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Theatre students learn from Czech and Indigenous thespians

Daniel Nguyen (left) and Gabriella Hamilton (right) pictured during a class on the art of puppetry at the theatre conservatory, DAMU, in Prague.

For the first time in 10 years, U of T Scarborough theatre students took part in a unique study abroad experience in Prague and Manitoulin Island.

Daniel Nguyen and Gabriella Hamilton, both theatre majors, attended DAMU, a Theatre conservatory in the Czech capital. 

Accompanied by the program director of the Theatre & Performance Studies program, Professor Barry Freeman, Nguyen and Hamilton spent two weeks in Prague and a week on Manitoulin Island as part of a program that was originally started in 1998 by the previous department head, Michal Schonberg, in what Freeman says was called the Prague-Toronto-Manitoulin Project.

“A collaboration was set up between that school and Scarborough’s theatre program because of Michal Schonberg in 1998, and that lasted for 10 years,” he says.

Freeman had participated in the exchange when he was a student at U of T Scarborough and felt that it was something that would benefit theatre students again. The trip was funded by the department of Arts, Culture, and Media (ACM) and a new initiative called the Equity in Diversity in the Arts initiative (EDA), a new unit within the ACM department. 

It was something unique that neither Hamilton nor Nguyen wanted to miss. 

“I knew it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I mean, who wouldn't want to travel to Europe to learn theatre from amazing instructors involved in the business,” Hamilton says. 

This is the first time both students have studied abroad and they were excited to focus all their energy on their passion for theatre, especially for Nguyen who majors in theatre and biology. 

“I’ve never really had the opportunity to just zero in and focus all my time and attention on acting, so I think that’s what was also really exciting,” he says. 

While in Prague they primarily focused on acting techniques but also spent a lot of time on puppetry, which is a large part of Czech theatre and political culture, especially during and after the country’s communist era.

“When Prague was trying to establish itself as its own place, they used puppets to give out widespread information when it was establishing its language, its history, its culture,” Nguyen explained of his research findings.

Though they were both hesitant about using puppets, Nguyen realized he was only thinking of them in the context of “Sesame Street or the Muppets or kid’s puppet shows.” After their experience in Prague, they both found a new respect for the art form. 

“The puppet shows really brought out innovative ideas and creativity which brought a great dynamism in the show, and they were hilarious,” Hamilton says. 

After their experience in Prague, Nguyen, and Hamilton spent a week on Manitoulin working with the Debajehmujig Storytellers. 

“I learned so much by going on excursions and tours but I would say just spending time with the company and asking questions was really where I learned and took away the most,” Hamilton says.

They enjoyed their experiences so much, they both recommend studying abroad if the opportunity arises.

“Not only do you get an education you might not get here, but I think there are personal life experiences that you get while learning that you might not get by just going to class,” Nguyen says. 

Freeman hopes to continue this program and make it a permanent feature in the Theatre & Performance Studies program. 

“There’s definitely a hunger among our students for more professional experience,” he says. “There is certainly a virtue in doing that in a new context, in places where traditions are very different. That’s why you do study abroad and international exchange.” 

Hamilton and Nguyen both agree that the course will benefit future students as much it has benefited them.

“This program is an amazing experience and opportunity and it will only get better with time,” Hamilton says.

© University of Toronto Scarborough