Spotlight on Faculty: Gwen Dobie
Gwen Dobie is an Associate Professor in York University’s Fine Arts Program in the Faculty of Theatre. Her focus is as a teacher in the Acting area.
How did you get your start in Theatre? Was there a point when you were young when you decided this is what you wanted to do?
I don’t know when I’ve ever not been doing theatre. I’ve been putting on shows since I was probably about five, every time there was an occasion: somebody having a birthday or going away, coming back, or whatever within my family, I was always putting on shows and roping all of my friends into the productions — whether they wanted to be in them or not — I actually don’t remember ever not doing Theatre.
I say to my students that I think this is a calling. As grueling a profession as it is, there are some people that are called to it and you can’t really walk away from it. It has its hold on you and that’s your destiny. I originally thought that would be in the dance world, because my first training was as a dancer, but very early on I realized that that was not right. Those were not “my people” and I needed to be in a more dynamic world — for me. People in the dance world would not say that their world isn’t dynamic but for me it didn’t feel right, I think is more accurate to say. I wanted to wear many hats, whether I’m teaching movement for actors, creating my own work, producing, directing, choreographing or teaching.
So your question, when did I know, it has been all that I do and who I am since the beginning.
What did you do professionally before teaching at York?
I have been teaching, creating, producing, writing, directing, performing, wearing all of those hats throughout all my career, since the very beginning. I’ve been teaching since I was 18 in the industry, I’ve been creating and performing and producing, and sometimes some hats more than others. But teaching always informs me to my own practice again, because students are always asking me questions that are really fascinatingly challenging and which forces me to come back and examine me, to examine my own profession and my own practice and creative work.I saw this wonderful T-Shirt that said “Those who can, Do, and those who can do more, Teach.” And I really like that, because for me one of the greatest rewards of being here at York is getting to teach these incredibly talented young people that keep me on my toes and keep me challenged and then I’m never stuck in what I did twenty years ago. I’m constantly re-investigating what I’m doing right here, right now.
So you’d say for you that’s your top priority here at York?
Yes, and all of the faculty members have their own production companies, we all produce our own work, we all perform, direct, create, produce our own work and so that’s a huge ball that we juggle on top of fully committing to our students here. But again, I think it informs the work that we do then with our students. That when we go away from our students, whenever we have those pockets of time, we are very busy doing our own work and then it’s like this cyclical informing process that feeds the students and the students feed us in our work and so on. So when I’m here at York it’s absolutely the students and when I’m not here it’s my own creative work.
Could you tell me a bit more about the company that you work with outside of York? I’ve been informed that it is your company, yes?
Yes, Out of the Box Productions. So I created this company with my partner William Mackwood I think eight or nine years ago, and we created it as a sandbox. Like a laboratory where we could try things out, where no company would ever, ever give us permission to do because they would never be able to take the risk. It’s always experimental, it’s always investigating either subject matter that might be a little too risky or technology that’s never been used before. Especially for my partner William, he’s always investigating new forms of technology because he’s a Lighting Designer and a Projections Designer. And for me my personal passion is to put actors, singers and dancers together and see how they inform each other, and see how those practices affect each other in their creative process.
And so our current production that we’ve been working on for the last year will be going into full production in May of 2012 is called Bugs, and it’s about insects. We’ve actually hired a composer to recompose the Opera Tosca from an insects perspective. So that’s been a really, really fun project and we’re right in the thick of it now so I’m casting and so I’m juggling things at York, and casting a show, and directing an Opera so we have a lot of creative work to do on top of taking care of my students and being engaged in the running of the department.
You said that your work with Out of the Box informs your work with your students here. Could you elaborate on that a bit more?
Well because I’m always investigating the creative and the actor process, and always looking at the physical demands of the actor, so the work that I do with my laboratory over here in Out of the Box, then over here back into the York world, I’m bringing that knowledge of things I’ve investigated in what makes an actor tick, and what they need, and what works for an actor versus what does not work for an actor, what helps an actor bridge the gap between the use of the voice, the use of the body? I’m always trying to further investigate those challenges because it’s a large challenge for the actor to be able to stay engaged in all of those skill sets.
In what capacity do you work with Theatre at York’s acting program? Because it’s not just the Conservatory you work with: you also oversee the first year acting courses as well, in addition to the MFAs.
I am the course director for the first year acting course, which is Theatre 1010 and 1011, those are the first year acting courses. Theatre 1010 is the acting course that all first year theatre majors are required to take. They can take 1011 which is the second part of the acting program but it is not mandatory. I supervise the six graduate MFA actors and directors that are in the studio teaching these courses. And what that means is that I’m supervising the curriculum, I’m supervising these MFA instructors, showing them teaching techniques, how to teach acting, how to work with students in a studio. All of them already have teaching experience so a lot of it is a mentorship process in which we dialogue about the art of teaching acting. And so I meet with them every week before they go to teach and then after, we spend an hour debriefing about what worked in the classroom, what didn’t work in the classroom, strategies and techniques for more efficient and effective teaching methodology, so that is part of that job here.
And then I’m also coming in to every classroom and witnessing the work that is happening in the studio. I am a person of contact for all of those first year students, which we have between one hundred and thirty-five and one hundred and forty students. So I am the person they see every single Monday as a person they could come and talk to if anything is going wron; often they’re in here if they’re struggling to balance the challenges of first year, because it’s often quite a big wake up call. The demands are high, the expectations are even higher, the schedule is rigorous. So when they start looking a little green around the edges, and they look like they’ve stopped showering and eating, then I will often bring them in to talk, just to make sure that they’re on track and they’re not going to slip through the cracks. We want to support every student’s process and help them find their path, as they continue their time here at York.
So it’s a mentorship at the graduate level, and a support at the undergraduate level, for all of those first year students.
Past first year, you work with students in the conservatory in upper years?
It depends on the year, and what classes need to be covered. This year I’m teaching second year movement, and fourth year movement. Other years I’ve taught graduate movement, which I believe I’ll be doing next year as well. I have taught what used to be known as Creative Ensemble, what is now Devised Theatre. Depending on loading, it all depends on what needs to be covered and who is here to cover it. So we all will fit in wherever we can because we are all very multi-talented, to best serve the department and best serve the students.
What would you say about York’s theatre program that makes it different from another Canadian theatre school?
Well I know specifically I can speak to the theatre schools here in the Toronto area, also I used to teach at the University of Victoria out in BC in the Theatre Department there. So I know specifically that department and I know the Toronto schools. I think what makes us really unique is that we have this common first year, because we really want to create theatre animals that are intelligent and knowledgable and grounded within the theatre profession. That everybody is grounded in this common knowledge: backstage, onstage, and theatre studies, the history and the academic sides of theatre. With that common first year, people often come into first year thinking that they want something specific. The vast majority think that they want to be actors, and then, by the end of the first year, their eyes have been opened to all the ways that you can be in this industry, that there are many, many paths into the theatre industry. And that’s what makes this department special, that there is not one destination or path, there are many destinations and paths, whether that be Playwriting, Devised Theatre, Production, Design, Stage Management, Theatre Studies, Theatre Criticism, and yes, Acting. But when you look at a production and see the number of people that are involved in any production, it is a vast community of skilled people. And that is what we want to try and encourage here at York. And I think that is what our selling point is, that we bring people into the theatre family, and you are a part of our community, and we find a path that works for you. And when you leave you stay part of that community—the York Family. This is a life-long commitment to our students; when you leave here we want to know about you, we want to hear about you, and we want to continue to support you once you’ve passed your four years being here with us. So I think that makes us pretty special. You can spot Yorkies anywhere, they’re intelligent, grounded, open and hard-working and I think that makes us pretty special.
Gwen Dobie holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Windsor as well as a Graduate Diploma from Centro Italiano Tecnica Alexander. Information about her work outside of York can be found at Out of the Box Productions.