Managing on a shoestring

November 04, 2004, vol. 31, no. 5
By Roberta Staley

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Studio II, one of SFU's performance studios just off the main mall, isn't beautiful.

The 35-year-old, metal-sided, 60-seat trailer isn't quite in keeping with Arthur Erickson's austere vision, but then the arts - dance, theatre, music, writing or the visual arts, have never been the favoured offspring of institutions of learning.

Still, the rag-tag studio, in continuous use for classes and shows, as well as being home to SFU's venerable student Black Box Company, hasn't prevented the school for the contemporary arts from graduating world-class, innovative artists, dancers and actors year after year.

Black Box and SFU's other theatres, which draw thousands of spectators every year, are managed by Heather Blakemore, who helps plan programming, books studio time, manages staff, oversees security, runs the box office, and designs the advertisements and promotional material. It's a job that takes Blakemore all over campus because being an interdisciplinary department, staff and students are scattered all over campus. “If I have a petty cash form that I need signed, I have to walk to the other end of the campus for signing,” Blakemore sighs.

One of Blakemore's biggest challenges is a lack of funding. The school operates today on about one-third its original mid-70s budget. That was when the Montreal native's first encounter with theatre began, as an acting student in SFU's neophyte centre for the arts. Today's corseted budget means the school rarely brings in, as it once did, world-renowned and international artists for performances.

Still, Blakemore faces the financial constraints with aplomb, taking pride in the high level of professionalism and creativity that flows into the community once students graduate. They form new dance companies, their films win accolades and prizes at film festivals, they create music and they perform on television and the big screen.

“People are doing fantastic, world-class things,” says Blakemore. “Vancouver's theatre and dance community has grown enormously over the years and I think our department has contributed to this. Ten years ago, there were only a few groups doing alternative theatre. Now there are at least double that number, and that's partly due to the school for the contemporary arts.”

Certainly Blakemore is part of a department that keeps the creative bar high with eclectic, bold and cutting-edge choices of shows. This fall's lineup of free Thursday noon shows, which Blakemore helps choose, is an example. Fringe wunderkind Charles Ross's One Man Star Wars Trilogy has been showcased alongside Japan's Issui Minegishi, who plays the ichigenkin, a religious, one-string zen instrument.

There is also such adventurous theatre productions as Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words,, a solo play probing existential angst, as well as English playwright Carol Churchill's Far Away, an absurdist work about love in the midst of war where everything and everyone opposes each other.

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