Award shines spotlight on drama teaching team

Acting instructors recognized for excellence in helping students learn the art of stagecraft.


(Edmonton) Putting his stamp on a monologue from Shakespeare’s Othello was not easy for Zvonimir Rac, and there was little sympathy from his professor when his interpretation failed to evolve over the weeks.

“I got a slap on the wrist,” the University of Alberta drama student recalls. “I was told I hadn’t worked on the piece, and it was true. So I chose to work harder, and the next time I presented that monologue, I got the praise.”

It’s that kind of tough love, given through the U of A Department of Drama’s BFA Acting Teaching Unit, that has polished the confidence and talent of Rac and many actors before him.

The dynamic studio-style conservatory training program, based in the Faculty of Arts, is small but intense, honing 12 hand-picked students over three of the four years they study for a bachelor of fine arts degree, and is powered by a group of instructors whose dedication has earned them the U of A’s Teaching Unit Award for 2014. The award recognizes teaching excellence that results from collaborative instruction.

The group of instructors is among top faculty, staff and students being recognized at the university’s annual Celebrate! Teaching. Learning. Research event Sept. 25. All are welcome to attend the celebration at the Horowitz Theatre.

Under the teaching unit’s guidance, students like Rac learn the whole spectrum of stagecraft, spanning everything from dance and voice training to “full-on certification” for stage combat, said Sandra Nicholls, co-ordinator of the BFA teaching unit.

The program provides a creative learning environment that readies the students for careers in professional theatre, film, television, radio and newer, non-traditional spotlights like video games.

“The whole program works in building blocks. We work towards amalgamation of body, mind and spirit,” Nicholls said.

Over the course of the program, students explore and build on their abilities. And by the fourth year, “we take them onto that big stage and that is their professional year.” They showcase their talents through four full-scale professional shows as part of the U of A’s Studio Theatre season.

Along the way, Nicholls and her fellow teachers push the students to new heights. “We strive to raise the bar with each project so as they learn something, they are also being challenged, always being tested.”

Evaluation is constant, with ongoing student interviews. “We give them an opportunity to sit down with the unit and talk about their progress and hopes, celebrate their victories and identify where they need to work harder.”

Rac, entering his final year of the BFA program, feels ready to launch a career as a full-time actor, thanks to what he’s learned.

“The program gave me a determination to succeed; it pushed me to exhaustion, working up to 14 hours a day at school. Through all that, I have to keep a high standard of achievement and I can look back at my three years and say, ‘I’ve been through this and I can really tackle anything now.’

“The professors are so supportive in everything we as students do. Our relationship is more as colleagues than as teachers and students,” Rac added. “Our professors need us as much as we need them; they have their passion for teaching and we have our passion for learning the craft. There’s a mutual respect and with that, a lot of freedom to be yourself.”

Proud to receive the Teaching Unit Award, the BFA team chalks up its success to connecting with and caring about its students, Nicholls said.

“We have a high level of engagement with them, both by ensemble year and with the individuals within the classes, so are very good at addressing their needs. The greatest success for us is that we train graduates who have long-standing and sustainable careers in the performing arts,” she added.

“Our grads go out and work at all levels in theatre and film as actors, directors, playwrights, artistic directors and theatre arts entrepreneurs.”

Alumni include Canadian television stars Paul Gross and Lorne Cardinal, and other finely trained professionals who power theatre scenes in Edmonton, throughout Alberta and beyond. Everything from Edmonton’s Fringe Festival and Shakespeare in the Park to Ontario’s prestigious Stratford and Shaw festival theatres has shimmered with a dash here and there of U of A-trained talent, Nicholls added.