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The online variety show features writing and other creative ventures. Clockwise from top left: Greek cat drawing by Nicole Haldoupis; banjo performance by David Carpenter; a reading of Arthur Slade by Yann Martel; Farley Mowat animation by Cameron Muir.

To combat COVID-19 isolation, USask MFA in writing students launch virtual variety show

When they were separated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the members of the close-knit MFA in writing community looked for new ways to come together creatively

By Chris Putnam

When they were separated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the members of the close-knit MFA in writing community at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) looked for new ways to come together creatively.

On May 4, students and faculty of the College of Arts and Science’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program launched the MFA in Writing Variety Show, an online showcase of writing and other creative ventures.

“The variety show was born out of a desire to find a way to maintain and bolster community during this time of isolation—for grad students, but for the broader writing community as well,” said Dr. Sheri Benning (PhD), a faculty member in the Department of English and one of the variety show website’s creators.

The site features submissions from MFA in writing students, faculty, alumni and mentors, including poetry, prose and what website co-creator Sarah Ens calls “other creative shenanigans.”

“While this has been a difficult time and I think a lot of people have struggled to produce creative work, I also think that there’s been another reaction of creative work manifesting in really interesting ways,” said Ens, an MFA in writing student who designed the website along with fellow student Tea Gerbeza.

Variety show creators
The MFA in Writing Variety Show was created by students Tea Gerbeza (left) and Sarah Ens (centre) and faculty member Dr. Sheri Benning (PhD). (Photos: submitted)


Photography, paintings and musical performances are among the variety show entries. The site includes an animated reading by a local statue of Farley Mowat created by student Cameron Muir and a message from Laddie—a therapy dog who participates in PAWS Your Stress events at USask—submitted by Laddie’s owner Doreen Stumborg.

“It’s a beautiful thing for a dog to be giving you advice on how to cope with this particular moment,” Ens said with a laugh.

Several high-profile and established writers involved in the MFA in Writing Program also submitted works to the website. They include Guy Vanderhaeghe, Yann Martel, Casey Plett and David Carpenter.

“It’s been really cool to see acclaimed writers throwing in their stuff and having it kind of mix and mingle with our work,” said Ens. “That says a lot about the generosity of this community.”

Ens, Gerbeza and Benning started work on the MFA in Writing Variety Show in March, soon after social distancing protocols reached Saskatchewan due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although classes continued online, USask buildings were closed and a public reading of work by graduating MFA in writing students was cancelled.

“Because we move through the program as cohorts, it’s the same group of 10 people that have seen each other once a week for the past two years,” said Ens. “Suddenly we didn’t get to see each other in person anymore. The reading showcase was cancelled. The feeling of celebration after all this hard work was suddenly kind of gone.”

The flood of submissions for the MFA in Writing Variety Show has helped boost morale and bring the community of writers closer, said Ens. “(It shows) the ways that our work is talking to each other, to kind of say that we all are in this moment at the same time.”

The MFA in Writing Variety Show can be viewed at mfavarietyshow.com. The website is still accepting submissions and will continue to publish new content regularly.

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