A Virtually New Stage of Life: A Theatre Student Returns from Prague

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

By Jess Bertrand, Theatre and Performance Major at the University of Waterloo (UW)


I havJess Bertrande returned from the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (PQ19). I volunteered to work as Creative Assistant to Paul Cegys, Digital Scenographer and Lecturer in the Theatre and Performance program at UW. The experience was the opportunity of a lifetime; the people I met and the lessons I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life. (For some previous context to my experience, please take a look at the article I wrote before my trip! You can read it here.) Here are my experiences and some of the lessons I learned along the way. 

Before going to PQ19, I was focused on performing and was daunted by the technical side of theatre, knowing I needed to know more. Going to PQ19 pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I don’t regret it. Taking that one chance allowed me to meet amazing people, gain more life skills, and have the opportunity to have a lot of fun doing the work that I am passionate about, in a creative and fast-paced environment. The projects I worked on were tied to the work Paul was doing, lead by his roles as being the Digital Curator for the Canadian Student and Emerging Artists Exhibit, Co-Curator and Workgroup Leader for the 36Qº installation projects VR Gallery and Blue Hour, the later two installations being where most of my time was focused.

Jess Bertrand and othersI went to do work that wasn’t fully defined before I arrived, and I had no idea what to expect. My role as Creative Assistant ended up being an all encompassing position for a variety of jobs. During the festival I helped manage correspondence between the artists of the various installations we worked on, oversaw and helped troubleshoot Oculus Rift headsets and VR technical issues, and also onboarded and floor managed daily volunteers. At the same time, I kept track of paperwork, various lists and onboarding documents. My initial job as Creative Assistant quickly expanded into being many things, such as time keeper, assistant stage manager, human relations liaison, front of house manager, greeter, VR operator, and volunteer, to name a few.

A lot of these tasks were hands-on experiences that kept me in touch with Canadian and international artists, volunteers, technical personnel and event organizers. They helped me practice my ability to take one thing at a time, problem solve, work on a team, prioritize and keep on top of what needed to be done. Perhaps I could have learned to exercise these skills elsewhere, but this kind of fast-paced, creative environment really emphasized them, and I am grateful for that opportunity. Of course, as any process has its ups and downs, some days were harder than others. I found that miscommunication can be an issue, but under  pressure, there are always going to be people who rise to the challenge and push through difficult crunch times, through devotion, sweat, and hard work. There were amazing moments of collaboration, dedication and teamwork, and the resilience of these people continued to inspire me throughout the process.Jess Bertrand working with groupJess Bertrand working

I thought I was going to PQ19 to learn more about scenography and spatial design. But what I took away from this experience goes beyond spatial composition, set pieces, lighting or virtual reality. I took away a sense of pride knowing that I was able to be a part of a whole, a piece in a complex puzzle of creators who were from around the world, lending their skills to create a unique experience found nowhere else.  I wasn’t with a group of people working to meet goals just for the sake of it being their job. I was met by people who do the work because they love it, and who believe in making their visions become reality. I am one of the few students from Canada who is lucky to be able to say they had a part to play in so many projects that created  collaborative, experimental and beautiful theatrical works of art with such talented and diverse international artists.

The festival allowed me to grow as an artist with a deeper understanding of the value that theatre can have as an interdisciplinary field of work, that has the power to build international bonds and create meaning. It’s a field that pushes the conventional understanding of traditional artistic practice.

PQ19 ImageAt PQ19, I have made lifelong connections, friends, and memories and developed skills that I will take with me wherever I go. I hope that future theatre students at UW will have similar opportunities to experience. The arts have an important place within the university community, and the opportunity to travel to PQ19 provided a setting so very relevant to the skills we learn in the theatre program at UW. Through creativity, analysis, imagination and inquiry, the arts make meaning and valuable contributions to student learning. This coming June 2020 I will be graduating, and I know that looking back I will be proud to have had so many wonderful experiences within my studies at UW, with PQ19 being a glowing highlight for me.

Photography courtesy of Joris Weijdom and Richard Van De Lagemaat.