Gemma Martin has been an Arts Umbrella student for over four years in the Advanced Program at the School of Robert M. Ledingham Theatre, Music & Film, performing with the Theatre Troupe. She was one of the inaugural recipients of The Stratford Prize in 2022. Gemma is also a Teaching Assistant at Arts Umbrella. We sat down with Gemma to learn more about her journey from student to teacher, and how she wishes to inspire the next generation of budding theatre professionals.

What has your time as an Arts Umbrella student been like?

I’ve been coming to Arts Umbrella since September 2019. Since then, I have experienced three different programs, three different Directors, two different buildings, and a pandemic!

I found the Theatre Troupe at Arts Umbrella on a whim. What intrigued me most about the program was that we got to tour and set up lights and sound; that aspect of well-roundedness really appealed to me and that’s why I auditioned. It’s been really incredible. Even through COVID, Arts Umbrella did such an excellent job of maintaining the program. It was still a constant in my life which was really nice during a time when I had very little structure.

The program itself has been instrumental to not only my growth as a performer and as an actor but also as a person. Being in the program has allowed me to become more grounded and understanding of myself. It has taught me to take up more space and just be, instead of trying to look for new things or appease other people.

The people are also incredible – the teachers and my peers who are so dedicated and non-judgmental. In a group, it only takes one person to bring everyone down but it takes everyone to bring it back up. I have never had that problem at Arts Umbrella. Everyone has been so dedicated and serious about what they do and I have really appreciated that environment.

What do you think is most unique about the Theatre Troupe program?

The opportunities to perform and to tour to schools. Touring is almost unanimously one of our favourite parts of the program because there is an air of independence to it. You get up really early and load all the stuff into a van, you get on the bus, drive to a school, then you take everything out of the bus, set it all up, you do all the lighting, you tape down every cable on the ground, you put on your costume on really quickly (I have put on my costume in gymnasium storage rooms, in bathrooms, behind curtains), and then you do the show. It’s nice because the kids are in their own environment; we are in their school so they are comfortable in that building. It’s really interesting to see them watch their space get transformed. For a lot of them, it’s their first exposure to theatre.

When I first toured 2 years ago with Arts Umbrella performing Kindness, some of the kids had a practice assembly for the performance because it was their first time ever having an assembly. Some of the kids had only been to school during COVID so being able to share that experience, seeing the joy on their faces and hearing the questions they asked, was incredible.

When we’re taking the set down and putting all our stuff into the van outside the school, often kids will come up to us and talk to us and show interest in the program. I have met some people on tour who then joined the program and are now in the Theatre Troupe which is really cool.

Who has most inspired you during your time at Arts Umbrella?

My first Director was Susanne Moniz De Sá and Seamus Fera was the Assistant Director. Suzanne was so calm and good for my first step into the Troupe as I was the youngest student. She was just so lovely in teaching me how to ground myself. Seamus has a really interesting way of having expectations set for you but without the pressure. He completely allows you to make mistakes, to fail, and is able to guide you in a way where you don’t even realize you’re being guided and all of a sudden, you’re like ‘Oh, well that worked.’

I then had Seamus as Director and Laura Reynolds as Assistant Director. Laura was really amazing because she was very much like a no-nonsense stage manager presence and was very good at asking you very straightforward questions when you’re doing your scene work. She and Seamus worked really well together; they were able to be really organized and I appreciated that. Especially while we were touring, as I hadn’t experienced that before.

Last year, I had Paul Moniz De Sá as Director and Francis Dowlatabadi as Assistant Director. This was my first time with two new directors I hadn’t worked with before. Paul is very detailed in his work. This difference in structure was really interesting as it expanded my idea of what scene work is and what it is to rehearse. Francis also asked really good questions, giving good, straightforward directions. Francis was there as a helping hand and was so supportive of everyone during the whole process.

This year, I have Seamus again, who I haven’t worked with since Grade 10. It’s been really interesting to see, now I am in Grade 12, how he has come into his role as a director and how I have come into my role as a student.

Which programs do you work on as a Teaching Assistant?

I started in Creative Drama, Acting for Theatre, and other general programs. As an Assistant, a lot of the role is making sure the classroom stays managed. I take a lot of weight off the instructor so they can focus on teaching the lesson. With the older kids, I sometimes perform alongside them to fill in if a student is missing.

This year, I started working in Yearlong programs, assisting in the Level 2 Theatre Intensive and the Level 1 Sketch Comedy and Improv Intensive. It’s been a really interesting experience as this is where my skillset is coming in from what I have learned in my training in theatre. I’m helping to teach things like beats, objectives, and stage picture. Going back to the basics and learning them alongside students has helped me have a much better understanding. Teaching forces you to understand something in a different way because you have to be able to explain it to someone and not just know it within you.

It’s been incredible to work with kids who are super interesting, dedicated, and passionate; they all have so much to offer and are so different from each other. I think that’s really incredible and I can’t wait to see how they grow.

What do you enjoy most about your Teaching Assistant role?

I enjoy being able to connect with the kids. Theatre has been such an instrumental part of my growth as a person, in my confidence and my ability to advocate for myself. It’s so much more than just performing. Being able to now have that kind of effect on other students and the next generation is really special and fulfilling.

When young kids come in that are just petrified as they’ve never been without their parents before, they may be crying or just absolutely frozen; I love being able to help them grow. By the end of the 45-minute class, they are running around and they are trying new things. Just to see the joy on their face; you can tell that they feel satisfied with themselves. They feel the satisfaction that comes with stepping out of your comfort zone. Being able to champion them and cheer them on is so wonderful. Kids internalize everything that you tell them, so when you compliment them, you can see that they soak it up and it makes them so happy. That makes me so happy as well.

Gemma is performing in this year’s Expressions Theatre Festival as Narrator 1 in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Learn more about the show and get your tickets here.