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Grads team up to honour prof's life with a documentary film

Grads team up to honour prof's life with a documentary film

York contract faculty members and alumni Laurel Paetz (MFA Theatre’07) and L.J. Nelles (BA Music ’84, MFA  Theatre ’07) are teaming up to make a documentary about theatre Professor Emeritus David Smukler, a master teacher of voice and speech.

Titled Breath is Alive, the film’s intent is to capture the essence of Smukler’s work by following him into the studio as he teaches young artists who are discovering their vocal potential and established actors as they hone and rejuvenate their process. Interviews with York students and alumni, professional colleagues and others who have worked with Smukler will flesh out the story, providing a glimpse into the delicate, intricate process of vocal practice.

David Smukler

As co-producers and directors, Nelles and Paetz bring firsthand experience studying under Smukler to their research-creation project. Both have worked as voice coaches and professional actors, applying and sharing the skills they learned with Smukler both behind the scenes and in the spotlight.

“While David shows no signs of slowing down, he is a senior practitioner and we feel it’s crucial to capture his work now, while it continues to be vital and energetic,” said Nelles, who is currently pursuing doctoral studies in theatre at York. “Watching David work with actors can be as transformative as the work itself. In the company of his energy, you’re reminded of the innocence of creativity and the sheer joy of discovery.”

L.J. Nelles

Before he began teaching at York in 1980, Smukler served as voice coach for the Royal Court Theatre, English Opera Group and Royal Opera, Covent Garden in the UK and held appointments as head of voice at the Toneelschool, Amsterdam, the Department of Drama at Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburg, and Ontario’s Stratford Shakespearean Festival. He joined the full-time faculty in York’s Department of Theatre in 1984, serving three stints as acting area coordinator over the next two decades. He developed a strong voice and speech training component and played a pivotal role in founding the MFA program in Acting, the only program of its kind in Canada. Since his retirement in 2004, he has continued to teach in York’s Graduate Program in Theatre, overseeing the Graduate Diploma in Voice Teaching which he established in 2001.

“David was at the forefront of a kind of actor training that was new to Canada when he first began coaching at Stratford and teaching here at York. His work with actors and directors in the Department of Theatre defined an approach to actor training that forms the heart of our program and has served our students well for more than 30 years,” said Eric Armstrong (MFA '94), who has followed in his mentor’s footsteps in both the professional and academic arena. A respected dialogue and dialect coach in his own right, Armstrong is professor of voice and acting at York, where he currently directs the Graduate Program in Theatre.

Hollywood star Rachel McAdams  (BFA '01), award-winning Shaw and Stratford Festival veteran Deborah Hay (BFA '95), and stage and screen actor Christine Horne (BFA '04) are among Smukler’s many former students at York who have gone on to remarkable performance careers. Other notable Canadian actors he has coached include Shawn Doyle (Desperate Housewives, The Eleventh Hour, 24) and Arsinée Khanjian (The Sweet Hereafter, Ararat, Sabah).

“David has a remarkable ability to challenge actors to go deep, to confront their personal demons in order to tap the well of their imagination,” said Armstrong.

In addition to his work at York, Smukler has given professional workshops across Canada for Equity Showcase Theatre and has coached voice and dialect for innumerable film and theatre productions. As director of training for Canada’s National Voice Intensive in Vancouver, which he established more than 25 years ago, he has worked extensively with performers, directors and broadcasters in theatre, opera, film and television. He has recently returned to acting, in works ranging from Theatre Rusticle’s production of Peter and the Wolf to Wordsmyth Theatre’s staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Smukler has been recognized by the international Voice and Speech Trainers Association as a Distinguished Member for his lifetime contributions to the field. His accolades include the York University Faculty of Graduate Studies' Teaching Award, given in recognition of his contributions to the advancement of academic excellence and the quality of graduate teaching at York.

When completed, Breath is Alive will stand as a tribute to Smukler as artist and teacher, and a record of the development of his art form and a generation of theatre practitioners in a pivotal period in Canadian theatre history.

To help fund the film, Paetz and Nelles have turned to crowdsourcing. Their ‘indiegogo’ campaign has surpassed the initial goal of $5000 needed to kick-start the project and cover basic production costs. Now they are seeking additional support to expand the scope of the film with more footage and interviews, and for post-production.

To make a contribution, visit the Breath is Alive page on the indiegogo site today, or e-mail

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