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At first thought, you might not see an obvious connection between a career spent creating, producing and managing theatre and pursuing a master’s degree in urban studies, but for the winner of the Alumni Community Engagement Award in 2017, the link is clear.
“The idea of entering of the Urban Studies Program was really just to take the opportunity to step outside the studio, where I’ve spent 20 years making work that looks at the urban environment and human co-existence, and do that in a different way.”
The connection was obvious to program director Peter Hall too, who notes, “Artists, cultural industries, and artistic practice now occupy central stage in contemporary urban studies debates.” Support for James’ nomination was also based on his distinguished contributions to the theatre community and commitment to exploring social issues. James co-founded the Theatre Replacement company in 2003 and has shared its artistic directorship with colleague Maiko Yamamoto since then. Works that he has written, produced or directed include 100% Vancouver (based on the life experiences of 100 Vancouver residents), The Greatest Cities in the World and the popular annual East Van Panto. Since 2013, James has also been on the board of the society that runs Strathcona’s Russian Hall, a community space and performance venue in East Vancouver. “The simultaneous complications and opportunities for engagement that come with this role are endless,” he said.
While James has won artistic awards, including a nomination for a Governor General’s Literary Award, this is his first academic award, and he finds that recognition gratifying.
“It’s a really great feeling, always, to receive any acknowledgement. I’m also the father of two kids and on sabbatical, so every little bit helps when I’m incurring some debt. Awards like this create space for deeper thinking, second and third drafts and increased perspective," James said. "With that comes pleasure and what I hope is better work. This award has allowed me to add some significant hours to this research that I would have normally spent on a freelance job. I’m incredibly grateful."
James is now in the midst of researching and writing his master’s thesis, which examines the role of event and performance in society, and more specifically focuses on the public engagement practices of about a dozen Vancouver-based independent theatre organizations. His interest in that topic was sparked partly by his own creative work in public engagement, but also by his experience serving on award and grant juries. Based on that, he knew that public engagement had become a funding priority for granting agencies over the past several years, and he wanted to explore how theatre artists, producers and audiences were responding to that shift.
“Public engagement flips the coin a bit,” James said. “The public needs something from the artists that might be different than just what you want to create, and there are now expectations on artists to consider the needs of audiences as they create work. I wanted to see how that has affected the independent theatre community – how many people are following that lead and, ultimately, how is that changing the work that Vancouver experiences as a public?”
James agreed that he might have pursued a similar type of research project while doing a different degree, such as a master’s of fine arts, but said the Urban Studies Program provides a path with more breadth. “I wanted to get away from the studio and have some distance, while still being able to talk to it.“ Looking at this topic through the urban studies lens allows for that, he said, as well as for pursuing new directions and connecting with a different group of students and faculty than those he already knew through his artistic and teaching work in the theatre world.
“There is a massive difference in the expectations placed on the artist compared to 20 years ago and urban studies seemed an appropriate to explore the implications of that.” Senior lecturer Matt Hern, who nominated James, notes that his research is “not only innovative, but thoughtful and badly needed.”
James plans to complete his thesis in 2018, and to then apply the reflections and learning gained through the Urban Studies Program to his creative and public engagement work.
The award is funded by alumni of the Urban Studies Program and is made to a student with a record of making strong and positive contributions to the community that build long-term relationships and demonstrate leadership.