In Fall 2019, Arts Umbrella reintroduced an old favourite back into the Pre-Professional Theatre stream. In previous iterations, Laboratory (Lab) Troupe has always focused on writing in addition to acting and directing, but when Vancouver-based theatre artist and educator Laura McLean was given the opportunity to reinvigorate the program, she wanted to ensure Lab Troupe was responding to the needs of her students.

Creating a Program
Lab Troupe is a year-long, auditioned Pre-Professional Theatre program for students ages 13-18. The class meets twice weekly from September to June, and this commitment permits students to dig into process and materials in-depth, with time to explore a rich curriculum that includes writing, directing, performing, and production, including costume, set, and sound design.

For Laura, developing that rich curriculum is a top priority, but she has also left time to explore and to respond to what her students want. “There are still many question marks,” she explains. “It’s intentional because a lot of what I want to do is work and create with the students so that it’s what they want to do. Because that’s the whole point—they’re creating it, not me.”

Collaborative Creation
“One of the ways that I like to create in my own practice is through collaborative creation,” says Laura. Outside of teaching at Arts Umbrella, she works as a director and dramaturg, where she does creation-based theatre regularly.

Creation-based or devised theatre may seem intimidating on the surface, but, as Laura describes it to her class, it boils down to working in a group to create theatre. “There are a lot of methods to devised theatre, and what that actually looks like day-to-day in the rehearsal room, changes,” she explains. “But essentially it’s creation.”

To help keep the intimidation factor low and the motivation levels high, Laura uses terms like improv—something most students will get by a grade 8 drama class. “There’s an understanding of what that means,” says Laura. “And Lab Troupe is like re-using those same skills, but instead of in a make-you-laugh way, using those same improv skills to create stories and then share them.”

Emphasis on Process
Like other Pre-Professional Theatre programs, Lab Troupe emphasizes process—for writing, acting, and directing.

Laura started the class by getting her students to consider what makes theatre unique. She asked, “what does theatre have to play with, and how do those things change? We’re creating material, but there are a lot of other things in the curriculum, like exploring what it is to create theatre versus anything else.”

Throughout the year, students explore acting tools and creation techniques. During the first term from September to December, Laura introduced her students to various approaches to writing. They’ve worked on their own and in groups to write monologues, two-person, and group scenes. But Laura has challenged them even more: “from there, students will write scenes that they can teach to someone else.” It’s a different experience to write for a peer, an experience Laura finds crucial to establishing trust for group collaboration.

“Then we have to start rehearsing the material,” says Laura. “We will look in depth at things like actioning and verbs, exploring what a character does and being really clear about building characters and the physicality of the movement work.” Their exploration of acting techniques is similar to what students work on in other Theatre Troupe programs. The difference? They’re applying the techniques to their own work.

The Opportunity to Performance
As the students advance through terms two and three, they will collaborate on even more writing projects, including an exploration into adaptation. From January to May, the class will write a full-length theatre production—starting with establishing their concept and writing the play, but quickly moving into casting, production planning, and rehearsals.

The final production will tour to schools across Metro Vancouver and it is part of Expressions Festival in May, 2020. The opportunity to perform original work for their peers gives students something to celebrate as they approach the end of the year. And there’s a distinct satisfaction to seeing their own writing performed on stage for hundreds of young people.

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Auditions for Laboratory Troupe take place annually. Check our auditions page for the latest schedule and to download your application package.

Read more in our Lab Troupe series:

  • Q&A with Lab Troupe student Duncan Murch
  • In the Studio with Lab Troupe