As emerging artists, including me, preparing to graduate from various programs throughout the country, we may come to realize that what we are about to embark upon is quite daunting. Speaking for myself, I’d say it’s even terrifying. However, we need to take into account the sheer number of us who are finding our way out into the professional arts world. We’re all trying to find our niche and make our mark, so we may as well do it together.
Throughout many artistic periods, the various forms of art have melded together to create something even greater than the sum of their parts. You can consider Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, translated as “synthesis of the arts”, and understand which artistic periods his ideas heavily influenced. For example, in the early 20th century Les Ballets Russes brought together some of the greatest artists of its time all under one name. The likes of choreographer George Balanchine, visual artist and designer Salvador Dali and composer Claude Debussy all worked for the company, which created some highly elaborate performances. Inter-disciplinary art has been a reoccurring force in the arts world and continues to reinvent itself as artists do the same. At York University, inter-disciplinary art has become a strong focus of the newly re-named School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD).
In recent years, Theatre @ York has been presenting “pan-faculty productions” in which multiple departments under the School of AMPD come together to stage a huge inter-disciplinary show. I was fortunate enough to have been involved in the most recent pan-faculty performance of The Birds. The Birds was written by acclaimed indigenous playwright and director Yvette Nolan and directed by York Theatre Professor Michael Greyeyes, an actor, director and former National Ballet of Canada company member. As well, the production involved the choreography of York Dance Professor Susan Lee along with the work of York Digital Media students under Professor Don Sinclair. This production brought together the Departments of Dance, Digital Media, Music and Theatre to put on an immense production all under Theatre @ York’s 2015/16 theme “Performing Indigeneity”.
In speaking to students from the departments of theatre and dance it was easy to understand both the benefits and the frustrations of working in an inter-disciplinary fashion, especially with a cast and crew of 234 people. I reached out to three students who graciously sent me comments on their experience working on The Birds: Meghan Maguire, the stage manager of The Birds and fourth year BFA Theatre student; Terrah Nitkin, a performer and fourth year BFA Theatre student; and Paige Sayles, a performer and third year BFA Dance student.
Maguire and Sayles concurred that bringing together four separate departments presented its challenges. Says Maguire: “When I look back on the inter-disciplinary process two words come to mind: scheduling nightmare. The fine arts departments (at York) as they are constructed right now aren’t structured to work together.” Sayles added to this sentiment, stating: “Some disadvantages would definitely be the rehearsal process and what each process demands from you. Theatre and dance are so different from one another in their processes leading up to a production.”
Beyond that, frustrations could also be found with such a large company filled with distinctive artistic styles. It was often hard for students to accommodate in ways they had never considered and learn new ways to go about their work. Nitkin commented, “I think that’s a particular problem when it comes to any inter-disciplinary production – the difficulty of allowing all voices to be heard.” Speaking for myself, I echo Nitkin’s comments. It was easy to be swallowed up in the experience and feel overshadowed by the project as a whole. In the future, I think it would help to fully consider the value and importance of each department and how they can work on a more even playing field.
However, the process was not all disadvantages. This experience allowed for huge artistic and professional growth: we were all learning to work together as artists. All three of these emerging artists had something beautiful to say about the production that truly encapsulated the experience.
“When you look beyond all of the difficulties of this process, it is incredibly rewarding working across all of the different departments. The work that was happening around me through this whole process was stunning. I remember sitting in the booth and our Sound Technician Monty explained to me how Digital Media’s sound interacted with the dancers bodies and I was floored by how spectacular the art was in front of me (at this point we had already opened the show). There was so much stunning work happening around me, despite the fact that it was so incredibly difficult to get everyone in the same room. In fact, looking back I don’t think that there was a single day when we had the entire company in one room – which is either beautiful, or insane.” – Meghan Maguire, BFA Theatre Production, Class of 2016.
“I’m so thankful to have been given a chance to work on an inter-disciplinary production; it was honestly a fantastic experience. I realized that there was so much that I was able to take from the dancers and they were more than happy to learn from us as well. We’re an acting class of fourteen people who’ve been working with each other for three years now; therefore, it was very refreshing to have some new artists in the room.” – Terrah Nitkin, BFA Theatre Acting Conservatory, Class of 2016
“Coming from a dance and theatre background, it was really fun to incorporate those diverse performance styles into one another in order to create a completely diverse experience for not only the audience but for the performer as well. Advantages of course would be networking and having the chance to get to know so many other artists, some with whom you may be able to collaborate in the future.” – Paige Sayles, BFA Dance Choreography and Performance, Class of 2017
Overall, scheduling nightmares aside, inter-disciplinary art brings us together as artists, performers and creators and allows us to do what we do best on an even grander scale. It allows us to make beautiful art in new ways that we may never have thought of on our own. So let’s continue to do just this: create art hand in hand with our colleagues and work together to forge our paths in this increasingly inter-disciplinary and inter-connected world of ours.