ARIA Spotlight: Dana Prather

My ARIA research project dealt with documenting and analyzing the history of English-language drama and theatre arts in Québec. In particular, my research examined the impact of women artists and feminist perspectives in Montréal’s anglophone theatre community from the mid-20th to the early 21st century. This project was supervised by Prof. Erin Hurley and is part of her larger book-length study, The Companies We Keep: The History of English-Language Theatre in Québec, 1930 – 2015.

Though I have been involved with theatre both onstage and off for many years, it wasn’t until I began my working as Prof. Hurley’s research assistant in September 2022 that I found myself interested in the academic side of theatre. As an out-of-province student from Calgary, AB, I was unfamiliar with the region’s English-language theatre community and greatly enjoyed learning about its history through my research work. Thus, participating in ARIA presented an exciting opportunity to deepen my existing knowledgebase and continue my research work on a larger scale.

Throughout my ARIA project, I had the chance to try my hand at a variety of research methods, starting with a review of the existing literature on minority language theatre in Canada. This allowed me to contextualize the information I was finding about English-language theatre in Quebec in Canada’s larger theatrical and sociopolitical landscape.

I also spent much of my time conducting original archival research at Imago Theatre, Montréal’s resident feminist theatre company. My tasks included organizing and digitizing Imago’s archives to develop a comprehensive history of the company’s productions. These materials, which had sat virtually untouched for years, included rehearsal photos, publicity materials, VHS tapes of performances, and dozens of scripts from the company’s nearly forty-year history.

While I had some prior experience with navigating online databases, this summer was my introduction to in-person archival work and primary source documentation, so I found the archival process daunting. The work proved challenging at times, especially when dealing with documents and photos that were unlabelled and/or undated. However, I was able to fill in these gaps by matching information from one unlabelled document with labelled materials. For instance, I successfully identified cast members in an unlabelled production photo by comparing them to their headshots in another show’s program. Despite these challenges, I found the archival work to be incredibly rewarding; a highlight of my experience was sorting through unpublished rehearsal photos from a production in the 90s. After my time with Imago, I am happy to report that I now consider archival work to be one of my favourite aspects of the research process!

In addition to my archival work, I was involved with conducting and analyzing oral history interviews with key figures in Québec’s English-language theatre arts scene. I used recordings of these interviews to identify and prepare stories for publication on the Storymapping website, an ongoing aspect of Prof. Hurley’s research in which first-person stories from members of the English-language theatre scene are pinned to a virtual map of Québec. My analysis focused on interviews with several impressive women artists, many of whom were founders of emergent Montréal theatre companies during the mid 20th to early 21st century. This included artists such as Fleurette Fernando of Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), Carolyn Fe of Altera Vitae Productions, and celebrated producer and arts educator Norma Springford of the Mountain Playhouse. Listening to these artists speak about their lived experiences as women with intersectional identities in the theatre industry was an impactful and enriching highlight of my ARIA experience.

Balancing the many facets of my research project proved difficult at times, particularly when it came to deciding what to feature on my research poster. After working on a literature review, conducting archival research, and analyzing many different interviews, I was left with a large variety of research findings to summarize in a single slide. This made creating the final draft of my research poster very challenging. Still, I found that by focusing on the common thread of female founders and feminist perspectives in the history of English-language theatre, I was able to present my findings in a succinct and coherent manner.

My ARIA research project has allowed me to broaden my research skillset and deepen my understanding of Québec’s English-language theatrical history. Moreover, it has been an incredibly rewarding experience that has undoubtedly strengthened my passion for academic research.

I’d like to extend my heartfelt appreciation to Prof. Hurley for all of her guidance this summer and to Mr. Harry Samuel for his generous donation, without which my research project would not have been possible.

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