Graduate Liberal Studies, History

People Profile: Tammy Theis, GLS Student and History Staff Member

January 27, 2016

Tammy Theis has a multi-faceted professional and creative track record. The current Coordinator of Communications and Events for SFU History has worked as lifeguard, break-dancer, recording artist, and actress in community theatre. Working or volunteering for such organizations as YWCA of Metro Vancouver, City of New Westminster, and Positive Living Society of British Columbia, she has also had experience in business administration, management, and event planning. When she’s not organizing communications and events for History, Theis is raising her two children as a single-parent and completing her Masters in Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) at SFU. 

Theis has taken a winding path to get to where she is now. As a youth, she acted in film and television from the age of 14, worked as a lifeguard from the age of 16, and continued lifeguarding while completing her BA in General Studies and Canadian Studies at SFU in the late nineties. It was at SFU, Theis recalls, where she was able to take breakdancing to a professional level.  “I was walking by SFU’s campus community radio station, CJSF Radio, and I heard the music that I loved -- the underground rap and hip hop that I was totally into. I went into the radio station and met Matt and Trevor Chan, who established CJSF radio show “Straight No Chaser.” They later founded the multimedia dj collective, the No Luck Club, and I started to hang out with them and others in the Vancouver-based rap and hip hop scene. It was up here at SFU, in the racquetball courts where I was schooled by “Mighty Mike” Lee and Dave “Order One” Wong in the art of breaking.” 

As Vancouver’s first, professional b-girl, Theis worked as a professional break-dancer and competed in and helped organize breakdancing competitions locally and abroad after graduating from SFU. She also became involved in singing and recording music, providing back-up vocals to local heavy metal artists such as the Devin Townsend Band and Strapping Young Lad and eventually recording a demo of music she wrote and produced herself in 2006 with a grant from FACTOR (The Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent On Records). “It was a really exciting time for me and I loved being involved in the arts scene. I gave up lifeguarding and breakdancing after having children mainly because the breakdancing was so physically demanding.” 

Theis breaking upside down. Photo by Brian Cassey.
Breaking at a b-boy competition at UBC.
Theis recording at King's Den Studios.
Theis (L) as Pierre in the Fraser Valley Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of Beauty and the Beast.

Theis has stayed connected to acting, dancing and singing through community theatre and through the graduate work she’s done in GLS. She’s appeared in Fawlty Towers with the New Westminster-based group, Vagabond Players (2013), and in productions of Beauty and the Beast (2011) and Snow White (2010) with the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Theis says she’s been delighted to incorporate her own writing of music and lyrics in graduate school. In addition to composing a song about Rome and Rome’s intellectual tradition for a course with History’s Emily O’Brien, she wrote a song for Sasha Colby’s graduate seminar “Reflections on Reason and Passion,” in fall 2014. 

Theis explains that her final assignment in Colby’s course involved writing a creative adaptation of the course text, The Medea by Euripedes, a Greek tragedy. In Theis’ composition, Medea writes a song to Jason, her unfaithful husband who, in the play, has left her for a Corinthian princess. “The play’s themes are intense,” says Theis, “Medea exacts revenge on Jason by killing their children and his new wife.” She says composing music and lyrics to think through the play was both liberating and exhilarating, and that the freedom of this kind of expression was one of the reasons she chose GLS for graduate school.

Noting that she’s also written traditional academic term papers throughout her graduate studies, Theis says both genres pose a challenge to thinking critically and creatively. When asked about her musical influences, Theis says she draws inspiration from the musical genres she’s loved for a long time: namely, what some call conscious hip hop—a subgenre of hip hop that challenges political, cultural and philosophical norms. “While I’m not sure emcees who perform this music would self-describe themselves as ‘conscious hip hop artists,’ it’s artists like Common, Talib Kweli, and Lupe Fiasco who inspire me. Kweli is famously quoted for saying hip hop is ‘sociology and English put to a beat’ which I saw on a button recently produced by SFU’s Sociology & Anthropology Department.”

In summer 2016, Theis will travel to Italy for GLS’s Italian field school “Italy in the Ancient and Modern Imagination.” In the meantime, she is busy helping to organize and promote upcoming lectures and colloquiums in the History Department this spring. Theis says she loves working for the Department of History and while her time can be sparse trying to balance work, school, life and creative pursuits, she’s invigorated by the challenge. “I’m a person with boundless energy. I like to be busy and have a number of projects on the go simultaneously, so pushing my limits both academically and creatively really keeps me going.”