Master’s students study direction at Canadian Stage and beyond

In the high stakes field of large-scale theatre directing, experience is usually gained on the job and in a sink-or-swim situation. While there’s no prescribed career path, most directors develop their chops on small- and mid-sized stages while waiting for the big break.

Theatre artists Ted Witzel and Ker Wells are going about it somewhat differently. They’re the inaugural participants in the York University MFA in Theatre – Stage Direction in Collaboration with Canadian Stage, a landmark initiative that’s breaking new ground in Canadian theatre training.

Launched last fall as a partnership between one of Canada’s preeminent theatre schools and one of the country’s leading not-for-profit contemporary theatre companies, this innovative graduate program offers highly specialized, advanced training in large-scale theatre directing.  Its mission is to support the development of directorial talent for the national and international stage.

“When directors make their mainstage debut, they often feel they’re getting one kick at the can, and if they fail they’ll never get to do a large production again,” said Professor Eric Armstrong, director of York’s MFA theatre programs. “Here, you get to work with large casts on big shows in a mentored setting – something that just doesn’t happen in the professional world.”

The collaborative MFA program allows students to develop their creative and technical skills to the highest level, integrating their academic and studio work in York’s Department of Theatre with involvement in artistic projects at Canadian Stage. The opportunity to direct a Canadian Stage production and an internship with a major national or international theatre are key elements of the two-year program.

Canadian Stage Artistic and General Director Matthew Jocelyn and Resident Artist Kim Collier serve as personal mentors for the MFA candidates.  Collier, co-founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre and winner of the 2010 Siminovitch Prize for directing, works closely with the students to support their professional development.

The program is customized for each student based on their background, artistic orientation and goals, so Wells and Witzel’s experience over the past year and their plans for the next are highly individual.

Wells assisted Collier in her direction of the Canadian Stage production of Red last fall, and served as assistant director to Richard Rose for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Canadian Stage’s 30th anniversary Shakespeare in the Park presentation, running in Toronto’s High Park until September 2.  This coming season, Witzel will assist Kim Collier on a production for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach.

On the international front, Wells heads to the Netherlands this fall for an internship with acclaimed director Ivo van Hove at Toeneelgroep Amsterdam, working on a play by Ingmar Bergman. Witzel has an internship lined up with the renowned Canadian-born, Europe-based opera director Robert Carsen (LLD Hons. ’05) for a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Germany in March 2013.

Both MFA candidates bring a wealth of experience to their work at York, at Canadian Stage and abroad.

Active in Toronto’s independent theatre scene for the past five years, Witzel is artistic director of The Red Light District, a company he co-founded in 2006. His directing credits include a number of bold, site-specific adaptations of classics in non-traditional venues such the Gladstone Hotel, Drake Underground, Whippersnapper Gallery and Trinity Bellwoods Park. His most recent productions for Red Light District have been La Ronde, an adaptation of the Arthur Schnitzler play, at the downtown club Wicked, and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer with the Tennessee Project at the Gibson House Museum in North York. Witzel divides his time between Toronto and Germany, where he has worked as assistant to leading directors such as Johanna Schall and Sebastian Baumgarten.

Wells is an actor, director and teacher who has toured across Canada and in the US, England, Denmark, France, Italy and Serbia. He was a founding member of Primus Theatre in Winnipeg, where he worked for nearly a decade before moving to Toronto and co-founding Number Eleven Theatre in 1998. His productions with Number Eleven include Icaria, The Prague Visitor and The Curious History of Peter Schlemihl. Other credits include The Confessions of Punch and Judy for New York State-based NACL Theatre and solo shows Living Tall for Public Energy, Peterborough and Swimmer (68) for Toronto’s Hopscotch Collective.

York’s Graduate Program in Theatre is now accepting applications for the next cycle of the MFA program in Theatre – Stage Direction in Collaboration with Canadian Stage. Two new students will be admitted into the program in September 2013. The  application deadline is Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012. Directors with extremely strong individual and interpretive voices and substantial professional experience are invited to apply. Candidates should be committed to developing their artistic and technical skills and have a clear interest in working on a large scale.

For more information, visit the Theatre – Stage Direction in Collaboration with Canadian Stage website.