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Acting out: students put Scarborough theatre on the map

The UTSC participants in The Donnelly Project, from left: David Koufis, Grace Phan-Nguyen, Gabriella Hamilton, Daniel Nguyen, Jasmine Scott and Zach McKendrick.

It’s 9:30 pm. The halls at UTSC are eerily quiet. Except for a few stragglers still at their desks, the place is almost completely empty. In a small and dark studio, tucked away above the L.L. Browne Theatre, Francis Masaba and Daniel Nguyen’s voices are almost deafening as they rehearse their lines.

“Take your time. Be in the moment,” says Zach McKendrick, their director.

These students from U of T Scarborough’s Theatre and Performance Studies program will appear in #TheDonnellyProject, an adaptation of the 1973 classic Sticks and Stones: The Donnellys Part 1, which many refer to as Canada’s own Greek tragedy. Students from R.H. King Academy and Agincourt Collegiate Institute are also part of the show. In celebrating their 45th anniversary, the Tarragon Theatre partnered with Scarborough Arts and the three schools to highlight the underrated arts scene in the east end.

“They want younger people to see that theatre thrives here. If you’re in high school and you want to pursue it, there are places in the neighbourhood where you can go,” McKendrick says.

Each school performs one act. Unlike the two high schools, which have about 20 actors each, McKendrick’s UTSC team is comprised of just five actors. As a result, they had to take on multiple roles.

“I love working in an intimate group. Everyone is invested in the show. You can work closely with the director and bounce off each other,” David Koufis emphasizes.

For those who want to pursue theatre further, UTSC is the place to go. The Arts, Culture and Media department's Theatre & Performance Studies program, along with student-run organizations like the Drama Society, produce many shows each year. Their Improv Team recently won an improv summit, beating seven other universities. Jasmine Scott is another actor in the play and hopes that theatre gets more recognition.

“We have gold here. It’s the hidden gem of a school,” Scott says. “When we advertise a show 80 per cent of people will say, ‘We have a theatre in our school?”

Grace Phan-Nguyen, their stage manager, says that friendly competition among her peers helped develop the community.  “We want to leave a legacy,” she explains.

The group is also a diverse bunch. Scott is headed for teacher’s college. Gabriella Hamilton is majoring in health studies but has now taken on another major in theatre. Daniel Nguyen, one of the leads, is majoring in biology.

“This program changed my life. In science the answers are very black and white. What I love about theatre is there’s no clear-cut answer,” Nguyen says.

He also appreciates the transferable skills about communication and leadership that he learned from theatre. McKendrick says that even non-actors can find a place in the arts.

“Here it’s not a conservatory program where your focus is 90% acting. You can learn about history. There’s also a technology program where you can learn light, sound and set design,” McKendrick points out.

The performance is at Harrison Properties, May 14 at 2:00 pm. It’s free and open to the public. The cast says that even though the story is set in 1842, it is still relevant today.

“The tag of the show is, ‘The Donnellys are still with us,’ Has anything changed in the last 136 years? It’s a legitimate question,” McKendrick highlights. “Theatre is a great place to explore dangerous themes. We want to challenge not only the audience but also ourselves, to see how we feel about these issues.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough