As a fine arts professor at St. Thomas University, Lisa Anne Ross feels the 2020-21 academic year will be “a year like no other.”
A mentor to young entertainers, Ross enjoys working face-to-face in a studio. She said it was difficult adjusting to online instruction during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The essence of theatre is that personal connection with people, and I found it really hard to adapt to teaching classes online,” she said, adding it took until the summer to wrap her head around virtual performances.
Ross said performance companies across Canada found new ways to tell stories during COVID-19 and STU is no exception. She said she received advice on running virtual classes, courtesy of colleagues from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and California.
The fine arts department is allowing some in-person classes, but professors can only host nine other students. As a workaround, Ross plans to split her classes into two sections and cut the three-hour instruction time in half.
“I feel like out of the ashes rises some creative opportunities. I feel like there are a lot of bright sides,” she said.
Carter Scott, president of Theatre St. Thomas, said his group would follow a similar structure for its three productions. While some shows will utilize software like Zoom, others will be staged at the Black Box Theatre and broadcast online.
The theatre season begins with the Plain Site Theatre Festival, which “aims to bring LGBTQ2+ visibility front and centre by fostering the development of LGBTQ2+ playwrights, performers and directors.” Scott said it runs online from Oct. 1 to Oct. 3.
The second show is The Refugee Hotel, written by Chilean-Canadian playwright Carmen Aguirre based on her experience escaping a military coup in 1974. STU alumnus Lucas Gutierrez-Robert will direct and stage the show at the Black Box for broadcast on Nov. 29.
Scott said the play is a way to include more Black, Indigenous and People of Colour casts in upcoming productions. He hopes to collaborate with BIPOC arts groups in Fredericton and welcome them into performance spaces like the Black Box.
“The Refugee Hotel builds upon that because we have a lot of Latin American students who are interested in theatre, so this time we tried to do something for them,” Scott said.
The third show is an original play written by Fredericton playwright Jean-Michel Cliche, which will run virtually from Jan. 28 to Jan. 30, 2021. Scott said its plot would be similar to Space Girl, a show Cliche debuted at the Notable Acts Theatre Festival this summer.
In preparation for the new season, Theatre St. Thomas held virtual auditions from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13. Scott said while the process was something new this year, it was successful.
“It’s a common practice in theatre, so it’s a good practice to get into,” he said. “People have been responding to that well and been quite creative in some of their auditions.”
One of Scott’s goals is to make performances more accessible by embracing new technologies for online shows. He said it allows people who can’t leave their homes due to sickness or lack of transportation to enjoy a night at the theatre.
“I don’t want to close any doors on anyone. If we try and focus only on people who live here in Fredericton, we close a lot of doors,” Scott said.
Scott said he thinks a common “knee jerk reaction” about theatre during COVID-19 often jumps towards a negative. While this year is different than past years, he said it doesn’t mean there aren’t any positives to virtual performances.
“We can work with actors now that are across the country,” he said.
“You’re working in different headspaces and different environments, and that can change the artistic process as well because there’s more you can bring to the table.”
Scott said bringing the performing arts back to STU during COVID-19 means a lot to him as an actor and student. He said connecting art skills to education is “really important.”
“I know through high school, that’s what got me into the building because I knew I had theatre after school … it gave me something to look forward to.”