June 21, 2016

Spotlight on Alumni: Wesley McKenzie

Wesley McKenzie
Wesley McKenzie

Wesley McKenzie graduated from York University in 2014 with a BFA in Theatre Production. Since graduation, he has been designing light, sound and video for theatre and opera in Toronto.

Wesley works often with theatre companies such as the red light district (Lulu V2, the marquise of O—, Lulu V4) and Lester Trips (The Misunderstanding, Intangible Trappings). Wesley has also started working in Opera, having worked with the University of Toronto’s Opera Department (The Fatal Gaze) and Metro Youth Opera (The Rape of Lucretia). Wesley made his debut at Factory Theatre in March on their production of A Line in the Sand.

During the summer, Wesley works as the production manager and lighting designer in residence at the Classic Theatre Festival in Perth, Ontario.

Wesley’s work often explores the possibilities of technologies in theatrical situations. For Little Black Afro’s production of I was once on Fire, Wesley has made custom lighting fixtures. Wesley’s work has explored advanced video mapping, as in the red light district’s the marquise of O—, and multiple live video feeds, as in the Howland Company’s take rimbaud.

The Howland Company’s Take Rimbaud.

What was your favourite place at York, and why?

My favourite place at York was the Light Lab. At York, there is a room specifically for students to experiment with lighting equipment and ideas. As a lighting designer, I don’t often get the opportunity to play with lights, as there is often little time to get the lights ready in a theatre venue. This means I need to know exactly how the show will be lit before I can even turn any of the lights on. With the Light Lab, I was able to explore what the lights could do for me as a designer before I went out with them on stage.

I have many fond memories of projects with classmates, from 1st year stagecraft all the way to the 4th year lighting design class. We spent hours trying to perfect a six minute long sunset, or making a dagger appear out of thin air from the famous Macbeth scene, or simply turning a styrofoam ball from the moon, to a basketball, to a meatball, to the Death Star and back to a styrofoam ball. Playing with light like this taught me my craft more than any textbook could have.

Did connections, friendships, relationships you made at York help you afterwards?

Having moved to Toronto from a rural area near Ottawa, I came to York with no friends of my own. That quickly changed during my first week of classes. The York Theatre program feels more like a community than simply a group of students. Because theatre is a collaborative art, you quickly learn who you can trust on a project and what other people have as skill sets. Without a strong bond between us, theatre is impossible to collaborate on.

I sometimes get work by applying to design jobs through classified advertisements. However, it is mostly through my contacts from York that I get work.

My first big show coming out of York was Shakespeare in High Park in 2013. I was apart of a program that allowed York students to work along side Canadian Stage at the park. I was an assistant sound designer helping Lyon Smith build the sound content for the park’s first season in rep, with Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew. From the contacts that I made on these shows, I have worked on about 15 other productions.

If it hadn’t have been for the connections I made at York, I would have never found my way into the theatre industry in Toronto.

Do you have any advice or tips for York students just entering the department?

Four years is a huge commitment to education. But it also provides you with an opportunity to work over a long period of time. If I could give a student entering York any advice, it would be to make a push to improve your skill set.

Before I started at York, I was terrible at drawing. Since my path lead me towards the production side of theatre, I had to do a lot of drawing, both technical and artistic. As a result, I ended up taking classes in the Visual Art department, along side the Theatre courses that I needed to draw in. My drawing skills still have a quite a way to go, but they have significantly improved since I started University.

If you had a chance to go back and visit your younger self as you were beginning at York, what advice would you give yourself?

Do your own projects.

As a designer, I am often working on other people’s productions. I love the collaborative spirit that is involved in this industry, but I don’t often get the opportunity to be the leader on a show.

When I was in my last year at York, I worked with three other students to build what we called the Toy Box. Although it wasn’t quite a work of theatre, it was art installation that allowed us to use our skills as lighting, sound and video designers. As people entered the exhibit, they were given the choice of seven different experiences. Based on what they chose, the different design elements would change the environment around them. This was the first design project I had ever spearheaded.

If I could go back and visit my younger self at York, I would tell him to do more projects like this. York supplied me with all of the knowledge to be able to do these things, I just needed a little confidence in myself to start the process.

Metro Youth Opera's "Rape of Lucrezia"
Metro Youth Opera’s “Rape of Lucrezia”

What was the most valuable thing that you learned while studying at YorkU?

The most valuable thing that I learned while I was at York was to trust in my skill set and knowledge. I have found myself in a number of situations where I knew exactly what to do, but didn’t think I did. Besides giving me a large production skill set, York has taught me that I can throw myself into projects and rise to whatever challenge the project provides.

Last summer, when I worked at the  Classic Theatre Festival in Perth, Ontario for the first time, I was asked to fill in for the Production Manager. I consider myself to have a designer’s skill set, but I stepped into the management role without worrying too much about the tasks ahead of me.