York University theatre department celebrates 50 years of disruption

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      York University’s theatre department has launched the careers of many actors, directors, and stagehands, perhaps none more famous than Rachel McAdams. Since graduating with a bachelor’s in fine arts in 2001, the London, Ontario, native has gone on to star in Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers, Sherlock Holmes, Spotlight, Disobedience, and many other films.

      Another York University theatre alumna is Weyni Mengesha, the recently appointed artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. Yet another York theatre grad is Tarragon Theatre artistic director Richard Rose, who has directed plays across the country, in the United States, and in London’s West End. One of the faculty members is Michael Greyeyes, who starred as Sitting Bull in the 2018 film Woman Walks Ahead, with Jessica Chastain.

      Department chair Marlis Schweitzer told the Straight by phone that one of the things that make York’s theatre program stand out is that it’s part of a large, comprehensive university in Toronto. Students are not streamed into separate areas until after they complete their first year and are required to take courses not only within the faculty but also in the broader school of arts, media, performance, and design. This is the case even though York has strong conservatory-style acting and production-design programs.

      “Everybody is getting a strong grounding as theatre students and also as university students,” Schweitzer said. “Another thing that makes York unique is some of the amazing facilities we have.”

      These include “gorgeous studio theatres and proscenium-style theatres”, as well as a state-of-the-art black-box theatre named after the first chair of the program, Joseph G. Green.

      He was one of the founders of York’s theatre department in 1969. The others were the first theatre faculty member, Don Rubin, acting teachers Sandy Black and David Harris, and technical director Joe Glosson. Another early faculty member was Canadian theatre legend Mavor Moore, who was also a long-time columnist with the Globe and Mail.

      This means that 2018-19 marks the 50th year of the York theatre department—and Schweitzer said this golden anniversary is being celebrated in several ways. On November 24, there will be a 2 p.m. presentation of David Yee’s rochdale, with a $5 admission fee, followed by a free party from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the university’s Joseph G. Green Studio Theatre.

      York’s theatre department is also marking the birthday with a series of interviews on its website under the banner headline “Fifty Years of Disruption”. Former students who have been featured include groundbreaking performance artist Shawna Dempsey, Theatre Ontario’s Rachel Kennedy, postdoctoral health researcher Julia Gray, director Byron Laviolette, Obsidian Theatre producer Luke Reese, dramaturge Lucy Powis, film producer Robert Benedetti, and playwright and actor Bessie Cheng.

      Fifty Years of Disruption is also the theme of York’s theatrical work this year. It’s in keeping with the department’s history of focusing a series of shows on questions of social and political relevance. In past years, seasons have revolved around Indigeneity, accessibility, and violence.

      “It’s not just that we want to put on a play because we know it will sell tickets,” Schweitzer said. “We want to build a season that involves the whole department—graduate and undergraduate—in exploring questions. So this year, the theme is around disruption and an emerging generation of disrupters.”

      Schweitzer pointed out that one of the advantages of studying at York is Toronto’s vibrant theatre ecosystem. The department has a program called Surprise Surprise that gives students free tickets to see a variety of shows. They can range from the blockbuster musical Come From Away to performances in small independent theatres.

      “They get a real sense of the range of theatre that’s being produced in the city,” Schweitzer said, “and, thankfully, we have a subway that connects York all the way to downtown and all the way out to Vaughan and Markham.”