The Ring

Guest director learns with students

Tue, 2010-02-09 20:48

Photo of Shamata and theatre student Natasha Salway
Shamata and theatre student Natasha Salway. Jocelyn Beyak Photo

It has been my pleasure to work with students at many institutions across Canada and the United States, but each time I have the opportunity, I am reminded again at the incredible learning opportunity this provides. Yes, for the students, but also for myself.

This winter I have had the honour of working with a fantastic team of students at the University of Victoria as we all prepare to present the prolific Canadian playwright, George F. Walker’s Problem Child in February.

The choice to present Walker’s Problem Child through these students seemed a pertinent and important exercise for the student company at the Department of Theatre. For one, the characters in Problem Child are fascinating but very flawed young people who, despite different life choices, are not dissimilar in age from our own students.

As well, the play—in a very short space of time since being written in 1997—has become a new Canadian classic and is regularly performed on stages from one end of the country to the other. It is a play I felt would be a critical component to a contemporary actor’s portfolio.

And thirdly, Problem Child, like so many of Walker’s brilliant plays, deftly portrays the urban underclass. His characters are on the losing end in their fight against the system, but Walker also shows us their humanity, that they are more than just another one of society’s messed-up, off-the-rails, throwaways: an important message for our next generation, I believe.

It has been an indescribable delight to work with these four young actors. Together we tell the personal and sometimes comedic struggle of Denise, a mother with drug issues and her loveable, down-on-his-luck partner RJ as they fight to regain custody of their child from social services. These students have been open, brave, hard-working, and fun.

I am always conscious that my direction is not only guidance for the production of this particular play, but a process of mentoring our theatre artists for the future. Their young minds are like sponges and everything that happens in the rehearsal hall is experiential learning for the rest of their careers.

However, I am not only directing a team of student actors on stage. As with any play, a production requires the talent of designers, stage managers, technicians, craftspeople and publicists. At UVic, these roles are also performed by students in the department. I am continually impressed as they commit hundreds of hours to designing, building and even wallpapering a set, or learning to master a lighting board.

I thank UVic for this opportunity because, while mentoring these students, I am learning with them. In their efforts to absorb knowledge and skills in this hands-on classroom, they challenge me, my ideas, and force me to be a better director.

Michael Shamata is an award-winning director who has directed in major theatres across Canada including the Stratford Festival, Canadian Stage Company, Soulpepper and the Manitoba Theatre Centre. He is currently the artistic director at the Belfry Theatre and is a guest director in the Department of Theatre for the Phoenix Theatre production of Problem Child, Feb. 18–27. Details: www.phoenixtheatres.ca