watch live shows in Toronto, in Stratford, ON (at the Stratford Festival), and even in Little London, ON from time to time (comparison shopping across ecologies is very informative stuff). The course is very popular, but expensive to run: student fees (which we cap at CAD$150, or the equivalent of a textbook-heavy course in any other field) cover about 50% of the cost of buses, theatre tickets, and guest speakers, while the rest is made up from donations from the academic programs whose students join the class, plus funds from a pot within our shared faculty to which I need to reapply every year (a bit sheepishly).

The costs have proven worth it, though: we have seen outstanding work by a wide and diverse range of artists on the cutting edge of what our friend and colleague Ric Knowles calls “the intercultural city,” and students are given opportunities to think and work creatively, based on their own intellectual, cultural, and career interests, in a range of different assignments.

(Shows we’ve been privileged to see live in years past! Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton in Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times; the cast of Come From Away in their Toronto home; the banner for Hong Kong Exile’s amazing animated show No Foreigners.)

When COVID hit, in March 2020, the next round of TOCAP was scheduled for autumn. We quickly shifted things around to move it to winter term, hoping against hope that theatres would be “open” again come January. Of course, that did not happen.

What did I do? First, I took stock of what we had. In addition to a range of emerging online resources from Toronto theatre companies, most of which were being offered for free or PWYC to all comers, I also had 40+ students x $150 to spend. (This money is centrally collected by our registrar’s office, so was already in the bank.)

I then got to work exploring what was happening in the Toronto theatre ecology, online edition, and which companies our funds could best support as they navigated this incredibly precarious time.

I discovered: groups experimenting with online-hybrid formats that are likely to push the definition of theatre forward in the coming years (Factory Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre); groups that had archival resources to share and an eagerness to reflect on them with us (The Theatre Centre); and groups whose work on decolonizing theatre in Tkaronto (also known in English as Toronto) was ongoing, though increasingly through exhaustion, given the working conditions demanded by COVID (Manidoons Theatre Collective, Native Earth Performing Arts, and more).

Acts of Faith, by David Yee and starring Natasha Mumba, was a huge hit with the class. Factory Theatre commissioned and produced it as a to-camera, for-livestream hybrid work that was at turns deeply intimate and seriously creepy.

I reached out to these companies; I noted that we had $1000 per theatre to spend, and that we’d be happy to spread this money out across screening fees, speakers’ fees for artists to join us in class, and more.

“Into Mother’s Womb” by Natalie Sappier illustrates Aria Evans’ choreographic score The Price of Us Waiting, part of the Embodying Power and Place project co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts.

Every company came to play! In the spirit of my ongoing work as a teacher to decolonize my classrooms, we opened with Native Earth Performing Arts’ 2020 Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival, a collection of pieces by emerging Indigenous artists that this year took place as a series of conversations online, including screenings of works in progress. We were joined in class by NEPA Artistic Director Keith Barker, who showed immense generosity of spirit as he talked about his journey into the arts and into claiming his identity as a proud Métis man, answered student questions with an open heart, and reminded us all that land acknowledgements are celebrations, not obligations.

Turtle Island: our shared home now. What can we do to celebrate and sustain our home?

Next we hosted friends from the Theatre Centre, Aislinn Rose and Adam Lazarus, who are behind the important Bouffon clown work Daughter. It’s an uncomfortable takedown of toxic masculinity in its most mundane form, and together in class we had a searching conversation about the costs vs benefits of performing a show that may cause some viewers harm, in order to open other viewers’ eyes to the harm they already cause. We screened Factory Theatre’s Acts of Faith, a live-to-camera show about a young Black woman’s agency made literally, dramaturgically, and thematically for the Zoom room, and then followed that up with a refreshingly tactile non-Zoom-based experience, Buddies in Bad Times’ Rhubarb! “Book of the Festival,” featuring a hardback full of relational and participatory pieces by LGBTQ2SIA+ artists that we can keep, hold, and return to again and again when, you know, ZOOM FATIGUE.

This week, we come back to questions of colonial legacies and settler responsibilities as we screen brand-new work by Indigenous women and two-spirit artists as part of the Embodying Power and Place project. Spearheaded by Nightwood associate artist and dramaturg Donna-Michelle St-Bernard and co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth, this project features 12 pieces that respond to the 12 chapters contained in “Reclaiming Power and Place,” the report of the national (Canadian) inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The 2021 Rhubarb! Festival of queer performance art, curated by Clayton Lee. Good times away from the Zoom room!

We could not be more grateful for the shared time, effort, and labour all of these companies and artists have brought to our table, and each were grateful for the support that we were able to pass along to them in turn. Adam made me laugh when I made our $1K offer, expressing surprise at so much money for art, while Aislinn talked about using her speakers’ fee to support the purchase of much-needed new glasses. Nightwood figured out how to donate a portion of their fee to one of the charities to which they are directing donations for Embodying Power and Place, while also paying artists to join us as speakers. Native Earth Performing Arts performed, as always, its structural commitment to resource-sharing in the spirit of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum when it waived its screening fee for our access to Weesageechak; we redirected some of that money toward a screening of Manidoons Collective’s acclaimed performance bug (our capstone event, happening next week! See below – it’s public and FREE to register!), and we used the rest to pay for a session on decolonizing the work of theatre reviewing with Carly Maga of the Toronto Star.

On April 1 our class will host our final guests, Yolanda Bonnell, actor and creator, and Jay Havens, scenographer, as they share their acclaimed work bug and speak with us about decolonization and the theatre in Toronto and beyond. Please register to join this free, public event using the address in the image!

The class this year has looked unlike anything I’ve run before. Sure, we’ve seen the performances, just like always, and sure, we’ve done readings about the “global city,” the “intercultural city,” settler encounters with Indigenous performances and more, just like always. But it has not been business as usual in the Zoom room (as if it could be!).

For one thing, we meet just 1.5 hours a week, rather than a typical block of 3h/week. (That three-hour block is meant to accommodate theatre visits, after all!) Instead, I set pre-class prep tasks for the students two days ahead of our scheduled meetings; this gives them a chance to engage independently with the work on offer and do some independent writing, as their time and interests permit.

For another, most of our classes are comprised of Q&A sessions with artists: these are a chance for students to connect with creators, actors, directors, playwrights, and administrators. While I love the sound my own voice as much as the next prof, the truth is we are all tired, and right now what we need is opportunities to be inspired, to hear creative workers talk with joy about their practice and to offer us the chance to respond to and engage with that work in ways that light up our own creative sparks. More lectures? Not helpful.

Of course, I fully expect that, come evaluation time, a few students are going to say “Kim didn’t lecture enough,” or “we didn’t talk enough about the readings.” Maybe true; this is a patch-job class structure as much as it is a thoughtful and reasoned solution to a ridiculous global emergency. Next time out, I’ll aim for a bit more balance.

But never will I regret giving over the majority of my class time, and ALL of our class resources (plus some generously donated to support Manidoons’ visit with bug – please come!), to uplift the incredible work our artists do and the literally invaluable contribution they make to our wellbeing as humans, citizens, and communities – pandemic or none.

So what about you, Kelsey? What resources have you had to reallocate during this hairy pandemic school year, and how has that gone?

– Kim