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School of Creative and Performing Arts finds its first director

Research, internationalization and intersection of the disciplines key priorities for Bruce Barton

Photo by Riley Brandt

Following an intensive year-long search, the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) has found its first permanent director and the appointment is perfectly in tune with the university’s Eyes High strategic direction.

Professor Bruce Barton comes to us from the University of Toronto where he was serving as the director of the undergraduate Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies program and as a faculty member at the graduate Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. Barton has dedicated his academic career to practice-based research in the performing arts, in which practice is underpinned by sophisticated theoretical understanding and theory is constantly tested by robust artistic practice. He is also committed to the intersection of performing arts disciplines, which is a key focus of the SCPA.

“Interdisciplinary exploration and the relationship between the arts has been at the centre of my activities from early on, in both my academic and my creative work,” says Barton. “I was drawn to the SCPA because there are many people here I hold in high regard in music, dance and drama, and the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration is so great. This feels like an exciting, significant moment in both the school’s history, and, perhaps, for arts education in Canada.”

The SCPA was formed in 2013 from a consolidation of the former departments of dance, drama and music with the intent of enhancing the possibilities for multidisciplinary research, performance and learning. Music professor Allan Bell served as the SCPA’s interim director during its formative year.

In addition to his many academic achievements, Barton is also an accomplished playwright, director and dramaturg, helming his own Toronto-based theatre company, Vertical City. Vertical City is an “interdisciplinary performance hub” consisting of an evolving group of artists, which has allowed Barton to push traditional theatrical boundaries, experimenting with audience interaction and the integration of performing arts disciplines.

With a 2014 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant, Barton is taking his interdisciplinary research even further, exploring the potential for intimacy in interdisciplinary performances. His SSHRC project will bring together a dancer, a musician, a writer, a dramaturg and an installation artist.

Barton notes that the emphasis on research in the University of Calgary’s Eyes High strategic direction is another factor that drew him west. “In academic contexts there have often been difficulties understanding the relationship between scholarly research and the performing arts,” says Barton. “Most universities end up with a clear divide between the two, and institutions are often structured that way. But there’s a growing appreciation for praxis – that is, the intersection between theory and practice.”

“Much of what is being done at the SCPA already has huge value as artistic research,” says Barton. “The challenge is to better articulate what we do so that its research value is understood by the rest of the university and the public at large.”

Another key goal for Barton is to achieve a higher level of internationalization for the SCPA. This includes promoting international opportunities for education, research and performance, but it also involves positioning the school as an attractive centre for international students, scholars and artists.

“We need to articulate the ways in which we are distinct,” he says. “With focus and clarity we need to express why it’s worth it for international students to come half way around the world to study and practice here. As opposed to saying ‘We do everything,’ the message can be ‘Here’s what we excel at, and if this is what you’re pursuing, then this is the place to be.’”

That identity and vision for the SCPA is one that Barton means to solidify in the coming years. “There’s a deep, rich history here, within all three disciplines, and the first step is to get to know the people, to find out what they currently value and prioritize in the work they are doing. Then, when we move forward, we do so united.”