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Theatre studies student wins University-wide thesis prize

Theatre studies student wins University-wide thesis prize

Claire Wynveen (MFA ’09) is the first student on record in the Department of Theatre to be awarded a thesis prize by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

Her thesis encompassed her performance in the Theatre @ York production of Peter Barnes’ macabre satire The Bewitched (see YFile, April 7, 2009) as well as a written paper titled “Smashing the Psychophysical Dam: Exploring Fear and Release in The Bewitched” and an oral defence. It was on the strength of this three-pronged research project that she was recommended and ultimately selected for the highly competitive prize.

Right: Claire Wynveen

The examining committee that nominated Wynveen for the honour unanimously found her thesis exceptional.

“Claire’s performance, paper and oral were so outstanding that it seemed to all of us it would be criminal not to recommend it for nomination for the prize,” said Professor Erika Batdorf. “I can honestly say that I have never seen such a comprehensive and complete performance and paper. The mastery is in the way each of the elements supports the others so fully.”

Under the direction of Nigel Shawn Williams, Wynveen performed the role of the fanatical and ruthless Queen Mariana of Austria in The Bewitched. In Barnes’ nightmarish recreation of late-17th-century Spain, Mariana is the ruling force behind her grotesquely inbred, imbecilic and impotent son, King Carlos II. The power struggle between her and her son’s wife is one of the most dramatic plot lines in the complex play.

“One remarkable aspect of Claire’s thesis research is the extent to which she was able to translate historical details into her process of constructing the character – translating from intellectual insight to embodiment with admirable facility and sensitivity,” said Professor Lisa Wolford Wylam, director of York’s Graduate Program in Theatre Studies and a member of Wynveen’s examining committtee.

“Her accomplishment goes beyond completing the relatively straightforward task of background research, in that she demonstrated a sophisticated ability to select among myriad details those that could best facilitate characterization, as well as to lucidly articulate the process by which her historical analysis nourished her studio work.”

Professor Honor Ford-Smith from the Faculty of Environmental Studies, who likewise served on Wynveen’s thesis committee, found Wynveen’s description of her research-to-performance process most illuminating, with the potential to be a “very useful resource for young actors struggling to understand what the creative process involves.

Above: Claire Wynveen (left) with Courtney Smith in the Theatre @ York production of Peter Barnes’ macabre satire The Bewitched

“Claire’s main contribution is a careful narrative of how one actress approaches the challenges of translating key theories of Western acting into daily practice,” said Ford-Smith. “The thesis narrates precisely and evocatively how she develops her own practice. She explains clearly the psychological, observational and physical work which she undertakes in order to create the role.

“She tells the story of how the character gradually emerges within the player, and how she recognizes and supports the growth of the role within her. She draws on critical self-reflection, her own personal relationships, physical exercises, everyday activities and the work of other directors, writers and performers to validate and develop her process. Claire also proposes many useful exercises for the actor such as mask work, yoga, journaling and voice exercises to develop her approach.

“This dissertation is an excellent example of how actors learn and how process can be a form of praxis-based education.”

Wynveen was surprised and delighted to learn last month that she had won a thesis prize. “It validated my opinions that theatre is important for community-building and that the study of acting can provide useful benefits to academic institutions and society at large,” she said.

Since graduating last spring, Wynveen has been putting this philosophy, her stage experience and research to good use. She recently completed a nine-month contract with Classical Theatre Project, a Toronto-based company that produces classical theatre for high-school students. Her work with the company included performing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia in Hamlet, understudying Lady Macbeth, and assisting the education director by giving workshops designed to make Shakespeare accessible and engaging for young people.

Wynveen also performs with the newly formed Cowgirl Choir, a 10-member women’s ensemble that gives semi-theatrical performances of old and new country and western songs. The group’s plans include concerts in Toronto this summer and potentially a Canadian tour in the coming year.

As she advances her professional career, Wynveen is grateful to her mentors at York who helped her during her graduate studies. “A special thank you to my thesis advisor Gwen Dobie, who was very supportive during the writing process,” she said. “I would also like to thank the fantastic professors who sat on my thesis defence panel and nominated me for the thesis prize. They are all very strong, intelligent and inspiring women and it was a pleasure to share my work with them!”

A copy of Wynveen’s thesis is stored at the National Library of Canada and kept in York’s Department of Theatre.

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.