Arts
Features

Decades of bringing theatre to local youth—and local youth into the theatre

Belfry 101’s latest student piece explores anxieties and uncertainty about the future as the storied program returns to stage for the first time in three years

By Michael John Lo
March 25, 2023
Arts
Features

Decades of bringing theatre to local youth—and local youth into the theatre

Belfry 101’s latest student piece explores anxieties and uncertainty about the future as the storied program returns to stage for the first time in three years

By Michael John Lo
Mar 25, 2023
The 2022-23 cohort of Belfry 101, along with coordinators Dave Morris (top left) and Nicole Malcolm (top right), take a pause from creating their upcoming show for a group photo. Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily
The 2022-23 cohort of Belfry 101, along with coordinators Dave Morris (top left) and Nicole Malcolm (top right), take a pause from creating their upcoming show for a group photo. Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily
Arts
Features

Decades of bringing theatre to local youth—and local youth into the theatre

Belfry 101’s latest student piece explores anxieties and uncertainty about the future as the storied program returns to stage for the first time in three years

By Michael John Lo
March 25, 2023
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Decades of bringing theatre to local youth—and local youth into the theatre
The 2022-23 cohort of Belfry 101, along with coordinators Dave Morris (top left) and Nicole Malcolm (top right), take a pause from creating their upcoming show for a group photo. Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

Every year, about 30 high school students from across Greater Victoria attend and learn from Belfry Theatre shows as part of its Belfry 101 course, a long running youth-focused audience education program now in its third decade. 

“It’s a really unique experience to get out with such a large group of your peers at this age to be able to not just experience and consume theatre, but to actually contemplate on it and learn from different practitioners,” said Nicole Malcolm, a co-coordinator of Belfry 101.

“Many had never been to a play before,” she added. The program also includes show workshops, access to professional theatre artists, and pizza from Fernwood Pizza Co. (a sponsor of Belfry 101).

The program runs from October to March and only costs $60 per student. Bursaries are available if finance is a barrier.

The affordability is all thanks to the funders and supporters of the Belfry Theatre, who see youth participation as a valuable asset and recognize the role the program plays in introducing students to the world of theatre, said Malcolm.

“It’s such an amazing tool for encouraging younger audiences to come out [and] to see themselves as people who deserve to be in these spaces,” she added.

The pandemic has drawn away younger audiences from the theatre who have found other avenues for socializing and leisure, Malcolm said. Data about the theatre industry in Canada is scant, but in the US and the UK, theatre subscriptions and audience buy-in are still lagging behind pre-pandemic years, according to American Theatre.

“We’ve lost three years as a city of being able to build that momentum,” Malcolm said. 

A recent 800-person BC Hydro survey noted that 56% of respondents said that they have increased their consumption of TV and streaming services above what they were pre-pandemic, compared to 29% who reported doing so in a similar survey that ran in Sept. 2020.

The seven-day play: Speedrunning a theatre production

Belfry 101 is not just all about building the next generation of theatre appreciators. A smaller group of older and dedicated students are spending the first week of their spring break writing and preparing their very own theatre piece. 

A play would normally take months to write, rehearse, and prepare for its first showing. “This is definitely an accelerated, intensive experience,” said Malcolm.

This year’s play—currently with the working title of AA: Anxiety Anonymous—will be performed this Sunday, March 26, at the Belfry Theatre as the closing act in its annual SPARK festival. It’s the first Belfry 101 theatre showing since 2019.

“I can’t tell you what the show is yet,” said Dave Morris, another Belfry 101 coordinator. “But there’s a lot of exploring of anxiety and uncertainty about the future.” 

A quick glimpse at the paper sheets pasted on the side of the theatre reveals snippets of the dada-ist scenes that Belfry 101 is offering: Characters arguing in a forest about what a fish is, building individually compelling but collectively absurd ichthyological conclusions. A man, stuck in a hole but happy about it.

Patrick Hissen from Mount Douglas Secondary School said the fish scene is an allegory for what happens when people speak on topics they're not informed on to avoid appearing stupid. Hissen, along with fellow Mount Douglas student Amelia Croft and Jenn Waugh from Claremont Secondary formed an informal circle on stage, tweaking dialogue and trying out accents that might fit the scene.

The play is being written at a whirlwind pace during the weekdays. Students spend the weekend in rehearsal for the show on Sunday evening.

“All of these kids, when they started high school, were immediately sent home during the pandemic,” said Morris. “So their whole high school experience and the expectation of graduating has been very disrupted.”

“There’s some Google Classroom scenes, exploring anxiety about Google Classroom,” he added. 

The program’s pandemic gap meant that there were no returning students this year to help bring along newcomers.

“We’re kind of all just figuring it out together again,” said Malcolm. 

But the teenagers are enjoying the process. 

“There’s friendships built here, and a community of actors turning into a cast,” said Chloe Unger, another Belfry 101 participant. “Performing in front of an audience is great. It’s a great experience to go through. It’s nerve wracking for anybody, but there’s such satisfaction that comes with that.”

The Belfry 101 show will be performed this Sunday, March 26 at 7:30pm at the Belfry Theatre. Tickets are $10.

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