news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A conversation between Debbie Patterson and Matthew Thomas Walker

Debbie Patterson is an actor/director from Winnipeg. She is a founder and current ensemble member of Shakespeare in the Ruins and a member of the Playwrights Unit at Prairie Theatre Exchange.

Matthew Thomas Walker is an actor/director from Toronto. He is a founder and current member of Litmus Theatre.

Debbie and Matthew open up their email correspondence with one other, discussing their experience at the 2015 Volcano Conservatory.

Conservatory participants, including
Debbie Patterson and Matthew Thomas Walker
Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot

Hi Debbie,

I'm so glad to connect again so soon. Now, in the spirit the conservatory, let's get right into it! I thought I'd start us off by asking how you came to take part:
What lead you to sign up this year? And at that point, how did you define yourself as an artist?


Hey Matthew,

So great to hear from you.

I know a few other people who have taken part in the Conservatory in past years, so I knew it was a great program.

Then late one night, on my news feed, there was a post from the theatre consultant at the Manitoba Arts Council about Deborah Pearson's workshop. I clicked on the link and found information on the other classes. I wanted to take them all!

By noon the next day, I had registered, booked my flight, and was busy writing grants to help pay for it all.

I live in Winnipeg, which has way more going for it than you might think in terms of creating a sustainable life as an artist. But I need to get out every few years to do some professional development. It gives me a chance to bring new ideas, new practices, new approaches back to my peers here. And it allows me to get a little objectivity in terms of assessing my own artistic impulses.

It also gives me a chance to meet exciting artists (like you, Matt) and strengthen that web of connections that is the Canadian theatre community.

To answer your second question, my definition of myself as an artist has been in flux for a while. Right now I like the term "theatre maker". It’s an accurate reflection of my practice, which seems to be all over the map!

For example, right now I’m the lead artist on a dance/theatre/verbatim/installation piece about end of life choices; I'm working with a Congolese woman to create a short play about healthy parenting; I'm preparing to play Richard III next spring; I'm organizing the Winnipeg Wrecking Ball; and I'm writing an adaptation of Robert Munsch stories for Prairie Theatre Exchange. Seriously, all over the map.

I want to know more about what you're working on. What led you to the Volcano Conservatory? Has the stuff we did influenced your work in the weeks since?


Collective Creation: a field guide to devising theatre with Stephen O'Connell
Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot

From playing Juliet in Kim Collier's workshop last month to Richard III in the spring... Not bad Debbie. I think that lands you in a very select group of actors! I really love how 'all over the map' your projects are. 

I had been interested in the conservatory for a while, but due to schedule or money I hadn't been able to take part before. When things lined up this year, I was all over it. I'd just won an award, and wanted to put it towards my professional development, so I went on a bit of a shopping spree at

In recent years, my career has shifted away from gigging as an actor to working as a "theatre maker" (I'm stealing your words), mostly as a director and writer. I have two degrees in theatre, but have never trained formally as a director, so I've been drawing on the collective creation techniques I'd been exposed to as an actor. Taking brief workshops has also been hugely valuable in fuelling the fire and evolving my work.

I got so much out of the conservatory. I was so happy to discover that all our instructors were throwing new ideas at the wall as a way to evolve their own work. I found it inspiring to see such accomplished artists leading us in that state of unknown.

As directors, I think there is a trap we can fall into where, with the more experience we gain, the more we feel we have to be an authority on everything. It was heartening to see these Instructors creating structures for us to play within, and then building imaginatively off the magic that would happen in the room.

With my company, Litmus Theatre, we throw ourselves huge obstructions in the form of unconventional venues and non-theatrical scripts - as a way to spur our creativity. This fall we're in development for our Brave New World project, which is a big story. Many of the exercises we learned at the conservatory will get put to good use! Can't wait.

What were the big take-aways for you? Did our work in the conservatory shift your attitudes about how you define yourself as an artist, or open new doors for what you want to achieve? There's an election coming up? Any plans to run?


Movement for Actors with Peggy Baker
Photo by Elee Stalker

Oh my goodness, this is such a stimulating discussion!

Yes, I also loved the way the instructors were clearly risking and trying new things. I felt like it gave all of us permission to suck and encouragement to be bold.

And that notion of creating from a place of unknowing: I've become completely comfortable with that as a performer and collaborator, but I've always been slightly uncomfortable with it when I'm in charge. In those situations I always put this pressure on myself to have a plan and bring everyone else along with me. So realizing that I could just let go of that was a totally liberating discovery. And just to be clear, I still think having a specific, well-drawn plan is important. You still have to do your homework as a director. But once you are in process it's okay to veer off the plan without having a backup or an exit strategy.

I spent the last two weeks of August in a development workshop of a new script. I wanted to explore the text through movement and imagery so these ideas gave me a new freedom. I was able to take this huge text that I'd spent most of the year working on and just kind of go, "Okay, well this is a suggestion, a point of departure, we might say these words, we might not. Let's just try some shit." It was a little bit terrifying, but we made some amazing discoveries.

There were a couple of moments in the Conservatory I really loved, and I wonder if you loved them too? There was one time in Ross's workshop when someone made a proposal and Ross paused and said "I'm trying to decide if that idea excites me." Or interests me, or something like that. First of all I love that there was no value judgment in what he said. There was no implication that it was a good idea or a bad idea. His criteria for accepting or rejecting the proposal was unabashedly subjective. I also loved that he gave himself the luxury of time, not to leap to either yes or no but to claim some space for waiting, to remain in a state of uncertainty.

Another moment I loved was when Kim Collier talked about how we create the world. She didn't just mean the world on stage, she meant The World. And when she said it, I kind of reflected on the vibe she created in the studio. I felt like everyone in the workshop was being incredibly courageous in taking big risks. I don't know if I've ever been in a room like that. Respectful without being precious. Open without being flaky. Everyone did great work. It brought out the best in all of us.

It's exciting to think what could happen if all of us in that studio took the world that we inhabited in that space and created that world wherever we went. It's easy as artists to just stay in our little artistic circles where people understand us. But civic engagement / being present in society is essential to creating work that is relevant, to creating a world worth inhabiting.

So yes, there is an election coming up and I have no plans to run for public office. But if I did, I have some big, new ideas about the world that I would create with that kind of platform.

What about you? Are you planning to throw your hat into the ring? Or just keep your fingers crossed for a Senate appointment? What Brave New World are you creating?


Collaborative Art Making for Actors with Kim Collier
Photo by Elee Stalker

Yes, I also loved those moments! They are beautiful markers of what kind of week it was. One might expect that the workshops would be treated as isolated little bubbles where we would learn the best practices of our teachers in order to SOMEDAY be able to apply them to our work in the real world. Instead, in every class, we were doing work that was engaged with the real world. Whether we were working with Romeo and Juliet, or Hedda Gabler, or examining the week’s headlines dramaturgically with Deborah Pearson, we were always being encouraged to actively address the HERE and NOW and create art from our reactions. Because of this, I too walked out of the conservatory feeling a higher sense of civic engagement and a responsibility to keep that going.

While I can assure you this didn't translate into a suit and tie or a campaign bus, it instead made me feel incredibly lucky to get to address society in the way that we do; to interact with issues that trouble us through art (images, metaphor, allegory, character)... Using the right brain! It's a great privilege to do the work we do. And a great responsibility to do our part to keep society's right brain healthy!

Debbie, thank you so much. It has been really nice to chat some more about our time together in studio. I hope we keep this discussion going for many years to come.

All the very best,


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