MFA director emerging as community connector
The greatest lesson Amanda Bergen (‘06 BA) learned in the theatre as a UAlberta undergrad was that you can’t really do anything by yourself. Organization, communication, team work — these are the skills Bergen honed the most, to the point that upon graduation, whenever someone confronted her with the question, “what are going to do with your Arts degree,” she could confidently respond with ‘anything.’”
Like many BA Drama majors, Bergen says her initial goal was to act but when she was first introduced to directing in a third year course taught by Jane Heather, it was like an epiphany.
“Directing was what I was supposed to do,” she said.
It took all the skills Bergen was developing through her liberal arts education. Seeing the big picture, she applied them to working with the text, dissecting the scenes and collaborating with the performers and production team.
Bergen’s first gig upon graduation was with the City of Edmonton at Fort Edmonton Park. Passionate about working with youth, she quickly worked her way up to coordinator for the park’s educational programming, liaising closely with teachers to integrate their curriculum into any new programs.
“My BA prepared me because I understood there were experts in every field and that my role, like a director, was to draw on their diverse perspectives as resources and skills to make our programs successful,” said Bergen.
When the opportunity to create theatre at Fort Edmonton Park’s Hotel Selkirk opened up, she pounced.
“They were doing a dinner and theatre thing, and my friend Nick Green (‘06 BFA) was working there, writing the plays, and he asked me if I wanted to direct his first musical, which we did in the upstairs of one of the barns at Fort Edmonton,” Bergen laughed.
My Blue Heaven by Nick Green (’06 BFA) at the Capitol Theatre. Design by Lynn Goodacre (’10 BFA Theatre Design). Photo by dbphotographics.
She had never directed a musical before, but didn’t bat an eye at taking on the challenging scenarios and logistics.
“People with an Arts degree have that in common — we just go and get things done — we take the initiative and gather the group to do it,” she said.
She directed several new plays at Fort Edmonton between 2008 to 2011. Once the Capitol Theatre was built in 2011, Bergen was appointed as artistic director.
“It was more like I inserted myself in as artistic director,” she laughed. “Some of it was serendipitous and some of it was putting myself in the path of opportunity. When people asked me to do things, I just said ‘Yes. Let’s do this’,” she said.
Bergen describes her two years as artistic director at the Capitol Theatre as an incredibly rewarding experience.
Bergen worked with UAlberta grads such as Laura Nichol (’09 BA) and Erin Gruber (’11 BFA Theatre Design) at Capitol Theatre.
“The theatre I was doing at the park was funny, not a lot of drama. We had to keep it pretty G-rated,” she said. “The audiences were coming to Fort Edmonton Park and so they were not expecting to see something like you might see at Northern Light Theatre.”
Tribes rehearsals in the Timms Centre, April 2015. Photo by TJ Jans.
Bergen was eager to dig in a bit deeper, and cut her directing chops on some edgier material. She hoped to learn more about how to break down a text, how to find the layers of meaning and bring that out to the actors. Bergen says coming back to the University of Alberta to pursue her MFA in directing was like coming home.
“To do my MFA in a place where I felt comfortable, so at home, with the support of people who have known me since my time as an undergrad and mentored me, and be challenged and stimulated by new people like David Kennedy, that was so valuable. It just felt right,” she said. “Because I want to stay in Edmonton, it made all the sense in the world to do my master’s program here and have people right in the community come and see my work.”
Bergen is emerging from the MFA directing program as a visionary, particularly gifted at persuading talented people to get on board to create with her. At the helm of Tribes as her thesis project, a complex and compelling play recommended to her by Sandy Nicholls that explores the story of a young Deaf man raised in a hearing family, Bergen actively involved the Deaf community as her co-creators. She brought in the expertise of the professionals at NICA Consolidated interpreters and gently nudged local Deaf actor Connor Yuzwenko-Martin, who was, at first, reluctant to step into the role of Billy.
“The creative community in Edmonton is so interesting. We are doing so many interesting things, I feel like I can learn so much from everyone — from the independent theatres to the more established theatres — there is such a variety of creators,” said Bergen. We support each other’s projects. And I can make opportunities for myself and find other people that want to be apart of that.”
What’s next after her thesis? Bergen says she’s looking ahead to the upcoming festival season in festival city with anticipation, pointing to Edmonton’s International Fringe Theatre Festival as a galvanizing, key pillar of Edmonton’s vibrant theatre scene to build on.
“I just really want to see Edmonton embrace theatre all the rest of the year,” she said. “I want to see the Fringe oozing out, with audiences realizing ‘oh! there is theatre here all year round!’ I would really like to be a part of moving audiences in.”
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