By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“O my gawd!” declares a vigorous voice on the phone from somewhere deep in the orbiting galaxy of rehearsal rooms and studios that is Vic. “You should see these kids! You have to see these kids! I’m so proud of them…. ”
The inspirational voice, which makes you somehow want to get off your butt and apply yourself to your long-neglected musical theatre training, belongs to administrator, director, mentor, visionary Greg Dowler-Coltman, the head of theatre at the Victoria School of the Arts. His production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s aspirational Latinx Broadway musical In The Heights hit the stage this past term, the most recent in an an archive of some 25 full-bodied, complex, challenging mainstage shows at Victoria School of the Arts.
For four decades, Greg and his equally magnetic wife Tami Dowler-Coltman the principal (and principle instigator) of Vic — the DCs as widely known — have inspired, mentored, excited, generations of young artists. Some have found their way into performing arts careers, across the country and beyond — OK, potentially breaking the hearts of parents who’d counted on having a real estate mogul or divorce attorney in the family. But, hey, many of the ones you’ll never see on- or backstage have become passionate, and astute, occupants of house seats everywhere, supporters of (and lobbyists for) the arts and arts education.
The ripple effects of the DCs’ special mojo at every level of arts education, are exponential and everywhere in the theatre scene here, and coast to coast. Do an alma mater survey of actors in this theatre town, and you’ll hear “Vic, of course” float through the ether more often than not. Which is why top honours at Monday night’s Sterling Award gala, the “outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre” Sterling goes jointly to Greg and Tami. And why their retirement from Vic, to be celebrated at a bash and alumnae show tonight, seems so, well, dramatic.
There was a time, now receding into the mists, when Vic wasn’t an award-winning arts school, but plain Vic Comp, a repository of dwindling student population and enthusiasm. Tami Coltman, a director, coach, teacher, creator of programming, was one of the original staff members at the moment in the ‘80s of its re-birth. An architect of this transformation, recognized across the continent, she led arts revitalization at every school she was at thereafter, before returning to Vic in the mid-90s. No school was immune to her magic touch in creativity.
Meanwhile, Greg, “still just a Coltman” as Stephen Heatley puts it, was an administrator, director, choreographer, sometime actor at the old Theatre Network, ensconced in the grungy ex-Kingdom Hall near the Coliseum. “He co-directed The Mail Order Bride with me,” says Heatley, then Theatre Network artistic director and these days a drama professor at UBC. Greg directed TN’s original revue Welcome to Theatre Fabulous; he choreographed Bub Slug: The Musical; he acted in the prequel to Small Change Theatre’s One Beautiful Evening that opened Theatre Network’s Roxy on 124th St. in 1989. And he ran Theatre Network’s education programs. Heatley has found him “a great colleague, co-conspirator and friend….”
Greg has always had a particular affinity for physical theatre and clowning, says Heatley, best man at the Dowler-Coltman nuptials. “Ask him to show you the important mime that I taught him at the Drumheller Drama School in 1980.” I did. And just outside the theatre at Vic last month, he flung himself to the floor to demonstrate: his mime rowing was highly persuasive.
Greg has been at Vic, head of theatre, for the last two decades, as the arts programming extended to elementary and junior high kids. Actor/director Braydon Dowler-Coltman, for example, one of the couple’s three artist sons, was in Vic’s first Grade 1 class ever. And one of the signatures of Greg’s regime has been its links with the professional theatre community — whether it was a constant supply of Cratchits for Bob Baker’s Citadel productions of A Christmas Carol or Oliver!. Or guest workshops by original theatre creator/directors like Catalyst Theatre’s Jonathan Christenson or the great director and acting coach Scott Swan (one of the founders of Northern Light Theatre). Or visits from pros like former U of A drama department chair David Barnet.
The three Dowler-Colter sons, who “grew up running around theatres and rehearsal halls” (as the eldest, Jordan, reports) are a testament to the contagious multi-generational DC Effect, which extended to Alberta’s venerable annual Arts Trek summer theatre project where his parents met. “It’s another way of thinking, based on creativity and curiosity,” says Jordan.
Toronto-based actor Tim Dowler-Coltman was recently in David Storch’s Canadian Stage production of Sweat. Jordan, Vancouver-based, is co-founder of the film company Skyward Motion. He remembers his Grade 2 self, in his dad’s 1999 production of Romeo and Juliet: “I was in a flashback at the top of the top of the show, playing patty-cake while all the fighting in Verona is taking place…. It opened my world!”
Something like that happened to Kendra Connor, too. The busy Edmonton actor/director, a Vic grad frequently onstage with Plain Jane Theatre and Sterling-nominated for her work in the Janes’ Fringe review Everything’s Coming Up Chickens, pays tribute to “Greg’s ability to capture the magic of theatre and what a privilege it is to participate.” She’s been back a few times to her alma mater to “do script and monologue work with the kids,” and loves the way “alumnae return to give pointers, share ideas and thoughts…. Kids are so lucky to have the professional perspective.”
Her “favourite experience” from those years? Greg’s 2003 production of The Secret Garden the musical.
Digital media producer Owen Brierley, CEO of Edmonton Digital Arts College and a long-time DC friend and appreciator, has launched many theatrical collaborations — some with Jordan, including projections scores for the Citadel’s Make Mine Love and La Cité francophone’s Flying Canoe Festival. He says he modelled the college “after the kind of dedicated mentorship and intentional culture the whole student the way (the DCs) did and do….”
“It nurtures the whole student to help them see the world with a clown’s sense of authentic wonderment….Always exploring, always making a mess, always figuring things out, always embracing the journey ahead.”