Spotlight: Two Emerging Female Directors Share Some Inspiration and Advice

Shelby Bushell and Tanya Mathivanan are both independent and emerging Vancouver-based theatre directors. They are both UBC Theatre Alums and both have links to UBC Players Club. They are also both awesome! We were lucky enough to connect with these two inspiring artists and glean some insight on what makes theatre great for them, and also how they make great theatre. Read on.

*Republished version of November 10th article. The following interviews are a combination of edited transcriptions and written responses.*

Tanya Mathivanan

Tanya is a director, producer, and the founder of local independent theatre company, Aenigma Theatre.

When did you first become involved in theatre and what drew you to it?

I actually started out in Film, and I had intended to study Film production in university. I ended up following a classmate of mine to a Theatre class in my first term though, out of curiosity, and completely fell in love with it.

I loved the immediacy of theatre, as well as the exhilaration of the fact that it was performed in front of a live audience. There’s also a different type of artistry involved in getting an audience engaged in a live event and creating an entire world right in front of them that I found fascinating.  I had been exposed to theatre at a very young age by my mother, and I had always loved it. It didn’t occur to me to actually direct plays (instead of film, which I also love), until that first term at UBC. It was the point of no return for me after that.

What are your goals as an artist? What type of work are you drawn to, and what do you want to create?

I like to work on socially relevant plays that are intellectually and emotionally engaging. I always like to pick plays that aren’t produced often in Vancouver. Pieces that are rich in text and character-focused are my favourite.

I also always like a challenge as I believe that helps me grow as an artist. So sometimes dense or seemingly impenetrable plays are really fun to dissect.

How have your experiences at UBC and with UBCPC informed your career and your artistic practice?

My first full length play that I directed was The Pillowman at the Players Club. Working on that show taught me how to get creative, and how to build beautifully realized worlds on a very small budget. We didn’t have the budget to “bury someone alive in a glass coffin,” so I transformed a lot of those scenes into interpretive dance.

UBC Theatre really helped me hone my skills as a director. I was trained as a stage manager, which definitely prepared me for my current role as a producer. I learned the different tech roles, and I am very comfortable using tech language. It’s also really helpful as a director to be able to read ground plans yourself and to have a shorthand with your designers. I have a very good understand of the sheer amount of time and technical equipment that it takes to even create a simple design.

 I was also able to watch many talented directors work when I was stage managing, and able to learn techniques just by observing them.

What excites you about Vancouver theatre right now? What do you want more of?

The independent scene is really flourishing. I see many diverse small companies run by all types of people cropping up. The variety of experiences that we’re currently getting in Vancouver theatre is really exciting. We’re seeing more new voices, experiences and perspectives being put on stage in really interesting ways.

I just want to see even more people get the opportunity to create the things that they want to, and to be able to share their unique artistry with the community.

What advice would you offer to individuals looking to become involved in theatre direction and self-producing?

Email directors that you admire and ask if you can assist them. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to people for advice. I’m always more than happy to advise new producers on the things they need to get done. Producing is a big job, and it’s always nice to have a little support in that area. Also, most directors are more than happy to meet or email with aspiring directors if time permits.

Also practice. Get a bunch of people together and put on a show. It can even be in someone’s living room. But the very process of rehearsing and putting a show together will be invaluable in your growth.

A vacation. Haha. I usually spend all of November and December reading plays to see what I might want to do the following year. So, the plan is to read as many plays as I can and see what strikes my fancy.

Shelby Bushell

Shelby is a director, stage manager, producer, and artistic director of local independent theatre company, Wunderdog Theatre. Shelby’s most recent project was directing UBC Players Club’s mainstage production of The Grown-Up.

When did you first become involved in theatre and what drew you to it?

I wasn’t involved in theatre at all in theatre in high school but was in a film class and heard about some things going on in theatre from a classmate, and just thought, this is where I need to be. That’s what led me to do my double major Bachelor of Fine Arts in English Lit and Theatre Production and Design.

I know you wear a lot of hats…

In theatre in particular, you kind of have to… to know what everyone’s doing and what’s going on. When I knew that I wanted to direct I decided to try to stage manage for directors I admired. Working with directors like Evan Frayne, Chelsea Haberlin and Stephen Drover felt like I was taking a class, I learned so much.

What are your goals as an artist?

What attracts me to theatre is that it is playing make believe, and it’s really just grown-ups dressed in costumes pretending to be somebody else, telling a story. And that’s the part of it that I think… the magic that I’m talking about. It feels like when we have the chance to do that, why would we tell stories that are ‘real,’ why trap ourselves in everyday life when there’s a whole fantastical world available?

For me I want to tell stories that people can be carried away by. I think one of the things that excites me the most about theatre is the magic of it and the possibilities it brings—it asks the audience to suspend their disbelief, and once you’ve done that you can kind of take them anywhere. So many people love realism, they want to see theatre replicate a room, or portray characters that you would see in everyday life. I think there’s real skill in being able to achieve that but those aren’t necessarily the stories I want to tell. I’m more interested in the surreal.

Have your experiences at UBC and with UBCPC informed your career and your artistic practice?

Definitely. A lot of the performers I know and still work with are actors who graduated UBC in the same year as me or were there at the same time I was there. Chelsea Haberlin was a Directing MFA candidate in the year that I was graduating, and I actually had the opportunity to ASM with her while I was still at school and then I was hired by her as a touring stage manager for one of her shows once I graduated. So more than anything the contacts you make at school will be extremely helpful, ‘cause it’s a small community.

As far as UBC Players Club, the show that I directed for the Dionysia Festival—(gosh, what is it, five years ago? Six years ago now?) was the first show that I had directed since graduating. I remember talking to a friend who was part of Players Club at the time, Matthew Willis, and telling him I was interested in directing, and him saying, ‘Oh, well the Players Club is looking for directors, do you want me to put your name forward?” I was like, “yes, please!” My experience working on that show back then was when I realized I really wanted to pivot from stage management to directing. Up until that point I had been considering stage managing professionally, and maybe joining Equity as a stage manager… I love stage managing, and there are things that I will always love about stage managing, but I think my real passion is in directing.

What was the process like with this current play, The Grown-Up?

I submitted the proposal for this play because I felt that this play was so appropriate for university students to be performing, and for university students to be seeing. It’s a play about magic and time travel and pirates, but it’s also a play about slowing down and being in the present because life can move very quickly. There’s a point in the play where a character realizes that he’s far beyond the point in his life that he should be, “Wait, I’m not supposed to be here, I’m a boy, I’m ten,” I remember reading that and being struck by the levels of metaphor there, and recognizing that feeling, I think a lot of us have had that feeling: “Hang on, how did I get here? I’m supposed to be ten, I’m supposed to be playing with my siblings in the living room with blocks and how did I get to be, you know, thirty.” I was so struck by that and by what is just a really poetic play by Jordan Harrison. I remember when I was at UBC, and how everything just seemed to rush by, and being so desperate to get out into the real world and actually contribute, but I think it’s really important, especially in university, to slow down and just appreciate that time for what it is.

What excites you about Vancouver theatre right now? What do you want to se more of?

I want to see more theatre that is immersive. Immersive theatre is just so much fun and so interesting. And there’s a real lack, there a couple of companies who are really pushing for immersive theatre, Chelsea Haberlin’s company ITSAZOO Productions does a lot of it, and Raincity Theatre just did an immersive version of Company, and they did Sweeney Todd last year, so they’re doing immersive musicals and I think those are fantastic. I just love the idea that while we are building these fantastical, magical worlds, we can really bring the audience into it, and make them forget they are in a theatre or take them out of a theatre entirely. That’s number one, and I think number two would be more theatre that embraces the use of new technology. It’s just such a fascinating tool that hasn’t been explored to its full capacity in theatre. Electric Company Theatre does it quite a bit and they do a phenomenal job. Vancouver Asian Theatre just opened a new play called Kuroko which I am dying to see because it’s all about this! Involving new technology in theatre makes theatre more exciting and more accessible to younger audiences.

A couple of years ago I started Wunderdog Theatre which is a teeny, tiny company with me and a few friends. Basically, we started it so that we could have an outlet to explore the intersection of new technology and theatre.

What advice would you offer to individuals looking to become involved in theatre direction and self-producing?

My advice would be to find a company that is doing the kinds of things you want to do and to start off just volunteer your time. Say like, I love what you guys are doing, I’m very interested in being a part of it, how can I help. ‘Cause every theatre company needs help. Everyone needs someone to run out and grab those props last minute, or run laundry, or even just the little things, and if you can do those things well, you can often stick around. Think of it as a learning experience, because you will learn so much.

What’s next for you?

Ah, I think I’m going to take a little bit of a break. I’ve been directing non-stop since May. I worked on a show with Ensemble Theatre in the summer, and then directly after that I went into a show at Fringe, and then directly after that I went into this. So, I’m looking forward to taking a few months, and just maybe reading a few plays? *Laughs* Not really thinking about how, just reading them. And then next summer I’m going to be directing with Ensemble again. For me I feel it’s important to have space to recover creatively.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I have to say, the team on this show has been amazing. I remember thinking when I was told the timeline for this, ‘no, that’s not possible’ –it was a month from casting to opening. I thought, this would be near-impossible if we were rehearsing full-time, which we’re not, and if we had a professional cast and crew, which we don’t, but they pulled it off, and they did an amazing job. I would be so stoked to see any of the team out in the professional world and would highly recommend working with each of them because they were just on it. It’s been really lovely to work with this group of people, and I would love to do so again.

Many thanks to Shelby Bushell (Wunderdog Theatre) and
Tanya Mathivanan (Aenigma Theatre). The Grown-Up, Shelby’s mainstage project for UBC Players Club ran November 6-10 at the Dorothy Somerset Theatre on UBC campus. Tanya’s production of The Turn of the Screw ran November 6-10 at Studio 16. Be sure to check out more of their work in the future!

Link to The Grown-Up event page:

Shelby’s theatre company:

Tanya’s theatre company: