Backstage: 2018/19 Year in Review

Get to know us in our Backstage at CCPA blog. Contributors are students, faculty, and members of our community. 
Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews College directors Caleb Marshall and Heather Burns for their reflections on our 2018/19 season.

What a difference a year makes.

That’s how long it’s been since Caleb Marshall assumed his duties as new Managing Artistic Director of the Canadian College of Performing Arts. It marked the start of his partnership with Heather Burns in her new role as Director of Education and Programming after wearing many hats during a period of transition.

With the recent departure of dozens of Year I and II students, and before them their “Company C” Studio Ensemble schoolmates who graduated in February, the students’ thunderous exuberance, passion and consistent pursuit of performing arts excellence has given way to a sudden, somewhat jolting sense of quietude in the hallways and studios of 1701 Elgin Road.

“The quiet is always a shock for sure,” adds Burns. “But we embrace the summer calm as a time to refocus.” “In a program as intensive as this you need that time, not just to catch your breath but refine, adapt and evolve for the coming year,” said Marshall. “Though it hasn’t lasted long, the decibels are ‘amping’ up with numerous local arts groups using the facility this summer.”

With the curtain having fallen after another action-packed and productive school year the new team has found time to reflect upon the past 12 months, evaluate their ambitious goals and take stock of where expectations have been met and where to improve.

“We’ve met most of our goals. The plan was ambitious,” admits Marshall, flashing back to his challenging and eventful first days taking the reins during a time of change. “I knew it was ambitious, but I really wanted to get down on paper what we needed to be doing, or trying to do, even if we couldn’t accomplish them in the timeline, if it was important it needed to be identified.

Highlights included the addition of Relaxed Performances to make theatre more inclusive, engaging with the national theatre industry, re-branding and a dramatic increase in the use of blogs, photography and videos to provide a sense of what the CCPA experience feels like day to day.

One of Marshall’s first obligation was to create the new strategic plan by late June. “I wanted a plan that aligned with the changing priorities in the Canadian theatre sector and entertainment industry,” he said. “I also wanted everyone to have a say in it, as much as I brought strong ideas, all faculty, staff and the board – everyone fed into its creation. It’s our yardstick to guide and measure our decision making.”

The four pillars supporting the plan include: Education & Artistic Excellence, Advancing the College’s Reach, Organizational Sustainability and Building Community. There are a multitude of goals within each pillar, many of which were achieved, while others are still in development.

Objectives included raising the College’s national profile and reputation by becoming an Organizational Colleague in the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, and creating a national Education Director Affinity group. Also creating a strong and clear brand identity and shifting the focus for the Alumni Company to support new work development.

The Strategic Plan’s artistic programming objectives call for an increase in Canadian content, cultural diversity and gender equity with guest directors and creative teams by its second year. “I’m excited to share our 2019/20 season in August and I think you’ll see we’ve made some great strides,” said Marshall. “This summer we are also doing a lot of work on the facility to increasing accessibility for patrons and students with disabilities.”

“We are looking for ways to engage community in our space and our work like our Concert of Remembrance partnership with Oak Bay and the Band of the 5th Field Regiment or getting all of Oak Bay’s Councillors seeing an open rehearsal during the Acorn Award.” he said, referring to the District of Oak Bay’s arts award that was recently presented to CCPA at an event held at the College, where guests also got the opportunity to watch an open rehearsal for West Side Story.

Much was said at that municipal event about the strategic plan’s fourth pillar: Building Community. Priorities include fostering deeper relations within greater Victoria, expanding partnerships with national and local arts organizations and engaging nationally recognized guest artists. “We were able to do all of that this year and the trajectory for next season takes new partner initiatives even further.”

“It’s a malleable plan that is going to change and evolve,” emphasizes Marshall. “It’s not set in stone but something to evaluate and adapt.”

Burns says she appreciated having her job narrowed after having to wear so many hats during the transition phase, and feels a good foundation has been established for moving forward.

“We won’t be new anymore,” she noted with a smile. “From the minute I met Caleb I had a good feeling about the synergy that would happen for us. I truly believe that he can do the job and I’ve felt that same mutual respect and trust back, so it’s been quite enjoyable.”

Trust, she said, was required from many people getting used to a new administration and new staffers. Students also had to trust processes that would get them to where they need to be.

Burns, who has been with the College for eight years, said it makes her proud to see students embrace those challenges while standards continue to be raised, and how they’ve benefited from top-shelf faculty and guest artists.

“We got amazing directors and choreographers who really understood what it takes to work with emerging artists,” Burns said, referring to guest artists Ron Jenkins and Laura Krewski (The Penelopiad), James Fagan Tait (Twelve Angry Jurors), Barbara Tomasic and Brad L’Écuyer (Sweet Charity), Stuart Aikins (Middletown) and Sara-Jeanne Hosie (West Side Story) as well as faculty members Jim Leard (Stage Door), Jessica Hickman (Sweet Charity) and Caleb Marshall and Matthew Howe (West Side Story).

“That’s something that will now feed those students going into their next year, recently graduated Performing Arts Diploma students who will be in “Company C” Studio Ensemble next year have a really good foundation for what to expect.”

The season finale, West Side Story, was certainly a highlight for Burns and Marshall.

“It was such a raving success on all fronts, with a beautiful creative team and product. It’s such a brilliant piece of theatre and the students really did it justice,” she said. “We really wanted to respectfully handle the material, presenting it in a way that is artistically excellent but also, with input from Artistic Consultant Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, ensuring cultural sensitivity,” added Marshall.

For Marshall, the differences between running a professional theatre company and a national performing arts training facility have been eye-opening, and he’s still getting used to them.

“The biggest difference in terms of attitude or philosophy or even programming is that when you’re running a professional theatre company your duty is to your audience,” he said.

“While we do have patrons and subscribers and we want to serve them and have the population of Greater Victoria engage and enjoy our work, we are there to serve the students. When I was Artistic Director for other companies I hired actors and guest artists. In many ways at CCPA, the students are the actors and the guest artists, and I work for them.”

The other big difference, he says, is the at times overwhelming energy in the building he first felt last year when 75 students and 28 faculty showed up after his quiet planning period.

“It can be difficult to manage sometimes but at the same time it can be energizing, invigorating and empowering. It’s an energy that you constantly have to keep up with.”

Although Marshall came in with a bold vision, he’s quick to credit his administrative partner.

“I wouldn’t be able to have done any of it without the team and I think the partnership between Heather and I is strong and unique,” he said. “She has a strong grounding in the College’s administration and finances and I come from an acting, directing and producing background. We can not only support each other, we can swap out for each other.”

Burns said she has only one regret after meeting the challenges of this intense transitional year.

“Maybe I could have spent a little more time away from Elgin Rd, and had a couple more family dinners,” says Burns, who hopes to do just that before another school year begins.

Marshall is already taking advantage of the longer Island growing season developing his garden green thumb.