October 11, 2022 | Alumni
'A unique pay-it-forward feature': alumni thespians return to mentor students at Hart House Theatre
By Megan Mueller
In a new educational partnership, Howland Company members take on leadership roles with University of Toronto students at Hart House Theatre. It begins with Chekov's Three Sisters, as alumna Hallie Seline stars with students Shauna Thompson and Caroline Toal. Photo by Dahlia Katz
A new rendition of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, coproduced by Hart House Theatre and The Howland Company, has a unique, pay-it-forward feature: This play, on stage beginning October 26 and running to November 12, is part of a new educational partnership that will have Howland Company members taking on leadership roles with University of Toronto students throughout the academic year.
This venture is a full circle moment for two Howland Company members, Paolo Santalucia (BA 2011 UTM) and Cameron Laurie (BA 2017 UTM), both U of T and Hart House Theatre alumni. Hallie Seline (BA 2011 UTM) is also a U of T grad. In fact, all three theatre artists developed their craft at the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Theatre Erindale, the production company of the Theatre and Drama Studies Program.
The seasoned thespians sit down to discuss how they are mentoring students in this production, and, more broadly, the status of performing arts in Canada and the particular role of Hart House Theatre in this revitalization.
The Resurgence of Canadian Theatre
The artists’ excitement is palpable. Laurie, in the role of Nicolas in Three Sisters; Seline, playing Olga; and Santalucia, in the director’s chair, are thrilled to be participating in the post-pandemic renaissance of theatre.
“It’s terrifically important that theatre comes back,” Santalucia says. “It’s vital that we engage in the arts in times of change and global crises. I think art is never more important.”
This is the first time we've had this kind of theatre available in the city in three years
“It's breathtaking how much is going on this fall in Toronto,” Seline says. “This is the first time we've had this kind of theatre available in the city in three years.”
“I think many of us, artists and theatre lovers, were isolated. It highlighted the desire to watch something unfold live; to share a story,” Laurie adds. He finds the liveliness of theatre exhilarating. “To see Toronto boom back with so many things being offered again is profoundly stirring. We're so happy to be a part of it. It's the community aspect of theatre … you can't replace it.”
Alumni in the House
Santalucia has a deep connection to Hart House Theatre.
“It meant a great deal to me in my own professional development,” he explains, adding, “Hart House is one of the most significant institutions in the country. The fact that we have something like the Hart House Theatre in the City of Toronto, one of North America’s leading arts hubs, is incredible,” he says. “I think it's an amazing piece of theatre history.”
With Three Sisters he hopes to attract new audiences “allowing people to engage with the incredible institution that is Hart House.” Importantly, Santalucia also adapted this version of the play.
Laurie is also connected to Hart House Theatre. His first gigs outside of theatre school – Macbeth (2011), Romeo and Juliet (2012) and The Tempest (2014) – were here.
“I'm so happy that I get to come back and work here,” he says, recalling his first encounters: “At Hart House, I immediately met my cohort of actor friends. When I left theatre school and moved to the city, it was a great opportunity to work in a theatre that has so much history, and to feel a part of that… You formed bonds with people and started creating together… there was nothing like it.”
Santalucia points out that the Theatre allows emerging artists to gain invaluable experience. “When I directed there, I was very young. For emerging artists to be given an incredible play and be told okay, here's a 400-seat house … I mean, usually that doesn't happen until you’re much older. It forces you to grow as an artist and meet the historic pedigree of that institution.”
He believes that at Hart House Theatre actors can try new things, make mistakes. The Theatre has what he calls “a beautiful safety net.”
A Novel Collaboration with Howland Company
Three Sisters represents a visionary joint venture between Hart House Theatre and The Howland Company whose mandate is to join generations of actors. “Young talent thrives via an opportunity to work with experienced veterans. Nothing can replace watching skilled stage actors,” Cameron says.
“We were excited to have so many professional artists involved, and to be opening the doors to as many interested candidates as possible,” Santalucia says. “That exchange was something that we wanted to build in right from the get-go. There are students involved at every level of this production, gaining vital hands-on experience.”
Seline provides a few key examples: An assistant director is working closely with Santalucia . Student stage managers and assistant stage managers are learning from Kat Chin, who recently stage managed two productions at Soulpepper Theatre: Queen Goneril and King Lear. A PhD candidate is working on the dramaturgy. Others are teamed up with technicians, hanging lights, building set, designing and involved in wardrobe assistance.
“Every technical aspect has a role for people to work closely, either one-on-one or two on one, with someone who has a lot to teach,” Laurie says.
I'm very happy that through this partnership, we're building our own mini artistic community
Seline adds that they have also established group coaching and mentorships with some of the U of T student actors, and they will host their successful community initiative called the Reading Group at Hart House this year, which offers an opportunity for anyone interested to join in and cold read a play together. They also plan to host some panels on indie producing and acting in Toronto. “We're very happy to be able to expand both within the production, but also for the U of T community,” she says.
She sums up the synergy of this collaboration. “We're excited to be partnering with Hart House because our values align. The House has always been that place where people can make connections. It’s a launching pad.”
Indeed, Santalucia sees this collaboration as essential to community building: “It’s about an artistic community first and foremost. I'm very happy that through this partnership, we're building our own mini artistic community. I think that will translate into the work in a truly meaningful way.”