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  • Ah, the memories!

    Monica Prendergast

    Phoenix Theatre at UVic celebrates 50 years of making theatrical waves.


    THE FIRST WEEKEND OF NOVEMBER will see the 50th Anniversary Alumni Weekend bringing together former faculty, staff and students in the University of Victoria’s Department of Theatre, otherwise known as the Phoenix.

    I will be there as an alumnus and former sessional instructor. I was a graduate student in the department between 1999 and 2006, taught Applied Theatre courses for a number of years, and continue to work with Phoenix colleagues and their students in my current faculty position in Education. My memories stretch back 17 years, but that’s only a third of the time that the Phoenix has been training generations of theatre artists and producing hundreds of theatre productions.

    The history of the department can be viewed on an interactive timeline created as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations at finearts.uvic.ca/theatre. I won’t repeat much of what is so effectively laid out there, but will briefly cover the early years from tales I have heard from colleagues and friends at the Phoenix. Then I have some memories of my own to share, as a small contribution to this celebratory landmark year.

    The stories of the Q-Hut, a repurposed military Quonset hut that served as the first Phoenix theatre and teaching space in the 1960s, are legendary. The facility might have been a bit primitive, but the creative energy was powerful in those days under founding faculty members Roger Bishop and Carl Hare. When faculty members Linda Hardy, John Krich and Harvey Miller were recruited in the 1970s, they began a summer repertory company and high school training and performance program that were very successful for many years. Long timers at UVic recall Barbeque Theatre, outdoor summer theatre productions staged at the Faculty Club around the pond, perfect for Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies or even Peter Pan.

    My mentor and writing partner Juliana Saxton arrived at UVic in 1981 and spent the next 25 years leading the Theatre in Education/Drama in Education (TIE/DIE) program that trained a generation of artists and practitioners who work in educational and community settings across Canada and elsewhere. Each year a class of TIE/DIE students would create and tour an original show to local Victoria schools. These productions tackled important social issues, introduced theatre to young people, and also often served as an effective recruitment tool.
    The 1980s saw a partnership begin with William Head on Stage, the prison theatre program that is marking its 35th year out in Metchosin. Many Phoenix students have directed or performed in WHoS shows, and the connection with the Phoenix and its alumni remains strong to this day. (I have performed in two recent WHoS productions myself, in 2012 and 2015).

    The ’90s saw the arrival of design professors Mary Kerr and Alan Stichbury and theatre historian Jennifer Wise. More faculty have joined since then, too many to mention here, but all experts in their respective fields.

    When I arrived to begin working with Saxton and her close colleague in Education, Carole Miller, I also had the chance to return to the stage. I had been a high school drama teacher in Toronto in the 1990s. Going to grad school at the Phoenix gave me the chance I was denied as a teacher to return to my acting roots.

    In the fall of 1999, I found myself cast in faculty member Peter McGuire’s production of Wendy Lill’s The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum. I will never forget standing on the stage of the Roger Bishop Theatre in a tech rehearsal thinking to myself, “I am on a set designed by Allan Stichbury being lit by Gerald King, two of the best designers in the country.” And if that wasn’t enough, I also was working with talented Phoenix students who would go on to thrive in the professional theatre world: Meg Roe, Greg Landucci and Jay Hindle.

    Three years later I was cast by professor and director Brian Richmond in his production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht’s play about the rise of Hitler. This time the design was by the hugely imaginative Mary Kerr, and I was performing alongside one of Canada’s foremost actors David Ferry, who was doing his MFA with Richmond. Phoenix acting students in that show have also gone on to have strong careers, including Trevor Hinton and Zachary Stevenson.

    These memories are for me a signifier of the depth and value of what the Phoenix offers both students and audiences in their mainstage seasons.

    The theatre spaces in the Phoenix Building are topnotch, both the Bishop proscenium theatre and the Chief Dan George, each seating around 200. However, the general public does not often get to see the black box Barbara McIntyre Studio. It is a teaching and performance space that can seat about 60-80 on movable risers. It is here that students present their own season of theatre through the Student Alternative Theatre Company, or SATCo. Alumni Ian Case, David McPherson and Tim Sutherland began SATCo in 1991 and the program has allowed many Phoenix students to try out their ideas in a supportive in-house environment. Thriving companies such as Atomic Vaudeville, Theatre SKAM, Theatre Inconnu, SNAFU Theatre and ITSAZOO Productions all had their start with SATCo.

    The reach of the Phoenix extends beyond Canada as the program has internationalized with partnerships and projects in Mexico, Thailand and India in the past decade. Graduate students from across Canada as well as from Australia, Nigeria, Thailand, the Philippines and America are all drawn here by the department’s reputation.

    November’s Phoenix production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (November 10-26) is a period piece that will no doubt show off the talents of the design faculty, staff and students. Phoenix productions are often some of the best-looking theatre productions in the city, rivalling the Belfry, POV and Langham Court for terrific sets, costumes, lighting and sound.

    Director and faculty member Fran Gebhard will likely showcase the sense of dramatic ensemble that is another strength I regularly see on stage there. Phoenix students, like all “theatre kids,” are passionate about their art form and work together with instructors for very long and dedicated hours to perfect their craft. Spotting students napping in lobby chairs or backstage hallways is a common occurrence in the building during the day.

    The anniversary celebrations continue into next year with an exciting and innovative project happening in March. For one week all classes will be suspended at the Phoenix and students will be working with a team of five invited guest artists. These artists, including alumnus actor and director Meg Roe, will be drawing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest as their source text for experiments in acting, devising, movement, research and design. The week is bookended by public presentations on the project. Be sure to keep an eye on the Phoenix website for more information.

    There is much to celebrate in the legacy and present day accomplishments of the Department of Theatre. Here’s to the next 50 years of post-secondary theatre training and leadership at the University of Victoria.

    Monica will be raising a toast with her Phoenix friends and colleagues in early November. She is also celebrating her tenth year reviewing theatre for CBC Radio Victoria. 

    Edited by admin

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