York University School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design puts sustainable theatre in spotlight

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      Sustainability is often associated with healthy ecosystems and ethical consumerism. But at York University in Toronto, this concept is also being applied to theatre production in ways that might surprise the most ardent environmentalist.

      There’s even an associate professor of ecological design for performance, Ian Garrett. His professional credits include conceiving of the set and energy-capture system for vox:lumen, a groundbreaking dance show performed at night in the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in the winter of 2015. It was powered entirely by off-grid renewable energy.

      “Even though we were in a perfectly good theatre, we opted out of using its electrical system and instead we designed a solar-capture system that was outside the theatre to charge batteries—essentially, marine batteries and inverters inside the theatre—and designed all of our systems around only using energy we could capture,” Garrett told the Straight by phone from his office. “What we wanted to do is prove that you could have a show that would not feel any different from another theatrical experience.”

      York University is the lead educational partner in Climate Change Theatre Action, which has been launched to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Garrett said this project commissioned 50 playwrights to write five-minute plays on a wide range of environmental topics, including water issues, tarsands, and the existential dread around climate change. They have been and are being read over a six-week period, until November 18, at 200 sites around the world.

      “It’s bringing the arts into the centre of conversation as a way to help people—for lack of a better way—to cope with one of the largest issues of our time,” Garrett explained.

      York University is the lead educational partner in Climate Change Theatre Action in which 50 playwrights were commissioned to write short pieces on environmental topics.

      These are just some of the ways in which York’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design is challenging conventional wisdom about what theatre can be in the 21st century.

      Garrett said the goal is to teach undergraduates in the performance-creation-and-research program how they can impact the field in the future rather than focusing only on what’s happening currently or has occurred in the past.

      “The type of student we’re interested in is a hungry theatre animal—somebody interested in finding different ways of exploring,” he said. “We’ve been recently evolving a lot of graduate programs with that same sort of core ethic.”

      York University theatre graduates include Thea Fitz-James, a creative dynamo who conceived Naked Ladies, which addresses how the female body has been portrayed in popular culture and throughout the ages. She’s currently studying for her PhD in performance creation and research from York; according to Garrett, her work is heavily informed by her scholarship.

      Other theatre alumni from York include Vancouver lighting designer Brad Trenaman, who is focused on energy efficiency, and socially conscious clown artists Morro and Jasp, a.k.a. Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis. They have turned what was once seen as children’s entertainment into a powerful platform.

      York University's Ian Garrett specializes in the ecological design of performances.

      Garrett said that York has a solid foothold across various artistic disciplines and first-year theatre students share a common touchstone—collaborative practice—that informs their approach. And he emphasized that research serves as the “spine of all of the programs”.

      While professors take delight when students push the boundaries of theatre as performance, the academics also keenly interested in ensuring that students understand how that is experienced.

      “One of the strengths of the department is its comprehensiveness,” Garrett said.

      There’s another advantage that comes with studying theatre at York: Toronto's thriving theatre scene.

      “It’s the third-largest English-speaking theatre community in the world, behind London, England, and New York,” Garrett noted. “There is everything from traditional mountings of Shakespeare to new devised theatre modalities, crossover with dance movement, and improv. Any sort of different genre or practical type of approach is represented somewhere within Toronto.”

      It’s an unmatched theatre ecosystem in the country. And as Garrett readily acknowledged, “York benefits from that, geographically.”