by Joel Schulz – Publisher
In September of 2014, the 2015 graduating class of theatre and many music students at Calgary’s Rocky Mountain College should have been returning to complete the final year of their program. However, a serious problem exists; they had no school to go to. Rocky Mountain College pulled the plug on the Theatre @ Rocky and the Bachelor of Arts in Music programs. The students had literally been hung out to dry. Mid-stream into their studies, they were told that they will not be able to complete their degrees nor their diplomas. It’s not that Rocky Mountain College is closing its doors, au contraire; their theology programs are alive and well as a quick trip to their website will show http://www.rockymountaincollege.ca/academic-info/programs.php. But if one tries to access the BA in Music website http://www.rockymountaincollege.ca/academic-info/programs/ba-music.php, they are met with the greeting “Sorry, you do not have permissions to view this page”; it’s sad but true.
Rocky Mountain College’s theatre program was funded by Centre Street Church and Education Minister Gordon Dirks was Senior Pastor of the church at that time. Gordon Dirks is also former president of Rocky Mountain College. This is not the first time Rocky Mountain College has pulled the plug on their arts programs.
I spoke with many of the people involved with the program, including many heartbroken students who were anxiously awaiting the start of the academic year so they could finish their programs. The administration at Rocky Mountain College has yet to return my calls; neither has Centre Street Church.
The Reel Can took an interest in the programs at RMC just over a year ago, discovering that, in particular, the Theatre @ Rocky program followed a curriculum that competed with best in North America. Virtually all their coaches and instructors were accomplished professional actors, directors, and stage professionals that shared their expertise and experiences with Theatre @ Rocky students. It was not just another academic theatre program like those offered at many a university throughout Canada and the United States. It was a roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and let’s produce quality performances of notable dramatic works type of school. Students were even introduced to the techniques of the famed Sanford Meisner, acting coach to the likes of Alex Baldwin, Geraldine Page, Robert Duval, and many others. Many gifted and professional actors consider studying the Meisner Technique a must for their training repertoire.
Not just relying on what we read about the program, The Reel Can attended many performances produced by the students under the tutelage of program directors Val Lieske and Barrett Hileman. What we witnessed were stunningly performed productions of works, which I would call quite controversial for a Christian college, by Anton Chekov and John Pielmeier, as well as a play written by the students based upon the Confessions of St. Augustine. The props and stage settings were minimalist but they worked most effectively. Agnes of God, by Pielmeier, an award winning story of a pregnant nun who insists that her baby was the product of divine conception, was strikingly as riveting as the original production I saw in New York at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in 1982. It was released at a film in 1985 with Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly in the leading roles.
Students Jennifer Poppe, Joy Robinson, and Shaylea Pangle provided the audience with a well staged and well rehearsed rendition of Pielmeier’s gem. The lighting was stunning. Poppe, who incidentally is getting married this month, also played Mary Magdalene in this summer’s production of the critically acclaimed Canadian Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller.
Returning to the topic of point, why would a school wish to destroy a program that produces such great talent and, even worse, destroy the lives of those who have yet to complete their programs?
There is a generally held consensus among arts scholars, both Christian and secular, that contemporary fundamentalist, evangelical, and traditional Christians have abandoned the arts. Gordon Dirks was a leader at one such institution, the Centre Street Church, the one that sunk the Theatre @ Rocky program. In August of 2013, Christian Post published a stunningly frank article, “Christians Need to Engage Culture Through the Arts”, with the viewpoint that if God created the ability for men and women to be creative, then should we not be embracing the arts as a way of understanding culture. Modern theatre and music grew out of Christianity and their institutions. As humankind came out of the Middle Ages, music, drama, and the visual arts became established with encouragement and much funding from the Vatican. It seems ludicrous that modern institutions would want to turn their backs on close to two millennia of wonderful creativity. Whether or not it is divinely inspired is an opinion I will leave for the reader. However, at this point I must inform all that I am not a Christian but was raised in a Jewish culture.
Without input from the administration of Rocky Mountain College, I can only share the comments made by the many friends I have made in the past year in the now defunct Theatre @ Rocky and Bachelor of Arts in Music Programs. They shall remain anonymous, which is a licence granted any investigative journalist.
“Centre Street Church pulled the funding.”
“We have been lied to by Rocky Mountain College.”
“Centre Street Church blames Rocky Mountain College.”
“Rocky Mountain College blames Centre Street Church.”
Regardless of any comments made, The Reel Can sees the behaviour of those with decision making authority as nothing short of despicable. Our Minister of Education stayed mum on kicking several post-secondary students out on the street. Instead they have hidden behind a banner of Christian love and devotion while simultaneously feeding their students to the lions and destroying their dreams and career aspirations mid-stream. It is even more surprising considering the quality of the programs that were being delivered. I would call this very un-Christian which is why The Reel Can gives Rocky Mountain College and Gordon Dirks the seemingly well deserved titles of Assassin of the Arts. Is any community leader that allows the academic programs of students to slammed into the ground midstream, one where he has a major say in the policy, fit to be Alberta’s Minister of Education. This writer feels the answer to that question is obvious.
I extend an invitation to Kerry Belt, President of Rocky Mountain College, and the Honourable Minister to contact me directly and tell me why they feel that calling them Assassins of the Arts is not a deserved title. You may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Reel Can holds the opinion that Gordon Dirks should resign as Minister of Education. It is the job of an Education Minister to promote diversity and breadth in education, not to kill it outright.