In this new blog series, Inside our Community Programs, we interview Arts Umbrella instructors who work in our Donor-Funded Community Programs. For many children, Arts Umbrella is their first experience with the world of art. Our Donor-Funded Community Programs harness Arts Umbrella magic and expertise, bringing free-of-charge, high-quality arts classes to Metro Vancouver’s underserved youth. To learn more about Arts Umbrella’s Community Programs, click here. Enjoy the second blog in this series as we interview Theatre Director/Instructor, Seamus Fera.
At Arts Umbrella Granville Island, Seamus (he/him) is the Director/Instructor of the Junior Theatre Troupe, Pre-Professional Training Program, and Creative Drama sessional classes. Within Arts Umbrella’s Community Programs, Seamus currently teaches the Open Stage and Head Start programs.
Seamus has worked at Arts Umbrella for around 12 years. He started his journey with the organization as a student when he was just 8 years old. Seamus experienced Arts Umbrella classes and programs in the old building on Granville Island where in his first Musical Theatre class, he was taught by Andy Toth, who is now Arts Umbrella’s Interim Artistic Director of the Robert M. Ledingham School of Theatre, Music & Film.
Seamus took a variety of classes at Arts Umbrella, and when he turned 14 years old, he joined the Junior Theatre Troupe program under Susanne Moniz De Sá, who is now the Director of Community Programs. Seamus said, “Susanne became my surrogate mama and I have stayed with her for the last 14 years!” After the Junior Theatre Troup program, Seamus joined the Senior Theatre Troupe and also completed the Young Directors program. In grade 11, he started assisting as an on-call substitute instructor and in grade 12, he started to assist in classes. Seamus’ first experience within Community Programs was at their end-of-year shows for the theatre programs where he took on the role of Stage Manager helping to set up the stage and equipment.
Seamus went on to graduate with a BFA in acting from UBC in 2017 whilst remaining on the Arts Umbrella team where he has worked on a variety of theatre programs across the organization. He enjoys working with students ages 7-12 at Queen Alexandra Elementary in the Open Stage program and has done for the past 5 years.
What do classes generally look like in the Open Stage program?
“Classes usually start at 3 PM. The program has a built-in snack break as some students have only had one meal during the day. We have this 20-minute snack break while doing a check-in. And then for the first half of the year, within the classes, we’re doing skill-building games and ensemble building. In January, we start working towards a year-end presentation for the school. What’s fortunate about Queen Alexandra is we have huge support from the school and so we tend to have other teachers helping with multi-media tasks for the Open-stage final show.”
What are the benefits of Arts Umbrella’s Community Programs?
“The programs are an opportunity to explore creative outlets in a very safe and not graded capacity. You can come and explore; we have a year-end performance but there is no pressure or punishment if you don’t want to join in. And it’s fun! We laugh a lot. Students walk away with interpersonal skills such as how to communicate with others and how to advocate for themselves. They also gain basic theatre skills like how to feel confident on stage, projecting, learning lines, and embodying characters. For me, Community Programming is how can we take art and apply it to make students better and happier people. Our students have so many things going on in their lives, this is an hour and a half out of the week where they can just be a kid.”
What are some of the challenges you face in these classes and programs?
“I think one of the biggest challenges is because we’re often going to underserved communities or into communities that have very complex struggles, we are always trying to navigate where the students are at mentally, socially, and emotionally. For example, Queen Alexandra is a big school in East Vancouver and there is a large demographic of people who live below the poverty line with different family blends. Sometimes a student isn’t talking, some students have been in a fight, or a student hasn’t been at school for a week and is trying to reintegrate. We come once a week for an hour and a half and are like ‘Let’s play some games’ but you never know what you’re going to get. For me, it’s most important to remember that we’re not going in to train the students to be the next best artist, we’re using art as a building block to build skills and interpersonal relationships. So allowing there to be time in class to just check in, to just be there, and to breathe (physical and metaphorical) is really important.”
What about successes? What have been some standout moments of achievement for you and your team?
“COVID-19 was very weird because pre-COVID there was a lot of anger in students and that seemed to be a recurring theme. But then when COVID happened, we went from teaching 12 to 16 students to 5 or 6. Over the last few years, we have seen a really lovely small cohort of students that are very supportive and engaged in the work so that has been a huge success. They now are trusting us more too. For a while, there was this inability for the students to trust us entering their space, but over the years we have really fostered that. I think what caused that change was COVID as it made everyone re-shift their perspective on things. For the last couple of years, we haven’t had the pressure of doing a big year-end show, we have been really able to take the time to hang out, chat, get to know the students, figure out what makes them tick, and really build the basic skills.”
What are your future aspirations for the students in the Community Programs?
“I always hope that the kids will move onto the next stage of their education feeling more confident than when they left and I feel like we achieve that. There is a lot of power in art. I want Arts Umbrella to continue to grow and to be able to offer even more community programs to even more community members.”
What do you do outside of Arts Umbrella?
“I teach elsewhere and work as a freelance director and writer. I will be directing a show in the fall with a local company. I also work as a Literary Manager and so I read a lot of plays. Another exciting thing is that I serve on the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award Board!”
Learn more about Seamus here. If you would like to support the development of Arts Umbrella’s Donor-Funded Community Programs, you can make a donation here. For questions about these programs or to inquire about community partnerships, please contact Kelsey Lee, Coordinator of Community Programming, at email@example.com.