When Courtenay Dobbie took the helm of Studio 58 in January, the theatre school was still navigating the uncertain seas of the pandemic.
But as B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan moves forward, the new artistic director reminds us that with uncertainty comes hope. “It was really amazing to watch how art still survived and always will survive,” was one of the first things Dobbie said during a phone interview.
She said that making art safely was not only possible but also successful because of people’s innate desire to connect with one another. “It was really heartwarming, uplifting, and hopeful.”
Creating theatre in the midst of a pandemic was not without challenge, though. “That extra level of safety was always in the background,” Dobbie added.
She explained that the artistic process is inherently collaborative and that our natural inclination is to be close, to be together, and she recalled watching the students having to work against their impulses to maintain the required physical distance.
“The most commonly used phrase in class was, ‘Remember to stay apart,’ ’’ she said.
The arts were hit hard by COVID-19. Studio 58 was one of the many institutions that had no choice but to adapt in innovative ways.
“There was some great form and structure to be taken from it,” Dobbie said.
Out of the many different forms they tried, the hybrid of theatre and film (for example, designing a play specifically to be filmed) was particularly effective.
If you happened to catch any of Studio 58’s spring programming, you would have seen that even though the shows looked a bit different, there was still beauty and meaning to be found.
“The training and productions took on this other level of perseverance and human tenacity,” Dobbie said. “The students took great responsibility for it as well…They were very cautious and supportive of one another and us…It was wild, I’ll never forget it in my life.”
A season of reawakening
“I really wanted to offer pieces that were a celebration of the human spirit,” Dobbie said of the school’s 2021-22 lineup that was announced back in June. All shows will welcome live audiences, if everything goes according to plan.
Coming out of the pandemic, Dobbie described a need for a “resurfacing, rebirth, reckoning… a reawakening”.
It’s not just the pandemic from which we’re waking. The demand for and a commitment to long-overdue social change has become the focus of institutions and individuals alike.
“It’s our duty to respond,” Dobbie affirmed. She stressed the importance of the school demonstrating the best practices possible so that when the students graduate, they have a more equitable vocabulary and practice to offer to the professional world. “I really want to usher in…a time of more awareness of honoring…and support.”
The school is working to diversify the curriculum by bringing in more BIPOC playwrights for the classroom scene work and finding material in productions that can match the cultural and gender diversity of the students.
The first show of the upcoming season, Cerulean Blue, by award-winning Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, is an example of this.
“We have a fantastic opportunity where we have Indigenous students in our cohort, and then we have this play that’s written by a famous Canadian Indigenous playwright, and it will be directed by two Indigenous directors.” Dobbie shared.
Cerulean Blue was originally commissioned for a large ensemble cast by Ryerson University, so it suits the challenging theatre-school criteria of a 20-plus-person cast. Dobbie noted that this as an exciting possibility for the future: “Hopefully, theatre companies will start commissioning and start making new plays.”
Theatre education and training has changed over the years. Dobbie is a graduate of the acting program at Studio 58 and Mount Royal College and holds an MFA in directing from UBC, so she has experienced how fast things evolve in the postsecondary artistic world.
“There is so much more dialogue between instructor and student,” Dobbie said.
She explained that even though there are still lessons to be taught, there is more collaboration and conversation rather than simply being told what to do all the time.
“Young people are the future thinkers…so they move and demand quickly and it’s our job to respond quickly and make sure that those ideas are happening, that it’s moving along.”
This summer is a time to prepare for the new era that’s coming in the fall. “We’re still in this sort of holding place,” Dobbie pondered. “The thought of us being able to be in a classroom again together without having to social-distance, it just kind of seems like a dream.”
She emphasized the positivity she feels for the program, the artistic projects, and the new state of the theatrical world. Dobbie said that not only is it time to put all the important work that’s been done in the past year and a half into practice but it’s also time to welcome fun back.
“I just want the students to run up to each other after not seeing each other over the summer and give each other a hug—to hold each other’s hands, to be able to sit in a circle and close our eyes together and breathe together.”