Sean Sullivan/The Gauntlet

Earning their wings

Students take charge during Taking Flight

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As the University of Calgary’s drama department’s 2012–13 season draws to a close, students prepare for one last performance — one where they are in charge.

This year’s presentation of Taking Flight: A Festival of Student Work includes nine productions, including three dramatic readings by master of fine arts playwrights and performances by the University of Calgary Improv Club. The festival, taking place from April 2–13 at the Reeve Theatre, allows students interested in drama to take part in student-run productions, whether they are fourth-year directors, second-year designers or first-year actors. Though supervised by the faculty, the festival is entirely run by drama students.

“We eat, breath, sleep theatre for three weeks,” says fourth-year drama student Raj Rathore, who is one of two production stage managers of the festival.

As production stage managers, Rathore and Teigan Blondin De Boer get to do a little bit of everything. On top of co-ordinating over 50 people in nine different productions and working as liaisons between the students and supervising faculty, the pair manages crews during the production evenings, hangs lights in theatres and helps with costumes and set-pieces. The two production stage managers also help match directors with builders and designers and find different groups rehearsal space. 

“It’s a learning curve for a lot of people,” Blondin says, “and so we’re there to facilitate different aspects of the festival.”

The festival provides a chance for students to put on a production without the normal constraints that come with a lack of experience.

“It’s a great experience,” says Blondin. “I’ve never really done anything like this. The ability to run a festival is something that you wouldn’t usually get the chance to do unless you were really, really experienced.”

Fifth-year drama student Courtney Keen, director of the one-act play Free Range Chickens, agrees that the festival is an experience students wouldn’t normally get so early in their career.

“It’s been quite the opportunity to understand what a production is like without being thrown into the Calgary theatre scene and without mentors and professors helping and guiding it along,” says Keen.

The festival’s directors selected their plays last semester when they put together their proposals to the faculty. Proposals are rarely turned down, and students are able to write their own scripts or use pre-existing plays. 

When the projects were approved in January, the students met with their designers and began doing research on past productions, what was needed, what was important and how the sets should be designed. At the end of February, project leads held auditions, cast roles, worked with a stage manager and organized rehearsals.

Valerie Campbell, an associate professor and the festival’s artistic director, says the Taking Flight Festival is a way for students to really take ownership of their work.

“When they graduate they’re going to go out, they’re going to be in fringe festivals,” Campbell says. “It’s a great opportunity for them to experience the parametres of a festival, ask ‘What can I do, what can’t I do, what’s possible’ — really work collaboratively.”

The Taking Flight Festival began nine years ago when the drama department was dealing with a lot of final year-end projects that took place after the year’s season of plays and at the end of the school year. Campbell says the festival was a way of bringing all those final projects together so that the department could put the time, resources, money and support into the students’ productions.

Students can draw from their school work — from design, directing and playwriting classes, and from independent study — to bring pre-existing projects into the festival. 

“The whole mandate of the festival is to allow students to do the whole thing,” Campbell says. “They’re in positions of designers, directors, technicians, actors, stage managers and playwrights.”

Because the Taking Flight Festival incorporates everything that the drama department offers, Campbell says the festival has created a buzz in the drama department.

“Students in the initial years didn’t see it as an opportunity in the way they see it now,” Campbell says. “Now there’s an expectation: Taking Flight is coming up!”