Thursday, October 25, 2012

SAA Bulletin

U of R Theatre Department Head Corrects Misinformation

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The University of Regina recently posted news that it is suspending the BFA in Theatre Performance and Design / Stage Management effective January 1, 2013. According to the Provost's Office, the U of R is consolidating the degrees into a "single, more flexible degree offering additional options to students while refocusing the program to make the best use of available resources". Kathleen Irwin, Head of the Theatre Department, gives further explanation of the changes in a letter to her colleagues (see below). She notes that the Theatre Department is receiving $40,000 less than it did 16 years ago, and is also losing staff positions.

This is also true of the University of Saskatchewan Theatre Department which is labouring mightily to hold on to its five tenured/tenure-track positions while making a case to have a former full-time, tenure-track position (the departmental designer) resume its former status from its current term position designation. Sessional funding has been drastically reduced across the College of Arts and Science so that, in the Drama Department, the number of sections of intro courses – Acting I and II, for instance – have had to be scaled back, at a time when the University is calling for more “bums in seats” and more graduates from every program each year.

In From Policy to Action: A proposal for the arts sector (October 2011), SAA raised the concern that in a climate in which post-secondary funding is driven by an expectation of high enrollments, quality programs are in jeopardy because creative practices must be taught in small classes or in one-on-one teaching modes. Although equally worthy, Fine Arts faculty members tend to receive smaller research grants and for a shorter duration when compared to faculty in other disciplines, and while faculty members maintain their professional practise often to the benefit of the general public, little weight is put on this value – this, despite the ongoing mandate of “community engagement” at which Fine Arts departments do very well indeed. The predicament for the performing arts then is that when compared to other faculties, the numbers are low and therefore seen a prime targets for cut backs. Overall, the impact of steady declines in post-secondary funding for arts programs seriously limits the province’s capacity to retain and build thriving arts and creative industries in the province and Saskatchewan risks losing our intellectual capital. Students and professors will go elsewhere.

SAA is interested in hearing your views on post-secondary education/training in the arts. Please share your ideas and concerns with us by email or post your comments on our Facebook page.

Irwin's letter is reprinted here in full:

"On September 26 2012, the University of Regina posted an update regarding the university-wide Academic Program Review (APR) on their public website. The information in the announcement regarded major changes to the delivery of programs within the Theatre Department. It was erroneous and, as many of you across Canada have asked about it, I want to correct the misinformation and provide a context for the statement. What was posted was news that the Theatre Department had retired its BFA in the Performance and Design / Stage Management streams effective January 1, 2013 – after 42 years. While this was true in part, it was only partial. The official statement from the Theatre Department on what really happened follows here.

The Theatre Department at the University of Regina is focusing attention on the delivery of the core degree, the BA in Theatre and Performance (with optional concentrations in acting or design/stage management). We see this as a way of consolidating our course offerings into a flexible degree that optimizes our skills and resources and enables students to choose widely from a menu of courses that reaches across the Fine Arts disciplines or to pursue further training in theatre, a professional career or higher education.

We believe that this will educate students to be broad thinking and resourceful in their approach to creativity while they are here at the university and when they graduate into the world beyond whether they chose to pursue further training in theatre, a professional career or higher education.

In reality, nothing changes in the delivery of our program other than the name change. In doing this we feel we are reflecting a current shift across North America in the delivery of performance-based undergraduate training by allowing our student more control over their course of study. We are excited to offer a more progressive degree – A BA in Theatre and Performance that will highlight traditional training in addition to innovative courses in creative technologies and community-oriented practice.

The BFA programs are suspending admissions as of January 1. Current students have 6 years to complete.

While the official Theatre Department statement points to exciting new directions in course delivery (digital media, community–oriented practice, links with indigenous communities, ACTRA mentorships, international exchange), it also puts a slightly optimistic spin on a slow decline that masks a self-fulfilling prophecy (the annual department budget is now $40,000 less than it was 16 years ago). Cuts and changes are almost always read in a negative way. What is self-fulfilling is that the withdrawal of funding and the loss of 2 key faculty positions in the studies area (due to cuts and attrition) and the elimination of many sessional positions in a department already stressed by tight overall budgets and static numbers is demoralizing and it immediately impacts registration. When current and potential students sense weakness, they look elsewhere for education and training. This is not only true at the U of R. Anecdotal information indicates that many smaller departments across the country are suffering as administrations slowly withdraw support in those areas following fiscal strategies that prioritize student numbers and research dollars over less directly quantifiable measures of success that the arts amply produce – strong and transferable skills training, vibrant community building activity, creative problem solving, enhanced tourist activity, and so forth. Students will take note and Theatre Departments will continue to crumble.

In our case, following APR directives to modernize old courses, the Theatre Department was aggressive and proactive in cleaning up programs thereby making them more focused, accessible, flexible and aligned with current interdisciplinary pedagogy. However the overall net gain is negative as the perception that we are now closed for business, fed by the University’s fatal error in reporting changes to our program, persists despite retractions, rebuttals and statements that stress otherwise. This is, in fact, why I am so emphatically making two points simultaneously: 1. The Theatre Department at the University of Regina is open for business; 2. The University is slowly pulling the rug out. The third point is: if it is happening here, it will happen elsewhere.

This is all happening within a wider provincial context. Over the past 6 months, the film business in Saskatchewan has received a deathblow through changes to the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit. This has affected the entire creative industry and it is estimated that approximately 600 arts professionals are leaving the province for greener pastures. As head of the Theatre Department at the University of Regina, I am, in part, responsible for the training of our undergraduate students to prepare them for a future in the Theatre, Television and Film industry in Saskatchewan. Every year we graduate young people who are trained in acting, technical direction, costume, set, props, lighting and sound design. These are the troops on the ground who help make the industry vibrant and successful. Without jobs to go to, our graduates will join the flood of young people leaving the province and they will take our training / their education with them.

These two events are, of course linked in important and obvious ways. The arts feed into a complex ecosystem – when one part is jeopardized, the rest of the organism begins to fail as well. Is this important? You tell me."

Kathleen Irwin, Head
Theatre Department, University of Regina
Kathleen.Irwin@uregina.ca

Posted October 25th, 2012