On Theatre Education: An Interview with Kevan Ellis

Kevan

By: Simran Dhaliwal

Photo credits of: Kevan Ellis

Kevan Ellis is the interim director of education at the Arts Club – the largest theatre company in Western Canada. He and the department have been serving for three years. Kevan says of their goals: “Essentially what we’re doing is trying to build our education department, to create accessibility of theatre training for a large group of people.”

Kevan and his team have connections with the Vancouver School Board and teachers throughout the province. They have a new program starting in East Vancouver secondary schools – an after-school drama club to facilitate students’ needs. Kevan expressed his desire to spread theatre and learning to rural areas that normally wouldn’t have the same kind of access.

Kevan’s team has a number of different theatre programs, such as the LEAP (Learning Early About Playwriting) Intensive, which is free for students. Its aim is to help students devise their own plays in a non-judgemental environment that encourages critical thinking. Students can share ideas, create what’s important to them, and eventually craft their own plays. They then hire professional actors to read the finished products so the students can hear their plays come to life. In the last couple of years, Arts Club has also created Digital LEAP in order to reach communities further away that normally wouldn’t have access to the program. It’s a virtual classroom established by websites and social media. The actors then livestream the readings to the students.

There is also the Creative Teens Theatre Program, which teaches theatre technique by engaging with the participants’ own stories and ideas. It’s a devised theatre program where the students come up with themes and stories that resonate with their lives and create theatre out of that, which culminates in a showcase at the end of the program. Kevan emphasises that they “react to [students’] needs and what they want to do as well as their interests, and are able to teach them through that lens.” Guest instructors are hired to facilitate students’ interests. “If they want to pursue mask work, or script writing, or different aspects of creating a piece, we have the flexibility of bringing in experts to facilitate that learning.” Kevan describes it as “an amazing process where the kids grow confident and take these skills and bring them to other aspects of their lives.”

The most rewarding part of being an educator for Kevan is “that very first class where the kids get together, where they’re nervous and don’t know what to expect, and then you see them at the very end of the program and can see the difference in them, in their confidence.” Kevan and the Arts Club’s approach to education diverges from convention, which Kevan elaborated on:

“I think what often happens in arts education is that there’s generally a focus on translating art—[students are] given pieces of material to work with. What’s different with a lot of the Arts Club education is that we’re much more process-based. We work on treating theatre like a language, teaching them first rather than translating right away.” This sentiment is truly very important to me as an aspiring educator, and I feel the exact way Kevan does. In arts education, teaching literacy effectively can lead to such great potential.

The Arts Club Education Department is dedicated to educating a wide spectrum of students. They work with students from kindergarteners all the way to senior citizens. The Actor’s Intensive Program works with artists over the age of 25, welcoming people who want to return to art or re-boot their learning.

I was curious as to some of the challenges Kevan faces in his role as an educator. He said to me, “there’s always lots of balls in the air. There are times of the year where we’re running five or six programs concurrently. Administratively, that’s a challenge. But to be honest, the teachers that we have are so amazing and they provide such a comfortable atmosphere for the kids that we don’t run many challenges. That’s the by-product of this kind of education, that everyone learns empathy. You have to get into other peoples’ heads in order to communicate on stage with them.” With an approach to education that’s so open-minded and inviting of new perspectives, it’s no wonder that everyone involved finds it so rewarding.

Regarding new types of theatre, Kevan believes that it’s important to be aware of all the innovations and ideas out there as well as to go out to see performances from a variety of theatre companies. He says, “I think that we have a healthy theatre community here and that there’s always room for growth and letting the general public give their input in both experiencing theatre and creating it.” Theatre uses people’s stories and is therefore a perfect medium for healing and reconciliation. With devised theatre, more people can be involved in the process, and there’s more room for growth and healing.

With Vancouver in a such a divided state, I was interested in how the Arts Club was dealing with it. Kevan had a very optimistic and hopeful answer, saying that “change is something to embrace. There are so many things going on in this city in arts and in education that we’re always learning…Things are good here.” The Arts Club is in a transitional period with Ashlie Corcoran as the new artistic director after Bill Millerd stepped down. They have a lot planned for the future and are interested in community outreach. As Kevan said to me, “It’s the culture of change that keeps us on our toes, that keeps us learning.”

The Arts Club starts their new season in September. They have their first relaxed performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on September 30th, which is for people who might not be comfortable with the traditional theatre experience and people who are living with disabilities, as well as people with small children. It’s designed to be more accessible for people who might not normally come out. Registration for LEAP and Creative Teens Theatre also starts in September.

With all that is going on, it looks to be a promising year for theatre and education in Vancouver.

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