For performers, actors and musicians alike, the work lifestyle depends on getting the next gig. There’s an uncertainty inherent with these career paths that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Launched in the midst of COVID-19, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s (MTC) mentorship program provides training and experience to people in Winnipeg who are new to the craft, while allowing them to remain in their home city.
“During the pandemic, the theatre was closed in many ways, and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to roll out the program. For a lot of Winnipeg artists, they seek opportunities in training, in employment in other parts of the country,” Audrey Dwyer, MTC’s associate artistic director and the mentorship program director, says.
Mentees living in Winnipeg are paired with mentors from a different province. The program spans five months, and mentees benefit from 10 virtual sessions with their respective mentors.
Each session lasts one hour. However, Dwyer describes how mentors often, in their generosity, go beyond the 10 hours.
“The mentorship sort of blossoms into a fuller experience. Some mentors invite mentees to board meetings. Some mentees become assistant directors on projects, go over audition material, share scripts or portfolios. Mentors end up transforming and setting mentees on new courses of work,” Dwyer says.
Katie German was a mentee last year during the program’s initial run. She is Métis and involved in all aspects of theatre as an actor, director, storyteller, educator, theatre practitioner and playwright.
German has worked in various roles at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People in the past 20 years, currently acting as artistic associate.
Mentees are encouraged to pair with performers who inspire them. German was aware of her partner’s career trajectory beforehand.
“My mentor was Yvette Nolan. She does everything in theatre, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve come across Yvette in many different ways. It was someone I really wanted to connect with. She is an Indigenous director, playwright and performer, and she has Winnipeg ties,” German says.
Born in Prince Albert, Sask. to an Algonquin mother and Irish immigrant father, Nolan grew up in Winnipeg, where she attended the University of Manitoba. She launched her career at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival in 1990 with her play Blade. Today, she is based in Saskatchewan.
With Nolan’s support, German felt empowered career-wise. Her mentor was instrumental in helping her discover her own artistic direction. Nolan provided networking opportunities, connecting German with other theatre companies and people.
“She has been integral to my theatre career. She pushed me to think of things in different ways and trust myself, just helped find what my path is. (She was) an ear and someone to talk to and ask questions with no fear. She’s very honest, talking about her own life experiences, which was very helpful,” German says.
Another mentee who participated in mentorship last season is Matthew Paris-Irvine, an actor, director and playwright and a graduate of the University of Winnipeg’s Honours Acting Program.
Paris-Irving manages and collaborates with his own company Out from Under the Rug, an Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) company currently in residence at the Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE).
When Paris-Irving applied for the mentorship program, he was encouraged to request someone he considered an inspiration in Canadian theatre to be his mentor.
“Philip (Akin) had been someone I had looked up to since I decided to do theatre. He was just that person for me. He is responsible for a lot of the development of the Black community theatre in the Toronto area,” Paris-Irvine says.
Philip Akin is a founding member of Obsidian Theatre, a Black theatre company in Toronto. Akin has served as its artistic director since 2006. Even in this role, he is known for providing guidance to emerging artists.
Akin was born in Jamaica and moved to Oshawa, Ont. with his parents in 1953 at the age of five. He is now based in Toronto.
Paris-Irvine is effusive in his gratitude for Akin’s assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He ended up being my mentor through an incredibly tumultuous time in my career. I had done this gigantic gig at MTC. He was a guiding force in a very practical sense. I was new to directing, and he was there to show me the ropes,” Paris-Irvine says.
According to Paris-Irvine, Akin is an enormous asset, possessing skills and experience as a community leader. The pair spent many of their virtual talking hours on how to better serve the local community but also how to better serve the theatre community abroad now and in the future.
“He’s someone who was incredibly forward-thinking, which I very much appreciated,” Paris-Irvine says.
Sometimes mentors and mentees stay in each other’s lives after the mentorship program ends.
“The theatre community is so small, so we’re all interconnected. I hope I will continue to be connected with Yvette forever. She’s amazing and knows what she’s doing,” German says.
Paris-Irvine feels the continued support from a mentor in one’s career is one of the highlights the MTC project provides.
“I still get to talk with him. He sends me photos of his grandkids. It’s not something that’s just there for a couple of months, it’s someone I can connect with for the rest of my days, hopefully,” he says.
Dwyer says “Mentors come in with an open mind and thus also benefit from the mentorship experience. Mentees are often of a different age, so they come in with very unique perspectives and lived experiences.”
The program director says the feedback she receives from mentors centres around learning new skills in social media or looking at different political viewpoints.
“It’s not unusual for a mentor to be surprised by new information. Sometimes mentors have a certain view of the world and a particular way of thinking about art. The mentees, just by nature of who they are, can shed light on a multitude of different subjects” Dwyer says.
Mentorship programs in the theatre industry can be found across Canada, such as The Royal Canadian Theatre Company’s Mentorship Program and the Artist Mentorship Program operated by the Black Theatre Workshop based in Montreal.
The Royal MTC is well-served by Dwyer’s decades of all-encompassing experience as an actor, director, playwright, teacher, artistic director, facilitator and mentor. Originally from Winnipeg, Dwyer is excited to bring the initiative to this city.
In the past, Dwyer has been both a mentee and a mentor. Having seen the benefits reaped from such a project, she was excited to bring that opportunity to the artistic community in Winnipeg.
“It means so much to have someone who has your back in the theatre. It’s pretty profound, the life changes one can make with a mentor. Mentorship is so transformative,” Dwyer says.
Published in Volume 76, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 7, 2022)