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Theatre with a social conscience

Non-profit Sarasvati Productions educates on critical issues, gives a voice to those who may not otherwise have one

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p><p>Judy Wasylycia-Leis, president of Sarasvati's board of directors (seated), with actress Kelsey Funk (standing from left), artistic director Hope McIntyre and volunteer Pamm Hadder.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Judy Wasylycia-Leis, president of Sarasvati's board of directors (seated), with actress Kelsey Funk (standing from left), artistic director Hope McIntyre and volunteer Pamm Hadder.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/8/2016 (357 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

All the world may be a stage but not every stage promotes social change while entertaining.

Sarasvati Productions does. It was founded in Toronto in 1998, but moved to Winnipeg in 2000, and received full charitable status in 2003.

From the annual FemFest, to a series of monologues during International Women’s Week, and to a full production, Sarasvati works to fulfil its vision statement to transform society through theatre.

"Our mandate is to use theatre for social change," artistic director Hope McIntyre said.

"The goal is to increase understanding — and to support emerging artists and to also make who is on the stage diverse as well."

McIntyre, who is originally from Saskatchewan, received her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Saskatchewan before completing her master of fine arts degree at the University of Victoria.

She then went to England to do a multimedia apprenticeship in acting at ARTTS International before working in Toronto at Rare Gem Productions, an international commercial theatre producer.

McIntyre founded Sarasvati, named after the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and learning, in Toronto, before moving it to this Prairie city.

"I founded it with some other artists and like-minded people," she said.

"When I decided to move to Winnipeg the other artists said we think you should take the mandate with you. They said Winnipeg would be good for a company with social change."

Sarasvati’s 2016-17 season kicks off Sept. 17 with its annual FemFest.

Since 2003, Sarasvati’s FemFest has been the country’s primary festival for female playwrights. This year’s festival features the world première of The Seduction Theory by Sherry MacDonald, as well as touring productions from Vancouver and Toronto.

Then, through October to December, the theatre will perform Shattered, a youth-based play exploring mental health in a high school setting, at schools and youth groups in Winnipeg and nearby communities.

It then will hold its International Women’s Week Cabaret of Monologues from March 5 to 11. A national call was sent out for monologues and they will be performed at different venues before a full theatre performance is held on March 11 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The final production, from May 23 to 28, is the world première of Breaking Through, the culmination of two years of gathering stories and writing the play that explores mental health issues.

Former MP and MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis said she has been a loyal patron of Sarasvati theatre productions and she was pleased to become president of its board of directors.

"Sarasvati was the perfect stop after 30 plus years in politics," Wasylycia-Leis said.

"It is so important because through the power of the arts we will affect real and meaningful change. It is a vital organization in empowering others."

Wasylycia-Leis said because of its mandate, Sarasvati Productions tackles issues other theatre companies might not.

"It educates people about the critical social issues of the day," she said.

"We absolutely have to have arts companies that challenge us and make us think. Sarasvati is a critical part of the artistic community in Winnipeg."

Kelsey Funk, a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg’s theatre and film program, said she appreciates that Sarasvati is giving her some of her first steps in professional theatre.

Not only has Funk been helping the research that has culminated in the writing of the play, she has played one of the roles in Breaking Through, as it goes through the stages of being a fully mounted play next year, and she will perform in Shattered as it tours through school and community groups in the fall.

"They give lots of opportunities to young artists," she said. "They are a fabulous company that creates opportunities.

"If not for Sarasvati, I’d be auditioning where things come up in the film industry... and this is a paid gig."

Funk, who has experienced an eating disorder herself in the past, said she’s glad that a theatre company like Sarasvati tackles tough topics such as mental illness in their productions.

"I appreciate how they like to shed light on issues that can be taboo and make awareness of issues," she said.

Sarasvati is run as economically as possible. It doesn’t own its own theatre space. It rents out staging space when it is ready to mount a production. Its offices are in one half of a duplex, while McIntyre lives in the other half. It currently has four staff, but two of them are summer students and will be leaving soon.

McIntyre said ticket sales represent only about 10 per cent of Sarasvati’s budget with the rest coming from funding from government, foundations, private companies and individuals.

"We want to keep the ticket prices reasonable," she said.

"If we charge what MTC does, many people we want to be there won’t be. But it means we have to find the dollars elsewhere."

McIntyre said Sarasvati’s endowment fund, held by the Winnipeg Foundation, is sitting at about $93,000 and they are hoping to make a push during FemFest to convince people to help the fund hit $100,000.

Pam Hadder has gone from being part of the Sarasvati audience to being both a donor and a volunteer who now serves on its marketing advisory committee.

"I wanted to support them because they are quite unique," Hadder said.

"Women are really under-represented in the theatre world. They give female writers and performers a voice."

Hadder said when she first went to FemFest she had no idea until she was there it was a production of Sarasvati.

"There really is nobody else in Canada that is doing what Sarasvati does," she said.

"It’s this little jewel in the city."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Kevin Rollason.

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