USask PhD student Joel Bernbaum. (Photo: Submitted)

Joel Bernbaum wins first Trudeau Foundation scholarship awarded at USask

University of Saskatchewan (USask) PhD student Joel Bernbaum, well-known in Saskatoon as an accomplished actor, director, playwright, and journalist, has been awarded the prestigious Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholarship—the first ever awarded to a USask student.

“I feel very honoured that I have been awarded this scholarship, and I am grateful for the support I received from my mentors along the way,” Bernbaum said. “This is a unique opportunity to network and build relationships with a community of leaders across Canada.”

The $40,000/year three-year scholarship, as well as a travel allowance of up to $20,000 per year, is for outstanding doctoral students undertaking social sciences or humanities research. He is one of 16 Canadian students awarded the scholarship.

Bernbaum will study how theatre has the potential to strengthen cities by creating connected and engaged citizens.

He will draw on his previous community-building work as a theatre artist, including the co-creation of Reasonable Doubt, a critically acclaimed documentary play focused on the 2018 murder trial in the death of Colten Boushie in 2016.

The play, premiered at Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre in January 2020, presented honest dialogue about relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Saskatchewan. Bernbaum conducted more than 200 interviews that were used as a verbatim base for the play dialogues.

In his research, Bernbaum will look at how city leadership and cutting-edge theatre associations can work together to strengthen their communities. His interdisciplinary work, under the USask College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, is supervised by USask regional and urban planning professor Ryan Walker (PhD).

“I think Joel as a person, and his work as a student, have the effect of inspiring the best in everyone who gets to play a supporting role in his work,” said Walker.

Arts organizations and cities will be able to use Bernbaum’s research to engage communities, while uncovering new ways for theatre arts to build trust among citizens and promote responsible citizenship.

“For thousands of years, theatre has always been about connecting people,” he said. “By participating in live theatre or other public art, people create social bonds because they share a meaningful experience. It is an act of community engagement.”

To understand how drama companies help build community, Bernbaum will interview members and artists of Forklift Danceworks in Texas, Big hART in Australia, and Saskatoon’s Sum Theatre. Bernbaum co-founded Sum Theatre, which offers free Theatre in the Park productions each summer, attracting audiences totalling 45,000 people.

“Forklift Danceworks, for example, uses non-dancers from specific Texas workplaces and uses the movements they do on the job to create a dancing performance,” he said. “They use art to create empathy for the workers with the public.”

Next year as part of his research, Bernbaum will also work with members of a Saskatoon neighbourhood to design a creative project based on the needs of the community that will strengthen bonds in the community.

Bernbaum is also reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact his own research and the way theatre is done in the future. 

“For the first time in thousands of years, all the stages are dark across the world,” he said. “This is an opportunity to open up to new ways of thinking about the performing arts when things are back to normal. It’s not just about moving to online performances, it’s about re-imagining how theatres can be connected with the communities we are a part of.”


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