Your first memories of student theatre might involve hand-crafted costumes and some dated, grainy home videos you’d rather not share. At McGill, though, you can be thankful you’ve got student theatre at a more advanced production level. Though there may be a little bit less papier-mâché, McGill theatre will certainly spur your appreciation for and expand your point of reference in the realm of the dramatic arts.
Student theatre has always been surrounded by a mystical air for me. In this twilight zone lies a balance between high school performances’ keen enthusiasm and full-blown, independent, professional productions. It offers an energy unique to student theatre, and usually results in some very special performances.
In an email that looked back on the 2009-2010 year in student-run McGill theatre, Laura Freitag, a U2 Honours English Literature and Jewish Studies student, recounted the past year’s heft of productions. Freitag held the position of art director at Tuesday Night Café (TNC) Theatre, where she directed The Caretaker. She will be their finance director next year, in addition to directing two more shows.
TNC, located in Morrice Hall, is student-run but affiliated with McGill’s English department. This year, they produced four student-performed and directed plays, beginning with Miss Julie, which Freitag described as “a classic piece of realist theatre,” followed by The Caretaker, “a post-WWII modernist” comedy.
Players’ Theatre, the black box space you’ve probably visited if you’ve seen any production in the SSMU Building, also offers opportunities to aspiring thespians. This year’s share of drama at Players’ began with the trans-glam musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, followed by a theatrical version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, which, according to Freitag, “gave a wonderfully balls-out [pardon the pun] view of drug addiction.” Next came a “touching production” of Eurydice, “which used the myth as a locus to explore the contemporary experience of loss and relationships between husband and wives, daughters and fathers.” For Freitag, this production was among this year’s highlights, offering “some of the most truthful and powerful performances I have ever seen out of student actors.”
Relations between the two campus theatre companies are genial. Julian Silverman, the executive director of Players’ Theatre, offered praise for TNC’s productions, lauding this year’s The Secretaries as “funny, dark, interactive, and most of all, so well-suited for that intimate space that is TNC theatre.” The McGill theatre community is a tight-knit group, and the two companies, along with other campus theatre groups like the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS), Savoy, and the Theatre Laboratory, often share members that direct, act, and help out with productions.
Both executives agree that McGill theatre is changing. According to Silverman, “This year we have moved laterally. It’s difficult to say we’ve moved forward because things shift year-to-year. I think a lateral shift is a good way to think of it visually, because there is not necessarily an ‘ahead’ we’re striving for. This year was incredibly successful in terms of production quality and cohesion between theatre executives.”
Freitag pointed to TNC’s final production, The Bald Soprano, a “very postmodern production of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist gem,” as being especially strong at making classic theatre relatable to the McGill audience. “It presented a dated, absurdist text made completely relevant and necessary for a contemporary audience member. The director, Julien Naggar, walked a fine line between antagonizing and entertaining his audience and, in the process, completely exposed the banalities of assigning anything meaning, conceptualizing time, and the idea that communication is even possible in the post-WWII world.”
And, as one would expect from a campus active in promoting equal rights for its students, Freitag agreed that “if there has been any notable trend in theatre this year at McGill, it has been a move towards tackling important gender- and sexuality-related issues, as well as the trend toward gender-neutral casting.” She cited Hedwig and the Angry Inch, AUTS’s Cabaret, and TNC’s The Secretaries as representative of “a move to explore sexual identity,” describing The Secretaries as a “hilarious feminist script that exposed and mocked contemporary society’s interest in sexuality and violence.”
Freitag also noted that “the openness to gender-neutral casting…has been showcased this year more so than any other year I can think of at McGill and I think it marks an important move on the part of the theatre community and the audience they are performing to. It also marks a kind of flexibility on the part of the actors because of their ability to perform sometimes multiple genders in one play.” TNC’s The Caretaker, The Secretaries, The Bald Soprano, Players’ Henry VI: The Rise of York, and the Theatre Laboratory’s The Good Person of Sichuan all employed gender-neutral casting.
Silverman voiced a concern, however, in relation to the year’s productions. “Recently,” he explained, “I’ve begun to feel like the theatre community here is a lot about presentation of talent, and not about the craft itself. I think the next stride is to host opportunities in which actors, technicians, thespians, and the like can hone their talent and grow as artists. Players’ is looking into holding acting classes, and other workshops in which we can learn, not only show, what we know.”
He is optimistic for next year, though, citing that the community has “set up a good group of people this year to run next year’s administrative tasks…allowing for the wide breadth of opportunities” that McGill students “love to take part in.”
Both Players’ and TNC offer annual theatre festivals in addition to the year’s worth of productions – there’s TNC’s ARTifact Festival, a week-long celebration of student-written plays; Players’ event is called the McGill Drama Festival (MDF). “MDF has become a kind of go-to for student-written plays and provides an exception outlet for students to explore all aspects of theatre,” explained Freitag.
Student productions don’t only benefit performers and producers. Most plays, which set ticket prices around the $6 mark for students, offer a budget-friendly activity for those who want to fill their culture quota without paying higher prices for professional productions. McGill theatre provides a testimony to what students can accomplish outside of grades and textbooks. As Freitag explained, “The McGill theatre community is flourishing because of the hours of work that students and professors put into these productions and their hard work is commended and recognized” by fellow students. Whatever directions the McGill theatre community takes in coming years, this extended group will remain a central and unifying force in the McGill arts scene.