December Shields is an Arts Umbrella student in the Advanced Program at the School of Robert M. Ledingham Theatre, Music & Film, performing with the Musical Theatre Troupe. December is also a Teaching Assistant at Arts Umbrella. We sat down with December to learn more about her journey from student to mentor, and how her experience as an Arts Umbrella student for the past two years has helped her succeed as a Teaching Assistant.

Can you tell us about your experience as an Arts Umbrella student?

It’s amazing. It’s really intense but in the best possible way. There’s not a single class that you can leave without being able to take so many things from it. The amount of information that we’re getting in every class; we’re taking so many valuable things away with us. We are a family. It’s such a community here. All the teachers always have the best interests [in mind] for you; it’s such a supportive environment. I don’t think anyone would thrive as much as they did if it wasn’t for how happy and uplifting everything is here.

Who most inspires you at Arts Umbrella?

Cydney Uffindell-Phillips; she’s incredible and I look up to her so much. I love the way that she integrates movement into storytelling and I come from a dance background so that way of theatre and storytelling is ingrained in me; I love it the most. Her focus is devising and creating.

Erika Babins and Andy Toth; what’s not to love about them? I love Erika as a director so much. She’s so good at knowing what she wants but also knowing how to make you feel like you got there on your own. It is open for us to come up with our own ideas and blocking, but she does have her vision – yet it’s so collaborative. It opens a lot for creativity and self-expression within the walls of what needs to be done.

Andy has so much knowledge and is so experienced. The material that he teaches is 100% the way I will be doing this kind of thing for the rest of my life. He is really good at not letting you put in less than you’re capable of. He knows what you have in you and knows how to get you to it. He won’t let you fall short of it and I appreciate that as there are those days where you can’t know how much you’re capable of until you’re shown.

Can you tell us more about your dance background and how that led to musical theatre?

I grew up as a competitive dancer in a studio in the tri-city area. I didn’t start theatre until I was 10 or 11. Dance is my main background; all styles of dance like jazz, tap, and ballet. Cydney comes from a dance background too! There is a genre of competition dance called stage and it’s like a character from musical theatre. I was like ‘I want to do that solo.’ I then did a musical at my dance studio and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do forever; this is it!’

The studio didn’t have their own musical theatre program and when I was 11, my mom was looking at Arts Umbrella but the minimum age was 13 for Troupes. Then when I was 13, COVID-19 hit so it wasn’t the right time. But when I turned 15, it was time.

Why did you want to become a Teaching Assistant and which classes do you assist?

I hope to be a teacher when I’m older. If you can teach something you can do it and vice versa; if you can do something you can teach it – so why not use it to your advantage? I think mostly, learning how to teach is invaluable to me. I want to share my skills and knowledge with other people. I love watching a kid get a scene they’ve been struggling with or watching them find a way to connect with another student, it’s really nice.

I assist ages 6-8, 8-12, and 12-19 in Film Acting and Film Intensive Level 1. I work with Francis Dowlatabadi and it’s a really awesome job as I learn so much from it; not only how to teach but also things I didn’t know about acting before. Especially as it’s film; acting on stage is different than film but it has its similarities. It’s nice to know all the different aspects of acting and how they interconnect.

What do you enjoy most about your role as Teaching Assistant?

I assist teachers who teach me, so I think just being in a place where teachers trust me. I also enjoy watching other people grow and succeed. Being a student and mentor, I can see in my own classes where I am a student what’s happening with the teaching and I then have a different perspective on the situation. I then bring this into my own classes where I assist, which I find valuable and interesting.

It’s an amazing job, it’s not an easy job but it’s so fun. I keep going back to watching other people succeed but watching these kids and how far they can come in one term is so fun. It’s a really good environment to learn how to assist, I’d recommend it to anyone who feels responsible enough and has more to give to Arts Umbrella.

Not every kid is going to take the classes as seriously as others but the few that do take it seriously might be the next few students that come into Troupe and go into programs later at Arts Umbrella; I could be teaching the next Leonardo DiCaprio – who knows!

What are your future goals?

I am hoping to go to post-secondary for musical theatre somewhere in the States or in the UK. And if not, I want to take a gap year and continue working at Arts Umbrella. It would be a dream to instruct here, especially as it’s internationally known, it’s an amazing place to be! But Broadway is the end goal!

December is performing in this year’s Expressions Theatre Festival as Ella in Cinderella (Cast B). Learn more about the show and get your tickets here.