Students, alumni and staff are mourning the loss of 35 years of theatre instruction — as well as plays and musicals — at Red Deer College.
They are also wondering about the fate of the empty RDC Arts Centre, now that no more performance courses will be running.
For more than three decades, live entertainment was a staple on the Arts Centre stage, as the RDC theatre program primed many theatre and film alumni for rewarding careers.
Among them are Shaun Johnston (of CBC’s Heartland), Karen Johnson-Diamond (founder of Calgary’s Dirty Laundry improv) and Jen Rider-Shaw, who’s been playing lead roles at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.
Many other RDC theatre alumni have stayed on to enrich Red Deer’s arts and culture scene, including Ignition Theatre’s Matt Grue, Bull Skit’s Jenna Goldade, Improv Jelly’s Nicole Leal and Stuart Old of Central Alberta Theatre.
But the performance portion of the new film, theatre and live entertainment bachelor of applied arts program was “suspended” this week — along with the new live entertainment production stream — due to low enrolment.
This follows the closure of RDC’s music program in 2018.
Although students can continue to learn film production at the college, six faculty members on the theatre side were given permanent layoffs, indicating there are no imminent plans to bring their stream back.
“It can’t be understated how devastating this is,” Grue posted to Facebook. “Our already fractured … theatre community still functioned largely with RDC at its core… Its graduates have walked the boards across the world.”
Acting students who just completed their first year of the program say they feel betrayed. Some were given assurances by instructors as recently as January that their brand-new program would be safe from cancellation.
So far, more than 733 signatures have been collected on a student petition to have the acting program reinstated.
“RDC was the only school in Alberta that offered half film and half theatre. It was such a perfect program,” said acting student Rena Fakhreddine.
She can’t find another college to accept her first-year credits because the RDC program was so unique.
While acting students have the option of transferring into the film production stream, few are interested.
“It’s hard to commit to something you are not 100 per cent passionate about,” said Fakhreddine, who had heard about RDC’s high reputation for film and theatre instruction in her hometown of Edson.
She’s considering the University of Lethbridge, but its fall acting program is full.
“It’s sad. A lot of us are very upset…”
The students don’t understand the low enrolment explanation. The admission-by-audition acting program was designed for 25 students, but only 11 were accepted last year, while others were turned away.
Thomas Usher, a performance instructor who’s losing his job, said students have to be set up for success, so only those who were “ready” for the program were accepted.
While he feels grateful for his 17 years at RDC, and bittersweet about it coming to an end, Usher believes the momentum around performance studies had slowed, because no theatre or film was happening at RDC for two years before the new combined university program was launched.
There was a wait for the review board’s approval: “The timelines didn’t line up.”
Usher can understand difficult decisions had to be made, given low enrolment in an expensive program, and the provincial budget cuts to colleges and universities.
But he questions how “robustly” the new combined degree program was marketed to perspective students.
COVID-19 only made the situation worse, he admitted, since acting can’t really be taught virtually — and “when are audiences going to come back?”
The instructor has been getting calls of commiseration from across the country this week, as so many theatre instructors and actors have ties with RDC’s theatre department.
Christy Marchuk, a film production student at the college, expressed “shock” that she will no longer get to collaborate with acting students on movie projects.
She questioned whether the Arts Centre, which has one of the largest, state-of-the-art stages in Canada, will now become a white elephant, used only by those who can afford to rent it.
The red brick building from 1986 was designed by the late Arthur Erickson as the base for RDC’s theatre and music programs. Various community groups have already stated it’s too expensive for them to use.
Marchuk can’t understand RDC pulling the pin on the performance stream so soon.
She noted college faculty spent years combining the former film and theatre diploma courses into a new degree program that was supposed to signal an exciting start to RDC’s university transition.
She wonders what will happen to the treasure trove of costumes, props and sets, a “legacy” of three-plus decades of local entertainment.