UofA Theatre Production Suspension Affects Us All

If you’ve been reading the news at all over the last week, you’ve likely heard about the University of Alberta’s decision to suspend enrollment to 20 Faculty of Arts undergraduate programs that have had an enrollment of ten or fewer students per year. These programs include music history, BMus school music, composition & theory, world music, and technical theatre, among many others. If you haven’t seen the memo from Dean of Arts Lesley Cormack yet, take a gander at its empirical explanation of the program suspensions. This is just one step we’ve seen in recent months as the University of Alberta tries to reconcile with a broken promise from the government which leaves post-secondary institutions without an expected 2% year-over-year funding increase, as well as a further 7.2% provincial funding cut.

Kathleen Weiss, Chair of the University of Alberta’s Department of Drama, has issued a statement saying, “The Stage Management and Technical Production programs were established with quotas recognizing their special nature and neither program is meeting those quotas so are under enrolled. However both programs together constitute the major in Technical Theatre and this has not been taken into account yet. Once that is done, our numbers will be above the ten which is informing the decision of last week.”

Erin Valentine, a current student in her last year of the BFA stage management program, reached out to me to talk about the impact of the suspension of enrollment into the technical theatre program. “It means fewer [people who have a] really in-depth education in stage management graduating and entering the theatre industry… We’re educated so differently from anyone who completes a diploma program [at Grant MacEwan University]. Not necessarily in a better way, but differently. I think the theatre community thrives on a whole bunch of ideas… the more different backgrounds and education and thoughts you can put into the industry… you’re going to have so much breadth and depth of ways to solve problems and ways to achieve success than if we all just have the same background, or only work experience and no formal education.”

Because of the nature of the program, Erin says it is only designed for 6-8 students per year to complete the program. In addition to in-class work, the students are also gaining work experience by working on in-house productions and completing practicums. If the admission quota was higher, students would not graduate with the same level of hands-on experience as they currently do. This hands-on experience gives graduates the confidence and skills necessary to be successful in the theatre community. Erin says, “Both specializations in theatre production and stage management are really highly respected and look great when you’re looking for jobs, there’s a lot of people who [respect] program graduates and there’s a lot of people coming out of the program and working in the community.”

But what about Grant MacEwan’s Theatre Production program? Can’t people just go there instead? It’s hands on and gives people the same skills too, right?

On some levels yes, on some levels no, Erin tells me. “My impression of the Grant MacEwan program is that it produces really excellent all around technicians who have done lighting and painting and construction and they’re quite good at all of them. They’re equipped to be crew heads [in all areas], but they don’t necessarily study stage management in the same depth that we do because it’s a technical diploma not a stage management degree. They generally have less experience stage managing just because of how long we’re in school for… We take more theory, like theatre history, Canadian theatre history, history of dress and decor because we’re in school longer… [The additional two years in school] means we have an understanding of why theatre has continued to exist for hundreds of years. So, all the things that have happened during war times and medieval times and why theatre existed as an art form. We understand what a culture clings to and we can recognize that in our own culture and create theatre that is culturally relevant because we’ve seen what theatre has done in the past.”

Technical theatre programs like the University of Alberta’s are in increasingly short supply, with enrollment into Mount Royal University’s Theatre Arts program being suspended earlier this year. As we’ve seen in the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education’s draft letters of expectations to Alberta’s post-secondary institutions – take the University of Alberta’s for example – the Government of Alberta apparently has no problem with consolidating these programs under one roof. In the draft letter of expectations to the University of Alberta, the Minister suggests post-secondary institutions, “continue to work with Campus Alberta partners to increase access and better serve learners, achieve efficiencies, leverage expertise, and maximize available resources through initiatives such as: reductions in program duplication across Campus Alberta institutions through transfer agreements, collaborative delivery arrangements, and delivery through eCampus Alberta;” More on this topic can be found on the Huffington Post’s website, as the article published by the Calgary Herald which includes Minister Lukaszuk’s comments is no longer available online.  Last time I checked, we’re still in a capitalist economy where consumers are given choice – choice of cars, choice of clothing, and yes, choice of where to receive an education. There are no statements from the Government of Alberta regarding duplication of services in, say, the oil and gas industry. The Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education ultimately approves all additions or cancellations of programs, so it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s decision, given his draft letter of expectation to the University of Alberta.

With fewer programs available in Alberta,  the programs that do survive cuts may be over-enrolled to the point of students not receiving the same level of hands-on experience, meaning students may have to leave the province to get the type of education in theatre production they feel will make them successful in the industry. As my home province of Saskatchewan can attest, when a young person leaves a province to get post-secondary education, they establish themselves and make connections in their adopted community, making it very hard to leave. Students leaving Alberta to be educated in theatre production will invariably mean fewer students returning to Edmonton after their degrees, ultimately meaning a less vibrant theatre community, arts scene and economy.

Another education option is, of course, hands on education. As Erin points out though, “By the time you graduate [a post-secondary program], you already have years of experience and mistakes behind you instead of making a start in the world and learning on your feet… Being in school with guidance and advisers and instructors who know what they’re talking about and want to share that for you is such a benefit.”

Erin acknowledges that the University of Alberta’s theatre production program is in need of brand revitalization, saying, “[We need to figure out] what the benefits of our program are. [We could also] improve transfer rates so, say, for Grant MacEwan technicians who have a really broad background want to specialize in stage management and transfer over. Really publicizing and marketing to high schools and talking about what we’re all about – the viability of the degree, the benefits of the degree beyond just the theatre world. We’re in really huge need and this is kind of a wake-up call.”

The theatre community and UofA alumni has been very vocal about the program suspension. Erin says, “There’s stuff all over social media, we’re trying to rally the troops. Part of their argument is that it’s low enrollment and that it’s only benefiting six or eight people per year. What we’re trying to say is that the education that six or eight people are receiving is benefiting a whole community of people. It’s benefiting the actors that we go to school with because we’re [doing tech for] their shows. It’s benefiting the people who are producing festivals, and independent theatre and professional theatre inside and outside the city because we work on their shows…So what we’re trying to say is yeah, six people graduate and they go off and they change their community.”

Whether you’re an artist, an audience member (like, for example, the 700,000 people who partook in North America’s largest fringe theatre festival), or just a tax payer, this issue affects us all.

For more information, stay tuned to the UofA Drama Department’s website, Arts Squared, The Gateway, and the #abpse Twitter hashtag, and a plethora of other news outlets covering the issue.

–          Jenna Marynowski

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