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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?