More than a dozen young thespians well on their way to joining the ranks of Ottawa’s tremendous community of theatre artists were met with the harsh news last week that the Ottawa Theatre School – one of few choices in Ottawa for a formal post-secondary education in theatre – and the home at which they’ve poured their very hearts and souls into would be shutting its doors effective immediately.
Reported officially by CBC last Thursday, the Ottawa Theatre School, which had provided dedicated theatre hopefuls with a unique three-year conservatory program, was shutting down due to financial difficulties. The CBC article, which can be read here, says little beyond the fact that the Ottawa Theatre School had been having financial difficulties for some time, that many instructors had not been paid since at least the fall, and that this seems to have been a long time coming. While this can certainly open questions of supply and demand in a free society or start discussions on whether or not the school was managed properly, the heart of the matter and conversation worth having now is about the loss to the school’s current students as well as to Ottawa theatre in general.
Last week, if you were to take the time to name ten significantly influential organizations on Ottawa’s theatre ecosystem, the Ottawa Theatre School would almost certainly have been on it. Ottawa has a thriving and growing theatre arts community with many wonderfully talented artists and institutions, but the list of the ones who have had and will continue to have widespread influence across the industry over time is not long. In this case, the Ottawa Theatre School was one of only three real options for full-time, formal post-secondary education in theatre arts in Ottawa. Among the three it was the program most specifically geared towards performance and creation.
Long time theatre-lover, Kevin Reid, who himself joined the ranks of the Ottawa Theatre School this fall, had the following to say about their program in a recent post on his popular theatre-centric website, The Visitorium:
Ottawa still has some stellar Theatre programs thank goodness, most notably at Ottawa U and Algonquin, but nobody focused on acting in such a specialized and physical manner as the OTS, and nobody but nobody was working so intensively on performance creation, something that to my mind is an increasingly vital tool in any actor’s toolkit in today’s artistic landscape. It was quite simply a unique and progressive conservatory program, and its loss is one that is going to be felt, and felt hard, down the line. This school didn’t just turn out great actors… it turned out Creators.
Even if we set aside its specific curriculum, the options that Ottawa is able to offer aspiring theatre hopefuls for studying in our city – whether we want to keep talent here or draw it to us from out of town – has now been cut by a third.
It’s hard to look at something you can’t measure — you can’t quantify the state of what might have been — and say conclusively that the loss of the Ottawa Theatre School will create a noticeable deficit with long reaching implications for Ottawa’s theatre ecosystem. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that what could have been is now lessened.
As example, one need only look as far as the upcoming Undercurrents festival where local actress and Ottawa Theatre School alumnus, Colleen Sutton, will be presenting her one-woman show RiderGirl. RiderGirl has had limited engagements in Ottawa until now, but Sutton toured the show across Canada last summer to great success and critical acclaim. Where would RiderGirl, or Sutton herself, be without the Ottawa Theatre School? Where would Ottawa theatre be without Sutton, and countless others like her?
The Ottawa Theatre School has given us some of Ottawa’s brightest up-and-coming theatre artists, having forged them under the instruction of some of Ottawa’s most capable working theatre artists. They’ve graced stages working for Ottawa’s major theatre companies. They’ve been nominees and winners of Capital Critics Circle and Prix Rideau Awards. They’ve presented their own creations at the Ottawa Fringe Festival year after year. You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of Ottawa’s recent theatre history that doesn’t have the Ottawa Theatre School’s fingerprints on it.
Yet this intangible loss to the community at large is still only part of the story.
The more direct effect now is on the students who, whether in year one or year three of the program, had mapped this chapter of their lives around it, some having chosen Ottawa and moved here from out of town to be Ottawa Theatre School students, and whose lives have been dramatically upended by the closure. To those students, the Ottawa Theatre School was more than just a school or an opportunity to learn and practice their craft. To those students, it was a family. It was a home.
This sentiment is best summed up in a posting by recent OTS grad, and founder of the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival, Jonah Allingham:
OTS was like a family. The studios honestly felt as comfortable and safe as home. Sometimes more. Everybody at the school was friends with each other. And when we did fight, and we did, we would fight the way siblings fight. And then get right back to work.
I was with my class most waking hours. We would hang out all the time outside of class. That started the second week in and didn’t end until we graduated. In a time when many of us were going through some very tough and sometimes tragic things our lives, we were all always there for each other. And you could literally talk to the teachers about anything.
Those teachers, recruited from the very best of Ottawa’s theatre professionals, have similar feelings, as expressed by Andy Massingham, an instructor and Artistic Associate with the OTS:
It was and still is a family. We gathered together to debate, create, dance, get confused and frustrated and ultimately celebrate the most ancient of art forms; theatre. Without it, life ceases.
The final question, perhaps the only one that matters now, is, what comes next? The students will no doubt find their way to new opportunities and equally bright horizons on the road to pursuing the craft that they love. But will that be in Ottawa, or will their talents now enrich the cultural ecosystem of cities like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver? Does this vacancy in formal post-secondary options open up an opportunity for somebody else — perhaps the budding Acting Company — to step in and offer similar caliber education? In the end, only time will answer these questions.
Your turn. What are your experiences with the Ottawa Theatre School? If you’re a current or former student, a current or former instructor, or have been otherwise employed by the OTS, I invite you to share your experiences, favourite stories, or thoughts on the closure in the comments below. If you’re a patron of theatre in Ottawa, a working theatre artist, or a student in one of the other main post-secondary programs, what do you think the closure means for Ottawa in the future? Let me know in the comments below.
OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT THE OTTAWA THEATRE SCHOOL CLOSURE:
- CBC reports that the Ottawa Theatre School closes its doors
- Kevin Reid of The Visitorium talks about the closure
- Playwright Lawrence Aronovitch talks about the closure
- Jonah Allingham, Backpack Theatre discusses his thoughts on the closure of the OTS
- Andy Massingham, instructor and Artistic Associate with the OTS shares his thoughts
If you know of an article that should be linked here, please send it along.
RiderGirl photo provided by the GCTC, taken by Andrew Alexander. All other photos in this article were taken for On Stage by photographer David Pasho.