Backstage: Festival veteran has been mentoring students since it all began

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As a mentor from the Festival’s inception, playwright and director mentor Christopher gives Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid some historical insight.

Since Christopher Weddell has never doubted the value of a Canadian College of Performing Arts program that students have consistently embraced — the TD Festival of New Works — it doesn’t surprise the faculty mentor to see how much it has paid off.

The annual festival, which showcases original creations over three days, affords students the opportunity to have their creative voices heard through directing, playwriting, physical theatre, film, musical theatre, spoken word and other disciplines.

College alumni such as actor and filmmaker Charlie David, lyricist Carly Rae Jepsen and playwright and composer Avery Jean Brennan cut their creative teeth while being taught how to develop their nascent stories by the longtime festival mentor.

Notable credits that Weddell’s mentees have achieved include David’s 2007 film Mulligans, Brennan’s musical The Pansy Craze, and My Rabbi, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival hit created by Pull Festival founder Kayvon Kelly and fellow alumnus Joel Bernbaum.

After being advised to “write what you know” Kelly and Bernbaum began writing the semi-autobiographical play after graduating from CCPA. Another alumnus, playwright and lyricist Julie McIsaac (Les Filles du Rois), directed the Saskatoon-raised students in Sum Theatre’s 2014 production of My Rabbi, about the complicated friendship of two university graduates — one Muslim, one Jewish.

“A lot of students have used their training in different ways,” explains Weddell, a prolific playwright, acting instructor, founding member of Bard on the Beach and founder of Shakescenes who has taught playwriting at the College since 2001.

“Kayvon and Joel learned from the beginning how to work together and pool their skills, to work cooperatively to tell stories.”

McIsaac, he adds, went on to create her own pieces and has been writing musicals as well, as has Brennan.

“Avery over three years with me created this musical about the Queer vaudeville world in the 20s and 30s. It created quite a stir at the Toronto Fringe. She continues to develop that story. It’s been in the works now for four years.”

The potentially huge time investment that goes into creating new works is one of the most valuable lessons students learn, Weddell says.

“Learning how to celebrate your own story has been important from the very beginning. Students come from various levels of experience in knowing just what a play is, and that it’s something that is constantly evolving,” Weddell said.

“They’re learning how long it can take, and the discipline to craft these pieces over what can be years in some cases.”

Weddell, a graduate of the Playhouse Acting School, is a New Works veteran, having mentored students since it began as “a festival of a kind” 20 years ago.

“It started as a mentorship for playwrights. The idea was that students would pitch a play idea at the beginning of the year,” he recalled.

“It was very important to [College co-founders] Jacques [Lemay] and Janis [Dunning] that the students learn about play-building and storytelling, from the ground up. They were encouraged to pitch something, kind of like learning how to write a Canada Council grant application,” he said.

A student’s piece, often inspired by personal experiences, would be worked on over the course of a year.

“They got a good grounding in dramaturgy, learning how to develop a piece over several drafts, “ he said. “Then it morphed into a devising program where they learned how to work on pieces co-operatively.”

The first major devised piece Weddell helped to develop was TAG in 2001, he recalled.

“It was about the hip-hop world and graffiti and tag art, kind of a morality play,” he said. “We didn’t have a formal second year [program] at that point. There was talk of workshopping it and taking it out to the community but we didn’t really have the infrastructure at that time to make that happen. There was no ‘Company C’ Studio Ensemble program back then.”

When a second-year training program materialized, students were expected to create a 10-minute solo piece of theatre, he said.

Weddell feels that requiring students to come in and pitch their potential New Works festival piece is an invaluable training experience.

“I think it really helps them in the future to explain their ideas to potential producers. It’s very practical in that respect.”

Weddell is mentoring four playwrights, two directors and a spoken word artist this year.

“I meet with them one-on-one and then for bigger group-writing exercises,” he said. “A couple of weeks ago they had a six-hour intensive where they met in one room and went through a number of writing exercises. They spent hours generating material.”

It’s somewhat different for directors, who have to pitch their ideas to faculty and learn to work with young actors, he said.

His directing mentees are Danny Saretsky, who is helming Sure Thing, a comedy by David Ives about a man given second chances by a mysterious force to correct his blunders while trying to pick up a woman in a cafe; and Emily Rose McTavish, directing Hate the Loser Inside, a short comedy by Jon Kern about a brash football coach’s failed attempts to tackle a local commercial.

Weddell’s playwriting mentees include Matthew Wheadon, for his comedy Lost in Barcelona; Isabella Giampaolo, for her fable Tomorrow is Now; Emma Vickers, for her existential dramedy Caroline’s Corner; and Stephie Bright for her drama The Dawn of the Hermit Crab. He is also mentoring spoken word artist Stephanie Szyamnski for her verse play Butter Witch.

Weddell’s dramaturgy has also benefited alumna Ingrid Moore’s The Incredible Glowing Woman, which was recently presented as a You Show play reading at Intrepid Theatre, and his playwriting mentorship process has inspired 2008 graduate Kimberly Persona, the producer and songwriter best known as the title character on Miss Persona, her children’s show that airs on Treehouse TV.

The TD Festival of New Works takes place March 28-30 at 7:00pm in the College’s Performance Hall, 1701 Elgin Rd. Admission is by donation.