BF23: Dr. Ashley Williamson aims to connect with the youth
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
This season, Dr. Ashley Williamson has begun her tenure as Blyth Festival’s Education Director. The brand new department is hoping to deepen relationships with area schools, develop educational programs and contribute to audience outreach throughout the year.
Williamson is a historian specializing in the study of Canadian performance and theatre, an arts educator and the host of the successful educational Dr. Canadiana podcast. She was previously the Education Department Co-ordinator at the Stratford Festival, and has a lot of great ideas for new educational avenues for Blyth’s future. “I mean, I have a billion ideas but let’s just stick with three for the first year, and not get ahead of ourselves,” she clarified.
Coming to Blyth was a natural fit for Williamson. “Blyth is a part of Canadian theatre history, and I am a theatre historian… Blyth is foundational in the world of Canadian theatre history. My expertise is in Canadian theatre history, especially after 1967.” The Blyth Festival, founded in 1975, should be right in Williamson’s wheelhouse.
Since her arrival, one thing she has really been appreciating is the sense of open collaboration with Blyth Festival organizers, and their strong appreciation for her educational background. Since an education department is a new addition to the Festival scene, the rest of the Blyth Festival staff has relied on Williamson’s experience to let them know what they most need - a mentality that fits right in with the way things are done around here. “Collective creation is kind of the way Blyth builds shows. It’s a very Canadian way of making a show.”
One project helmed by Dr. Williamson is the Deeper Roots adult education program. “It’s the sort of thing where there will be a lecture or a talk on the subject of the play. For example, this year we’re doing The Donnellys: A Triolgy in alliance with the Donnelly Museum in Lucan and they’re going to come and do some events for us so that our audience has a better sense of the history of the Donnellys and then we’re doing some events with them to show the theatrical side of things.” A little education about the history of the Donnelly clan makes sense, considering how much misinformation has long swirled around this dark chapter in local history.
Another thing that is paramount to her job here is helping to foster a love of theatre in the area’s youth population, and Williamson is more than up for the job. “One of the things that I’m doing is the Young Company, and the other thing we’re doing is the National Theatre School High School Drama Festival, which was previously known as the Sears Drama Festival. Putting on the National Theatre School High School Drama Festival - that’s going to be a huge part of the year. We’re putting that under the Young Company umbrella because it’s all teens doing theatre.”
The Young Company has been part of Blyth Festival for many years, and is a free program offered to local teens, aged 13-19. The purpose of the program is to allow the youth of Huron and Perth Counties to come for free and compose and perform a show with support from Blyth Festival employees.
At the height of its popularity, the Young Company catered to a crew of at least 20 drama-hungry young thespians, all working together to put on their own show in Memorial Hall after six weeks of training with festival directors and designers.
Recent years have seen a decrease in Young Company numbers, and the pandemic has created a break in the continuity of group participation for young people. “I think it’s really hard after having been disconnected for so long to get people to say ‘OK - let’s put on these outfits and here’s some props and let’s make a seven-minute play. This year we are doing three workshops and a two-week intensive…. Last Saturday, we had our first workshop and we had 10 kids from all around, which was just great! We didn’t have anybody from Blyth, but people came from Clinton and Wingham and Lucknow… we talked about how you build a story, we did drama games - four hours of just trying to get back into it.”
In the world of post-pandemic rural theatre education, Williamson may have her work cut out for her, but she’s also full of enthusiasm for where this year’s group can go, and has many projects in the works to help get Huron and Perth youth into a play-creating mood, including an upcoming movement and dance workshop with Breanna Willis and a theatre design workshop with costume designer Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston.
Williamson is optimistic that these fun, free workshops will create enough interest that young people will come in August to build a show over the course of two weeks eventually to be put on at Memorial Hall for the community.
If the good doctor’s enthusiasm for performance art is even a little bit contagious, the people of Huron County will soon start looking towards the Young Company for the next stars of the Canadian stage.