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Heather Morrison (BFA'08) is the artistic producer of Sum Theatre. (Photo: Studio D)

USask alumna builds community through theatre

Heather Morrison (BFA'08) is the artistic producer of Sum Theatre


By Shannon Boklaschuk

Heather Morrison (BFA’08) wants to make theatre accessible to everyone in her community.

The University of Saskatchewan (USask) alumna, who studied drama in the College of Arts and Science, currently serves as the artistic producer of Sum Theatre. Now in its seventh year, Sum Theatre is known for offering free performances to people of all ages at Saskatoon parks each summer.

Morrison co-founded Sum Theatre with artistic director Joel Bernbaum, and they take a “values-based approach” to their work, she said.

“If a project doesn’t meet our eight core values, we don’t take it on,” said Morrison.

This week, Sum Theatre will offer a free workshop for ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters. More and more theatre companies are working to include audio description, open captioning, tactile tours and ASL interpretation into their productions, and Sum Theatre was one of the first companies in Saskatchewan to make on-site interpreters a part of each show during the 2018 Theatre in the Park offerings.

Thanks to funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Sum Theatre will now offer specialized theatre training free of charge to ASL interpreters from across the province from May 24 to May 26.

“The great thing about it is that it benefits all theatre companies in Saskatchewan, as the ASL interpreters are from around the province and can use these skills at any theatre performance,” Morrison said.

“We like to say that our programming, especially Theatre in the Park, is accessible to everyone. Last year’s show, Queen Seraphina and the Land of Vertebraat, which featured three actors living with disabilities, taught us how much we have to learn about true accessibility. I will be straightforward and say that while we had a lot of successes, we also failed in many ways. Inclusion is one of our core values, so we’re committed to improving the accessibility of our programs. This workshop is one step of many.”

Theatre in the Park
From left: Chris Dodd, Lancelot Knight, Haley Brown, Michael Martin, Krystle Pederson and Rosalie Wishlow are pictured at Theatre in the Park in 2018. (Photo: Ehjae Chan)

One of the most moving pieces of feedback Sum Theatre has received came from a senior citizen who was able to attend her first-ever theatre performance because the company's shows are free and feature ASL interpreters, Morrison said.

“It’s wonderful that the Deaf community are able to participate in our shows,” she said. “I have also come to understand that when we include all individuals, everyone benefits. Because of our Deaf artists last year, our cast and our audiences learned some phrases in American Sign Language. Isn’t that amazing? Have you ever learned a new language by attending a play?”

Sum Theatre also addresses important social issues through its productions. In April 2018, for example, Persephone Theatre presented Bernbaum’s verbatim play, Home Is a Beautiful Word, in association with Sum Theatre and the Broadway Theatre. The “live documentary” was the result of hundreds of interviews Bernbaum conducted with people on the topic of homelessness. The show gave a voice to people who are homeless, people who are housed and people who are a check away from living on the street.

Just last month—in April 2019—Sum Theatre’s production of #consent toured Saskatchewan high schools and was offered to audiences for free at some of Saskatoon’s public libraries. Morrison was the lead creator of the educational play, which focused on sexual violence, healthy relationships, consent and some of the complex issues brought up by the #MeToo movement.

“Theatre is how I participate in making the world a better place,” said Morrison. “Whenever I see something that makes my heart ache, I have to take action and theatre is how I do it. When the #MeToo movement happened, I learned a lot about human rights, consent and the definition of sexual violence. I kept thinking that if I, and so many people I knew, had this information when they were younger, it would have prevented so much suffering. So I decided to create a performance that would give youth the tools and information they need to stay safe.”

Morrison, who is also known for her career in local radio, is passionate about her work with Sum Theatre and about supporting others in the artistic community. Although she didn’t intend to complete a degree in drama when she first started studying at USask, “those classes kept pulling me back,” she said. She decided to follow her intuition, and the rest is history.

“I am so grateful for my time at the U of S—not just because of the knowledge I received, but for the personal growth that took place during my time on campus,” said Morrison, who received a USask Alumni Achievement Award in 2014. “I had some great professors while I was there, some of whom I still consider role models and mentors.”

Throughout her theatre career, Morrison has received numerous accolades and honours; for example, the Saskatoon actress and playwright was recognized as one of CBC’s Future 40 winners.

“Theatre is such a great fit for me. It involves a lot of risk-taking and vulnerability. It’s ever-changing and can respond to genuine need in the community. It creates connections with people from all walks of life. When I’m writing, rehearsing or performing, the hours melt away. No matter how stressful it gets, I am always reminded I am lucky to make a living doing what I am so utterly passionate about,” Morrison said.

“I have a personal mission, which is ‘I improve people’s lives.’ I do this with Sum Theatre. I do this in my work as a fitness instructor and a public-speaking coach. I was able to achieve it in radio by participating in charity events and being cheerful on air. But I have seen theatre to make positive change in my community, and that kind of work is irresistible to me. I liked radio a lot. But I love theatre.”

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