MRU to stage Bram Stoker's Dracula as its last production

thumb Dracula revised2The last breath of life from Mount Royal University's theatre program comes in the form of Bram Stoker's Dracula. The play runs March 27 to April 5, and is the final production from a program that's been at the school for a quarter century.

The theatre department was cut last year along with several other programs, including music. According to documents from the May 8, 2013 General Faculties Council special meeting, the university suffered a $14 million hit at the hands of the province's 2013-2014 budget.

No new theatre students were admitted this academic year, and the second-year students are ending their year with Dracula. A story about the tragic struggle of the walking undead fell into place easily, says theatre chair Doug Rathbun. He says it provides those involved with Mount Royal's theatre program the opportunity to address the situation — the cutting of the program — with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek.

"There's a lot of people draining the blood of our program," Rathbun says. "We're the walking undead here. The vampires have descended upon us, and Dracula is going to be a cathartic moment for us to express our frustration."

Much like the victims in Bram Stoker's 1897 masterpiece, Rathbun says the university targeted the program because theatre was not a degree program, something he says the department had been working at for a decade.

"The day the vice president came and told us we were toast, we were basically told, 'you have no degree,'" Rathbun says. "We said, 'well, we had degrees at the ministry, and you guys put a hold on them and wouldn't pass them on.' And he said they were told by the ministry that any degree in fine arts would have a snowball's chance in hell of being passed by this government."

He describes the decision to suspend certain programs as "cutting healthy limbs," with Rathbun and other department heads being told the programs would only be suspended until funding became available.

"After all of that, in the spring and through the summer, they very quietly went about the process of deleting the programs at the ministry level, which means they will never ever be able to run theatre or music programs at Mount Royal again. They didn't tell anybody that," Rathbun says.

However, Mount Royal University president David Docherty says the university's theatre program was not completely removed by the (advanced education) ministry, and that the program's intake remains "suspended," as it has been since the decision was first made.David DochertyMount Royal University president David Docherty says that the decision to cut the university’s theatre program, a program staging Bram Stoker’s Dracula on March 27-April 5, was not an easy one.

Photo courtesy of Mount Royal University

"We still have students going through the program," Docherty says. "So we still have to make sure students can get through the program, and that was our commitment when we had to make those difficult decisions."

When it comes to whether or not the programs could return to MRU, Docherty says that while he feels there is still a role for a theatre at the university, it would be difficult to bring back the program exactly as it was.

"In my view, a program mix should include some arts," Docherty says. "But what that looks like, I think the strategic plan, the deans, the provost and the faculty should have a say. And so, might it look like the existing program? I couldn't tell you, but I think we have to look at the proper funding for it and ask, 'what's the proper program mix at Mount Royal?'"

This is different from a commitment made last spring as transcribed from page five of the aforementioned council special meeting notes.

"These are suspensions, and because they are made reluctantly, there is hope that the situation may change in the future," Docherty is quoted as saying. "We are not moving to deletion. Often suspended programs are not resurrected, but there is a hope that these may be."

In November 2013, MRU was given back $2.15 million from the province. In an email communication, Gerry Cross, president of the Mount Royal Faculty Association, says a portion of that money has been allocated to relieving enrollment pressures in general education.

Docherty says that while not all of the money has gone to general education, the reason behind the portion that did was to alleviate certain stresses some students deal with while pursuing their degree. For each new degree program brought to MRU, an increase in space is required in general education, something Docherty admits the university hasn't always stayed on top of.

However, at a town hall budget meeting on Feb. 11, he said no new general education sections have been added as of yet because the money came too late to make changes for the winter 2014 semester.

"That's created some bottlenecks for students who can't get into their general education requirements to graduate," Docherty says. "It's important that students don't have to come back for an extra term to finish general education courses that they could have taken while doing the rest of their degree."

Given how long theatre chair Rathbun and other fine arts faculties fought to bring degrees to MRU, Rathbun says the message to aspiring artists is clear in the cutting of programs like music and theatre.

"This government does not support the arts," Rathbun says. "The government is more interested in creating what they call industries that support the economy. So what's going to happen if Calgary's talent pool is drying up? When we don't have those graduates anymore, who's going to create the new work?"

Come April, Jessica Lee and Alex Cherovsky will be two of the last graduates to ever come from the theatre program. Both will star in Dracula, with Lee playing one of Dracula's vixens and Cherovsky playing Dracula himself.

Jessica AlexJessica Lee and Alex Cherovsky are set to star in Mount Royal University’s stage adaptation of Brad Stoker’s Dracula. Second-year theatre students, the actress and actor are part of the last graduating class of MRU’s theatre program due to the program being cut last spring.

Photo by Justin Wilson
"Dracula is an opportunity to do something huge," Lee says. "I want not just Mount Royal to see, but I want Calgary and the surrounding area to see that this is what you're missing if you cut out the arts. Look what we can give. It's a great way to go out."

MRU theatre's plot synopsis of Dracula describes the play as a new adaptation restoring the suspense and seduction of Bram Stoker's classic novel. As Count Dracula begins to exert his will upon the residents of London, they try to piece together the clues of his appearances in a valiant attempt to save themselves from a hideous fate.

With the program suffering its own hideous fate, Cherovsky says no one has allowed the work to falter. He says the play gives MRU's theatre program the chance to provide aspiring artists with a sense of hope, regardless of the effects of the budget

"We talk about how Calgary is this central hub of Alberta, and to think that this big university in the city has just cut their arts programs entirely, that sends the wrong message," Cherovsky says. "But I think we as performers, with our last opportunity, should give them a spark or a moment of inspiration so they can fight for their dream and their work as an artist."

Rathbun says he has yet to find another university in the country that doesn't have a fine arts program. When Mount Royal opens the long awaited Mount Royal Conservatory — a project that as of October 2013 had an estimated total cost of $67.3 million, according to the City of Calgary's project details — the university will have five theatre venues, but no theatre program.

The 10-day run of Bram Stoker's Dracula kicks off March 27, and will show in Mount Royal's Wright Theatre. Adult ($20), and student and senior ($15) tickets can be purchased at the door or by reservation by calling 403-440-8889. Tickets are half price April 1-3.

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To learn more about programs affected by the budget cuts, take a look at this Calgary Journal story


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