February 24, 2019

4 Questions: Michael Devine

50 Years of Disruption
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.

1. Who are you?

Michael Devine
Michael Devine

Michael Devine (BA Glendon College 1979, MFA Performance 1988):
I’m a theatre director who has worked outside Canada since 1996, working, so far, in nine languages that I don’t speak. I’ve directed in more than 20 countries at national theatres, alternative theatres and as a guest artist at international theatre festivals. Now I primarily create original works that are often site-specific, in shockingly short periods of time, using the actor training and performance creation methodology I developed in 2004, BoxWhatBox. BWB has travelled to more than 25 countries on five continents. BWB is based around the idea that there are languages other than words that can be used to create bridges between cultures. I had reasonable success in Canadian theatre, running a couple of theatre companies, working as a playwright, dramaturg and essayist, but I hated the conventions of our theatre while liking the people. So I left. That’s the most important thing I want to pass on to young theatre artists: there’s another way.

2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?

Dr. Anatol Schlosser guided us through a unit on non-European theatre and I performed a scene from Beijing Opera. As an actor who had trained classically in the UK and under the spell of the naturalistic American approach in New York, this was revelatory to me. I realized that there were more effective ways of showing the interior of our crazy-ass lives, and even more importantly, that there is a transcendent quality to theatre which should take us out of our own culture, our habits of thinking, our expectations of theatre as entertainment. I’ve worked to produce that moment of transcendence ever since.

3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?

Dr. Schlosser told me once, “get your license.” He meant get a PhD; he was telling me that I had the intellect to go further. I’d always felt unsatisfied with the level of anti-intellectualism in our theatre, but I identified, and still identify, as a practitioner. It took a few more years in the industry, but then I did go and get my PhD. Now I get to work at and think about theatre 18 hours a day (I should sleep more). I spend 6 months a year on the road, experiencing distinctive cultures. I get to develop projects in far-flung places where sometimes they can only give me accommodation and food, but where the project is aesthetically valuable. I can say “yes” to those projects instead of standing around waiting for a Canada Council grant. What kind of blessing could beat that?

4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?

In the MFA we had a group that covered the entire country and beyond, ranging from age 23 to 47, hippies and reactionaries, fast-twitch muscle fibre people and more methodical types, talented and…less so. We were together with our classes in the same single space every day from 9 to 9 minimum, and we managed to grow and work as a unit without killing each other. I took that physical and social lesson with me into my career and applied it in different cultures, where the barriers extend far beyond language and where, in many cases, I’m working and living with the actors 7 days a week. I founded the Centre for Alternative Theatre training (CATT), the international actor training intensive I hold each year overseas, with that experience in mind—CATT welcomes people from every background and level of experience, because I passionately believe people make the most progress, as artists and human beings, when they are exposed to others who are distinct from them in various ways. I can thank the MFA at York for that.