York University theatre program breaks new ground on inclusivity and advancing understanding of emotions

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      York University associate professor of theatre Ines Buchli has come a long way from her days in Vancouver as a young theatre director and actor in the early 1980s.

      When she moved to Toronto to study for her master’s in fine arts in directing at York, she assumed that she would be returning to her hometown.

      “But I was so taken with Toronto—even then, it was already so diverse and multicultural—that I ended up staying there and working,” Buchli told the Straight in a phone interview.

      She was hired as an associate artistic director of Necessary Angel Theatre in Toronto. She also directed the short films “Exposure”, “Ministry”, “Keeper”, and “Foxy Lady, Wild Cherry”, which have been screened at festivals around the world.

      Buchli was encouraged by one of her academic mentors to apply at York, where she was hired and later obtained a tenure-track position.

      “It’s an amazing department and it’s constantly changing with how the ecology of the theatre scene is changing,” Buchli said.

      Theatre students at York University are exposed to all aspects of stagecraft in their first year.

      “Young people don’t actually want to do just one thing,” she insisted. “They can do some production courses. They can do some design courses. They can do devised theatre. They can take acting courses and voice and movement and still come out with an honours degree, either a BA or BFA, in their major of performance creation.”

      A hallmark of York University’s theatre department has been examining ways of making live theatre more accessible to all people and challenging ableist notions about the performing arts.

      A turning point for Buchli came when she attended a conference organized by Eliza Chandler, a disability-arts expert at Ryerson University, about “cripping the arts”.

      There, she met Deaf and Mad artists, which led her to form an advisory group of artists with disabilities.

      “I had them come and speak to our students and our students got very excited by it too,” Buchli said.

      York University’s theatre department decided to dedicate one performance as an American Sign Language interpretive show featuring a deaf person on-stage.

      “The feedback we got from deaf students was: ‘It’s so great to see someone speaking our language as their first language versus having a hearing interpreter who’s learned how to do ASL,’ ” Buchli said.

      She said that a hearing interpreter watched the deaf actor communicate in ASL. With the help of a computer, the interpreter was able to ensure that the audience could understand what was being said.

      Hannah Wayne, Alexandra Montagnese, and Sophie Mercer played the lead roles in York's production of Three Sisters, which included a great deal of American Sign Langage.
      Jeremy Mimnagh

      British Council works with York on pilot project

      That’s not the department’s only attempt to make theatre more inclusive.

      In 2017, it staged Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov, with several actors using sign language because one of the characters is deaf.

      York has also put on “Relaxed” performances. These are designed to accommodate audience members, including those on the autism spectrum, who experience difficulty when their senses are bombarded with stimuli.

      Buchli pointed out that in these shows, some of the houselights remain on, sound cues might not be as loud, and people are free to leave the theatre at any time and go to a chill-out room.

      “The students got onboard in a big way because they recognized that this was the future and they needed to learn how to do it,” she said.

      These pioneering efforts led the British Council to work with York University on a pilot project training people in staging relaxed performances and making theatre more inclusive.

      “We learned how to be access activators, basically,” Buchli said. “That was, again, a really eye-opening experience.”

      Traditionally, theatre schools have been very gruelling on students, who routinely work well into the evening.

      But according to Buchli, this “survival of the fittest” mindset isn’t appropriate in light of what’s now known about neurodiversity and the increasing number of people experiencing mental-health challenges.

      That’s in addition to making room for those with physical disabilities who might have to work with an attendant.


      “I’m really pleased to say that in our conservatory, we have a young actor who is a wheelchair user,” Buchli said. “We’re learning lots about how to make some accommodation for his needs in the training.”

      She added that graduate students at York, including one who is blind, are engaged in cutting-edge research on accessibility, including around nonbinary gender identity and expression.

      York University theatre prof Ines Buchli is an expert on how actors can access emotions through emotional effector patterns.

      Research into emotions enhances performances

      In addition to advancing justice for theatre artists with disabilities, Buchli is leading a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council–funded investigation into how actors can more effectively access emotion in their performances by applying the lessons of neuroscience.

      She and other researchers in the Emotional Fluency Project have demonstrated that this can be accomplished with an understanding of the links between how the brain functions and human physiology, including facial expressions, posture, and specific breathing patterns.

      Others involved in the project include choreographer and University of Manitoba professor Tom Stroud and UBC researcher Gayle Murphy.

      “There’s a big thing in our profession: no trauma, no drama,” Buchli said. “And that is so incorrect. We know now that you don’t have to have trauma to create trauma.”

      This is particularly useful for students who might suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.

      Rather than being revictimized through theatre by reliving trauma, they can access emotions through “emotional effector patterns”.

      She also pointed out that this approach helps actors make more authentic emotional transitions, which is appreciated by audiences.

      “One of the great things about York is all of the faculty are working professionals and we’re all doing what I think is pretty innovative research,” Buchli said. “We bring that, obviously, back to our students and back into the studio and back into the rehearsal room.”

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      Ines Buchli and some of her colleagues plan on visiting Vancouver on February 22 to meet with people interested in learning more about York University's theatre program in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design.