Testimonial from Timothy Askew, MFA Theatre (2013) - Directing with Emphasis on Teaching
"I found myself with a break from employment for the first time in a long time. I felt that I was at a crossroads and I could either keep plowing ahead, or use the interruption of work to reflect on the nagging feeling that something had gone missing from my theatre life. I felt a little lost - out of touch with myself, my voice, my creative impulse. What kind of work did I want to do next? I deeply wanted to reconnect with what I needed to say as a theatre artist - apart from salability, audience expectation, mission statements, and season programming.
In the twenty years or so since I graduated from my undergraduate theatre school, I'd occasionally and briefly thought about a Master's degree. I always thought it would be nice to have an MFA as a qualification for more teaching opportunities, but the thought of the cost and the terror of writing a thesis immediately deterred me. I realized then that this was exactly what I had to do. I needed to face that terror and embrace the opportunity graduate school would offer me beyond earning additional teaching qualifications.
I needed a "safe" place to risk, to explore, to focus on my process, and to be bold while receiving guidance, support, and a sharp critical point of view from a faculty of experienced professional theatre artists. I began investigating programs. After meeting with a few of the faculty at York, I’d found what I was looking for. I wanted a program that embraced the individual artist's needs as much as possible. York's Theatre department worked hard to customize my graduate school journey and course of study to suit my experience and background, my strengths, as well as my artistic challenges. I firmly believe that education is only worth what you put into it and what you demand of it. I actively pushed to get as much from the experience and from the program structure as possible. The Theatre faculty at York University worked very hard to accommodate my proactive quest while also seeing beyond what I thought I needed, and challenged me in ways I did not anticipate. Since the York graduate program is structured as a conservatory style within the overarching university framework, there's an added bonus of a real ensemble experience - a great opportunity to learn from observation of your peers.
The teaching element of the program was fantastic. Teaching the Intro to Acting 1 and 2 for two academic years under the tutelage of the course director, Gwen Dobie, was an beautiful gift for a teacher. Aside from the actual classroom teaching, I loved the teaching opportunities that cropped up every day in rehearsal with undergraduate conservatory actors as well as with my colleagues, the MFA actors.
I leave the program having reinvented myself as a theatre artist. My experience at York University Department of Theatre helped me reconnect to my creative impulse, refocus my vision, and re-awaken my voice. It was a huge undertaking! There's no getting around the huge workload. But the monumental challenge of overlapping opportunities to create theatre for 18 months is a great gift. Somewhere in the middle of the grind, I found inspiration and the freedom to make magic."
Testimonial from Renée Brode, MFA Theatre (2013) — Design
I attended York University as an undergrad in the Theatre Department. After graduating, I pursued a career in lighting design. After nearly twenty years as a professional Lighting Designer in theatre, musicals, and opera, I learned of an opportunity to study for an MFA in Design at York. I felt that this would be the chance to revisit the art of theatre design. Although I was interested specifically in ecodesign and sustainability, the faculty at York provided an atmosphere in which I could explore all aspects of designing. As a student and as a designer, I was able to do greater research and investigation into details of text and imagery associated with each of the theoretical productions we worked on. Overall, I found the research and presentations challenging and gratifying. Even more exciting, however, were the discussions that happened in the classes themselves. We were fortunate to share several classes with the MFA directors and our combined observations and inclinations were extremely valuable.
My thesis was an investigation of the effect of sustainability on the lighting design process. The practical portion of the thesis provided an opportunity for me to collaborate with several of the York University Dance MFA Choreographers. I have discovered that I am able to integrate some of my newly-formed philosophies of sustainability into my professional design work.
I think that the faculty and staff at York believe strongly in design as a vital aspect of the theatrical experience. They teach idea that each design discipline is an essential part of an overall design aesthetic and that each is connected and reliant on another.
I have returned happily to my career in Lighting Design but I feel that the time spent with the faculty and colleagues in the MFA program strengthened my understanding of the fundamentals of theatre design in general and, more specifically, my effectiveness as a lighting designer and a member of an artistic team. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of the inaugural year of the MFA Design program.
Testimonial from Tiana Leonty, MFA Theatre (2013) – Acting
When I finished my undergrad training in musical theatre, I knew I would seek further acting training down the road. I had an MFA in my sights, and I thought it would be an MFA in directing. What I didn't know was that five years after my undergrad, an MFA in Acting was in the cards for me.
I entered the York MFA in Acting program with a few specific goals in mind: to deepen my movement, voice, and classical text training, as well as to gain teaching experience and the credentials to be able to teach at a post-secondary institution. Little did I know I would finish the program two years later having gained all these things and much, much more. At the end of the two years, I realized I had faced and conquered my fundamental actor challenge—a battle I had been slogging ever since I first began theatre school. Because of this, I left the program feeling pretty darn fulfilled.
The key element leading to this fulfillment was my thesis research and performance. The work I did on myself, the research I conducted, and the opportunity to pull it all together in a final performance was a wonderfully informative and freeing experience. I entered the program knowing I needed more training; I finished the program with all the training I need at this point in my career (although learning and practice will be a life-long endeavour). I finished with a new level of confidence, achieved through the intense work I did independently, the lessons learned through teaching first-year actors, and the opportunity to work with other theatre professionals—faculty, directors, co-actors—to unleash my creative potential.
Being in the studio for 20 months gave me the opportunity to put my practice and my passion first, after 5 years stuck in the back seat. The faculty (all experts in their fields and active in the industry) all recognized where I needed to be pushed, and challenged me to go there. Their guidance and know-how, combined with my intense desire to better myself and grow as a performer gave me the opportunity to achieve greater goals than I set out to accomplish. Thanks to their teaching, my movement, text, voice, on-camera and teaching vocabulary are much-enhanced. My York MFA diploma bears a hard-earned personal seal of Satisfaction and Pride.
Testimonial from Eric Blais, MFA Theatre (2013) — Acting
Acquiring an MFA degree had been a goal of mine for many years. After establishing myself as an actor and working professionally for over a decade I decided to take the plunge and apply to York. I chose this program because I knew it would give me the opportunity to re-tool my acting process while developing skills as an educator.
I looked forward to the long days of training and performing without the pressures of the professional world, and it did not disappoint. It was an absolute luxury to have a dedicated studio space and time for playing, stretching, testing, risking and exploring. It afforded me the opportunity for experimentation that could risk failure and the unique learning experience that comes from testing limits. Such a precious thing: the time and space for research and development of the self.
What I found surprisingly challenging and fulfilling was the thesis process, in particular the choosing of an artistic challenge to base my thesis on. I had the vague impression that I would be told where my deficiencies lay and what I could do to fix them, similar to mechanic assessing a car. Alas, such a straight forward road did not lie ahead. I was asked to question myself, to confront the sticking points, the aspects of myself and my work that I would rather not face but if they were not addressed true growth could not be possible. Through class work, performance, written work and discussion I was expertly guided by faculty to come to my own understanding of what stood in my way. I felt supported to be courageous and honest in this exploration.
Such a journey is not always comfortable, the work load is large, the material difficult and expectations high, but when I put myself to the test I found the results were worth the hardships. I was at one of the high points in my career as an artist when I decided to leave my home and family to attend this program; to pursue this grail of self-knowledge, this piece of paper, and feel that I can proudly hang it on the wall as a testament to hard work, to the development of courage and heart. It is another chapter in my search for the clear communication of my dreams to others, of my growth as an artist and teacher. Through training, practicing and teaching I have established myself as a link in a chain of theatre practitioners, I have earned a place in its history and have the skill to pass on my learning to help others to become artists in their own right.
This testimonial is a warm and sincere thank you to all those involved in the York MFA program.
P.S. When I left the program at York I immediately launched into a production and role that I could really sink my teeth into, and the training I had undergone paid off in spades.
Testimonial from Janelle Hanna, MFA Theatre (2013) – Acting
I’ve never been someone who is good at standing still for very long. I auditioned for the MFA acting program at York in Spring 2011 because I wasn’t happy with where I was in my career. I felt stuck; I wasn’t auditioning well and I needed to change that. I also knew that in the future I wanted to teach at the University/College level, and getting my Master's was essential for that goal.
I’m on my way to accomplishing it having just graduated from the York MFA program in Spring 2013. I’m walking away with a great deal more than just a piece of a paper however. I had no idea when I started the program that it would have such a positive impact on so many areas of my life. I truly mean it when I say it was life changing. I recently wrote my instructors to thank them because I now have the most ease in my life that I’ve ever had. Ever. This has been the biggest change for me, the effects of which I can see and feel every day.
This ease didn’t come very easily, however. The past two years have been extremely challenging. The program is demanding and the most difficult endeavour I’ve ever undertaken. Needless to say there were a few dramatic phone calls to family or friends saying “I can’t do this!!!” along the way.
I think the hardest aspect of the program for me was embracing new strategies or methods in terms of my work. Okay, who am I kidding – embracing ANYTHING new was a challenge for me. It can be very difficult to let go of habits (even the bad ones) when it’s all you’ve ever known. Thank goodness I was surrounded by my classmates who were going through similar struggles and encouraged by a faculty that is as committed, patient, and supportive as the York faculty is. They set the bar high but are always there to help you reach it. The instructors at York are passionate about what they do, and care deeply about the success of their students. I was also very fortunate to be among a group of artists in the MFA program that had much more experience that I did. I learned a great deal from watching them work, particularly with classical text.
What I loved most about the York MFA program was the multiple opportunities I got to create my own work. Whether it was for a class or research for my thesis challenge, I now have new material I’m excited to pursue further. The solo show project in particular was transformative for me as I explored my acting challenge. This period of creation during the summer between first and second year was paramount to my growth in the program. I gave myself the rare gift of time solely devoted to my thesis research both in and out of studio. I understand that I may never get this gift again (or until my student loan is paid off) and I’m very thankful York encourages this kind of commitment to a personal practice.
I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the 2013 MFA graduating class. I’ve grown considerably as an actor which is exactly what I wanted when I started two years ago. I got a great deal more than just an acting program though, and I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned to the world outside of York.
Testimonial from Kate Gordon, MFA Theatre (2011) – Acting
It is difficult to find the words to adequately express how rich an experience I had in the MFA program at York.
I originally heard of the program through a friend of mine who was in it, and immediately thought I was too young and inexperienced, having only gradated from George Brown Theatre School five years earlier. Later that year I found myself immersed in the National Voice Intensive program at UBC, run by the extraordinary David Smukler. It was during my time in the intensive that I discovered how hungry I was for the work, and I found myself in a completely new place, both personally and artistically, since I had graduated from George Brown. I knew I had not tapped into a fraction of what I was fully capable of artistically. I had a whole lot more in me to give, and working with David Smukler inspired me to audition for the program.
Needless to say, one of the main reasons for wanting to do the program was to open up teaching possibilities in the future, however, my number one reason for applying was to stretch, strengthen, and deepen my acting chops. And that I did!
It was an intensive two years, to say the least! There was a thirty-year age gap between the oldest and youngest in the class. Learning alongside such a vastly diverse group of people was a gift. I made the conscious choice to make the most of every moment in the program. I was challenged and inspired every single day by my peers and teachers. It was a safe environment that enabled me to take risks and push myself beyond my limits, always feeling supported and challenged every step of the way.
The biggest thing I take away from my MFA experience is the development of a personal process. Having to write a thesis on what my personal artistic challenge was, forced me to take a long, hard look at myself. Over the two years, I developed an articulate vocabulary in both speaking about the work, and in the actual physical and emotional application. Under the guidance of Professor Erika Batdorf, a whole new world opened up to me and I discovered an entry way to my acting work through a very physical and movement-based process. This was probably the biggest discovery for me, but there are many other tools I developed from all of my teachers that I now carry with me in my ‘tool box’ and apply to every audition and job I am lucky enough to get.
The scariest part of the program for me was the teaching. I entered the program with virtually no teaching experience so the thought of having my own class terrified me. No surprise then that this was one of the greatest and biggest learning curves for me. Under the expert guidance and support of Professors Gwen Dobie and Michael Kelley, I gained confidence, experience, and wisdom. And it amazed me how teaching actually deepened my own work as an actor. Teaching forced me to get specific and articulate about my own process. At the end of my two years I was a transformed artist thanks to this experience alone.
For me, the MFA program at York was a profoundly transformational experience. I know for a hard fact that I now bring heaps more intelligence, specificity, and heart into every role I play and every class I teach. I cannot recommend this program enough!