When it comes to a career in the arts, professional development and mentoring programs can make a world of difference in the life of an emerging artist. This is especially true for artists from marginalized groups who may not see themselves represented across the arts.
The Stratford Festival is North America’s largest classical repertory theatre company. This year, the Festival is taking a cultural shift as it reopens its doors in Stratford, Ontario for its 70th anniversary. From April to October, attendees can watch over a dozen productions including classics, contemporary dramas, musicals, and the plays of Shakespeare.
As a partner of the Stratford Festival for over 30 years, the RBC Emerging Artists Project believes in the power of art to enrich lives and enhance communities.
Esther Jun was a participant in the Langham Directors’ Workshop at the Stratford Festival in 2016. This flagship program is dedicated to the mentoring, coaching and training of directors. In 2021, Esther was appointed as Director of this program.
As a longtime sponsor of the Stratford Festival and the Langham Directors Workshop, the RBC Emerging Artists Project believes in the power of art to enrich lives and enhance communities.
Directing can be a lonely and insular job. So being part of Langham, you have access to directors at all levels of the practice, from all different backgrounds and different parts of Canada.
Esther Jun was a participant in the Langham Directors’ Workshop in 2016 — a flagship program of the Stratford Festival dedicated to the mentoring, coaching and training of directors. In 2021, Esther was appointed as Director of this program.
“I really felt that past Langhamites were the perfect people to be bringing back as directors,” she said. “I think I had a unique set of experiences that made me a good candidate.”
In this podcast, Esther describes the impact that the Langham workshop has had on her career, and how she came full circle to support the next generation of theatre artists.
Listen by using the embedded player above or read the transcript below.
But first, Esther recalls what made her fall in love with theatre.
|ESTHER_1I was babysat by the TV mainly and was obsessed with movies. I grew up wanting to be an actor. I always assumed I would go into film and television. But sometime in junior high, I went to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, where I’m originally from, and saw some kind of theatre presentation by their young company, and I was absolutely blown away. Young people right in front of me, acting on stage. I was completely mesmerized. It was life-altering.
Esther studied drama at the University of British Columbia before moving to New York for acting school. She worked as an actor in Toronto and then eventually moved to London in the UK to study theatre directing.
By the time I returned to Canada from the UK, I had my sights set on Stratford. My training in the UK was classics based, and I wanted to do big shows, so Stratford seemed perfect for me.
It took several tries, but she was finally accepted into the Langham Directors Workshop in 2016. As a participant, she worked as an assistant to Carey Perloff, who at the time was the artistic director of the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
She reminded me about rigour. She was relentless at asking questions about the story and continually excavating the script for every little tiny detail.
Since finishing the mentorship program and gaining years of experience, Esther was appointed in 2021 to lead the Langham Directors Workshop.
I was supposed to be Antoni Cimolino’s assistant on Richard the Third, just before the pandemic. Antoni’s the AD (Artistic Director) of Stratford. We had a conversation in 2019 about diversifying the creative teams at Stratford. I really felt that past Langhamites were the perfect people to be bringing back as directors. And this wasn’t actually happening as much as I felt it could have. So he asked me to be his assistant to get to know him and the festival again. And of course, the pandemic happened, but we stayed in touch during the months afterwards, and then George Floyd happened. Stratford was able to do some serious soul searching during that time, and I was asked to be part of their newly formed anti-racist committee. Antoni was also starting to make plans for 2021. And the committee was pretty vocal that he needed more BIPOC voices while programming. And that was also the same for our training programs. So I think I had a unique set of experiences that made me a good candidate. And I was also at the right place at the right time.
The workshop is named after the English theatre director Michael Langham, who made his name in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Old Vic in the 1950s in the UK before settling in Stratford, Ontario, where he would become one of the Festival’s most influential directors.
Today, the workshop is made up of three key components, the first of which is providing participants with the opportunity to work as an associate director on Festival productions.
This is about watching and participating in a professional setting and not just working with actors but also interacting with the many different departments at Stratford, from wigs to makeup, to education to marketing. Learning how an institution of this size operates is important not only artistically but in a business sense. I’m not only trying to train directors but hopefully future artistic leaders.
The second component of the program is a one week intensive of masterclasses and group sessions.
So the directors can learn not only from the best in the world but also from each other. This is a chance for directors to add to their directorial toolkit.
Finally, participants are asked to create a final presentation where they will choose and direct a project that best represents their aesthetic.
This is a chance for them to get to do what they’re actually here to do, which is direct. It’s a great way to learn about people’s aesthetics and skills, and also experience working at the festival in a very safe and non pressured environment.
Esther says that the most valuable things participants can take away from the Langham Directors’ Workshop are experience and access.
Being an assistant director in a room is a great way to learn the craft. But there are few assisting opportunities that are actually paid. Directors here are also paid when they do their directing project at the end of the season. Being given time and resources and a living wage to learn and experience is such a gift in our industry. The participants can now take their experience into the rest of the community, whether that be the theatre community in general or their own personal communities. This is about making better art by nurturing stronger artists.
And in order to do this, Esther says she focuses on practical skills as well as building confidence.
I want the directors coming out of Langham to understand how to direct on any size of stage and any theatre. I also want Langham directors to know what it’s like to work with proper resources and craftspeople. Very often in indie theatre, especially, you have to wear many hats including producer, marketer and perhaps sewing costumes, or building your own props. Here at the festival, we have highly trained people doing all these jobs. And we all work together to create the show. And it’s such a beautiful hive of activity and collaboration.
Most importantly, I really want to continue the great community and network of fellow directors that Langham has created. Directing can be a lonely and insular job. So being part of Langham, you have access to directors at all levels of the practice, from all different backgrounds and different parts of Canada.
In this role, Esther also makes it a point to partner with diverse artists and nurture their talents to help shape the future of theatre across Canada.
Stratford is really trying to attempt a culture shift. And that is definitely I think, reflected within casting, we’re getting more diverse actors in. This is starting to be reflected in programming shows that are not part of necessarily the Western canon. And we’re working hard to also diversify the creative teams. I know for Langham, it’s really important for to include all types of communities, including anybody from neurodivergent communities, or disabled communities, I’m really wanting to open up the type of directors that we get at Stratford because I think that’s the only way we’re going to open up the entire art form.
It’s giving opportunity, and opening doors, especially to those who thought they would never belong. As an institution the size of Stratford. It’s such a thrill. I feel like I’ve experienced a lot of barriers in my career. And so it’s really exciting for me to be able to open that door and keep it open. And hopefully, they will be able to push it way more open. And keep it that way.
Esther says there is one show in particular that she is most looking forward to.
I’m directing a new version of Little Women, which has been adapted by Jordi Mand; This script is so good. The cast is so good. The creative team is just so good. It has been a joy to work on, and I cannot wait to get audiences in to see it. I think the world needs something like this show right now. It has all the ingredients that made the book stand out for the past 150 years or so. And yet, it also just seems just so of now, like, especially for all the teenagers out there, because that’s what the book is about. It’s about growing up, it’s finding out who you are, and what place you want to occupy in the world. It’s just real life. And I just think that’s actually really important. And also very delightful.
The RBC Emerging Artists Project supports organizations like the Stratford Festival that provide some of the best opportunities to advance an artist’s career.
Every year the RBC Foundation donates millions of dollars to hundreds of arts organizations globally to help emerging artists become established.
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