The Staging Better Futures/Mettre en scène de meilleurs avenirs project is co-led by Brock University’s Dr. Jennifer Roberts-Smith (PhD) and University of Waterloo’s Dr. Nicole Nolette (PhD) and is aimed at diversifying and modernizing post-secondary theatre pedagogy across Canada.
The project received $2.5 million from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant, one of the largest grants offered by SSHRC, as well as additional funding from numerous organizational partners in both the academic and professional community.
Deneh’Cho Thompson, an assistant professor and the co-ordinator of the wîcêhtowin Theatre Program in USask’s Department of Drama in the College of Arts and Science, is on the governance committee for the Staging Better Futures project.
Thompson said there is an opportunity for “a lot of knowledge exchange” through Staging Better Futures, adding that one of his goals with the project is creating an inclusive space for the progressive theatre movement that has started to take place across Canada.
“After the Black Lives Matter movement was very prominent in the public, a lot of theatre institutions started to look at themselves,” he said. “I think that reckoning is still part of the conversation. The reality is institutional change is very, very slow … in some way, you can say Staging Better Futures is part of that conversation.”
Carla Orosz, a co-applicant and Prairie region research cluster chair for the Staging Better Futures project and head of the USask Department of Drama in the College of Arts and Science, said the COVID-19 pandemic gave everyone – particularly the theatre industry – a chance to reflect.
Orosz said many materials used in modern theatre education, such as the plays and pedagogy pored over in the classroom, are “white male oriented” and come from a Eurocentric understanding of theatre.
Moving forward, Orosz said this project is an opportunity to make shifts in that model for a more inclusive education and theatre space.
“It's the same thing when you go into an acting class, or a theatre design or technical class: you bring all of yourself into that room,” she said. “We’re asked to be so vulnerable and sensitive to issues … that’s going to affect how I’m teaching you; it’s going to affect what we’re bringing in to a rehearsal hall.”
Thompson and Orosz both emphasized the need for a changing dynamic in the theatre industry to start in the classroom. For professional companies to continue addressing issues of equity and decolonization, the upcoming theatre artists need to have that training and understanding.
Beyond the push for more equity, Thompson said he hopes the Staging Better Futures project will address other issues in the professional theatre space – such as intense scheduling and uneven power dynamics – that can lead to burnout or other harm for artists.
He said USask being involved in such wide-ranging conversations is important for the future of theatre education.
“I think there has been a sense in the theatre community, and the theatre education community, that there are practices that could be refined, practices that need to be interrogated as to their usefulness,” Thompson said. “It’s something of an in-industry secret that theatre training can be at times harmful to the students, very emotionally and physically strenuous. It’s worth questioning if we need to change how we do it.”