Getting set for the next stage: How the pandemic helped this theatre grad rediscover the power of story

By Coriana Constanda, Marketing and Communications

The grief of the pandemic has been deeply felt in the performing arts community over the last several months, with live shows canceled and performers not able to gather in person. For Theatre Program grad Julia Siedlanowska, one positive aspect of this time in isolation has been the opportunity to think about what the art form means to her.

“For people who express creatively, they’ve had to do that in different ways. But this time for taking pause and reflecting has shown me anew the power of storytelling and being able to come together communally,” says Julia.

Last November, she and her community put on a live production (with everyone masked and physically distanced) which was greatly appreciated by participants and audience alike. Julia is proud of how her theatre community has supported and sustained each other, and adapted to meet challenges. For example, they hold weekly video group chats to share their struggles and laugh together.

Answering the (curtain) call

Julia’s love for theatre started when she was young. She was a naturally playful child who liked to make people laugh. Her father wrote poetry and plays and took part in the local Polish theatre community, which is what first drew Julia to acting and performing. In high school, a father-daughter pair of drama teachers inspired her to grapple with fun and challenging ideas and take the performing arts seriously.

“What I love about acting is it’s a holistic way of learning,” says Julia. “I get to use my body, my intellect, and engage my emotions. I get to interact with other people. It’s just a full body learning experience.”

What Julia enjoys most about her career is visiting new places, seeing the faces of audience members during and after a show, celebrating with her community, working with and performing for youth, and especially the relationships she creates with fellow artists. She recalls going on tour with a show called Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way, a story of one man’s journey to reconciling with himself.

“We were traveling with Indigenous Elders, who represented our tour. Indigenous protocol was woven into every process, not just within the content of the show, but also how we traveled across country. It was a good example of how theatre can be a transformative experience,” says Julia.

Healing community through theatre

Julia’s work is more focused on community than ever. She loves working with people who don’t always have formal theatre training and one of her goals is to remove barriers between a typical theatre-going audience and community members who may not have access to theatre. She is often drawn to projects sparked by current events. After graduating from Douglas, she directed a project called Wyspa for The Only Animal’s five-month mentorship program, Generation Hot: Waterborne, which premiered at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.

Julia Siedlanowska (Bill Hawley Photography, 2019)

Wyspa was inspired by the rise in domestic violence from the economic downturn in Alberta as a result of the oil and gas industry going down at the time. We were exploring that with the youth and what the greater implications might be in society.”

Of all her achievements, Julia is most proud of her ability to persevere and evolve, which she partly credits to her training and the healing power of story. Although she wants to continue directing and acting on stage, in the future she hopes to apply her performance and voice coaching skills in a therapeutic setting. She’s begun her master’s degree in counselling psychology and hopes to collaborate with therapists and counsellors to develop programs for play and art therapy.

“I think theatre is a great place to explore big human things through story,” says Julia. “Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways we can really look at ourselves as human beings and question the status quo. So much of my acting training overlaps with many of the principles used in therapy, and I think theatre can be very therapeutic for people. It’s exciting to formalize that and bring my skills into a more therapeutic-based approach.”

Breaking a leg at Douglas

Shortly after graduating from the Theatre Program at Douglas, one of the plays Julia wrote premiered at a festival at The Cultch. Feeling well equipped with the foundational training she’d received at Douglas, she went on to get her Bachelor of Arts in Acting from the University of Wales in the UK. Since then, Julia has worked with diverse theatre and production companies in the Lower Mainland and Toronto, including Pacific Theatre, Arts Club Theatre, Firehall Arts Centre, Full Circle First Nations Performance, Classic Chic Productions and more. She was also part of the Wet Ink Collective and was a young ambassador for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

A major accomplishment for Julia was recently receiving grant funding from Canada Council for the Arts and B.C. Community Resilience Through Arts and Culture for a project she’s working on called Unsettled, which explores and enacts disability justice. She was also the recipient of an Early Career Development grant from BC Arts Council. The funding makes projects possible and has supported Julia’s work in many ways, including allowing her to attend mentorship programs and knowledge exchanges with directors from across Turtle Island (Canada and the US).

In addition to her graduate studies, these days Julia is working on a new production for young audiences, supported by Toronto Young People’s Theatre’s Leaps and Bounds program. She is also the Managing Director and Associate Artistic Director at Theatre Terrific.

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