With 20 years at the Ottawa School of Theatre under her belt, outgoing artistic director Kathi Langston touts the benefits of a theatre education
Between masks, physical distancing and virtual school, the past two years have been difficult for students — especially budding theatre artists, for whom the pandemic has had a deep impact.
“These years have been anything but regular,” says Kathi Langston, the artistic director of the Ottawa School of Theatre – L’École de théâtre d’Ottawa (OST-ETO). On March 13, 2020, performance venues all around the world went dark. Like many other organizations, OST-ETO adapted from live classes to virtual, “in order to keep theatre alive in our community,” says Langston. “Enrolment decreased by about 40 percent.”
With restrictions lifted, the non-profit registered charitable organization is slowly returning to in-person classes and live on-stage performances — a positive thing for young thespians. “Theatre study promotes creativity, curiosity and focus, skills that can equally be applied in other facets of daily life,” says Langston.
For the last 20 years, the actor, director, drama teacher, coach and University of Ottawa theatre alumna who has been involved in numerous productions across Canada has been key in training the next generation of theatre artists. That time is drawing to a close, as Langston retires from her role at the end of June.
The outgoing artistic director was instrumental in transforming a recreational school with about a dozen classes into a vibrant, hands-on performing arts school with hundreds of students of all ages. The longest-running theatre school in Ottawa, with its roots in the Orleans Young Players (founded in 1989), OST-ETO is supported by the City of Ottawa and the Ontario Trillium Foundation among other organizations, growing its team from two volunteer teachers to employing 20 theatre professionals.
2009 saw OST-ETO become a resident arts partner in the Shenkman Arts Centre, allowing the school to expand its programming, including the creation of French classes — “an important addition to OST-ETO,” says Langston.
Today, the organization and its students from ages four to 70 produce more than 50 performances each year. There are summer camps and for students interested in more intensive studies, speech arts and drama exams in partnership with the Royal Conservatory. Future plans include the expansion of intensive, audition-entry, non-performance classes for serious students who want to pursue post-secondary theatre education or a career in the arts.
In Ottawa, there are plenty of opportunities for nurturing an interest in theatre. Langston suggests exposing children to live stage performances, such as the Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre; the International Children’s Festival; Canterbury High School, Catapult, Theatre d’Ville, Ecole secondaire publique La Salle, NAC French Theatre and OST-ETO of course; taking classes and auditioning, but the most important thing is to have fun. “Don’t put them in a class above their interest level,” says Langston. “Let them build to more intensive classes.”
Whether or not theatre school results in a career, theatre is always a worthwhile investment, says Langston, a winner of the Ottawa Fringe’s Performer’s Spirit Award in 2012; the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and best professional female performance at The Atlantic Fringe Festival in 2014. “Life skills picked up in theatre classes build strong, caring humans.”
Langston emphasizes that “OST is a theatre school, not a theatre company.” The goal is to have each student exceed their highest personal standard of excellence, says Langston, by having the chance to perform on stage in a professional environment; and a hands-on experience in the behind-the-scenes aspects of theatre. It strives to instill in students an appreciation and love of theatre.
The play is the “nucleus through which the other aspects are explored, experienced and integrated,” says Langston. “Through this simple concept, education can flow. Producing a play is challenging to the students and exciting for the instructors, which creates an environment where students want to learn.” Theatre fosters cooperation, problem solving, teamwork and creative thinking, while building empathy, confidence and self-awareness. Says Langston, “theatre is a life skills super vitamin.”
Although the curtain is coming down on her time as artistic director, the Canadian Equity Rep (a performance union) and grandmother of three hopes “to get back on stage myself in the future,” adding that she will be following future OST productions from her seat in the audience. Incoming artistic director Megan Piercey Monafu — a playwright, director, producer and facilitator whose recent artistic work has included residencies at ArtEngine, the Great Canadian Theatre Company, and the Ottawa Fringe — believes in “radical hospitality as a personal, political, and artistic virtue,” says Langston. She quotes Piercey Monafu: “There is a reason a theatre is also called a house; it can be a place where community comes together.”