Dr. Sharon Klassen paints a picture of the office from which she spent more than two decades working, filled with the work of her students, from hand-sewn costumes, to models of sets. It’s a tangible expression of the passionate investment she made in theatre arts students up until this spring when difficult cuts to the department saw her lose her position.
Klassen sees these hands-on projects as one of the things she will remember fondly from her time at Redeemer. “I’ve appreciated the way that I was allowed to do some fairly creative things in terms of pedagogy,” she says.
“Sharon had a significant impact on her students because of her expertise and creativity,” said interim president Dr. David Zietsma. “She brought fresh ideas to the classroom, but also took students outside the classroom where they could learn from and connect with others. Redeemer will miss her passion and service to students.”
She feels some of her most creative moments in the classroom were God-inspired.
“I’ve always felt there was a third person with me in the classroom,” she shared. “I felt that at times I was being nudged to do things with my syllabus, weird experiments, people I invited. I always felt that there was a thread there where sometimes God would just kind of let me know that I needed to do something.”
She brought fresh ideas to the classroom, but also took students outside the classroom where they could learn from and connect with others.
Two years ago, she tried one of these classroom experiments with her oral and interpersonal communication class, part of the media and communications studies program for which she also taught. After a trip to Bermuda with her family, she was impacted by the people there and the care with which they treated one another. “I was really struck by the difference in how they interrelate with each other… They had so much time for each other. The first few days I was there, I thought they didn’t have phones, and then I realized they just didn’t get them out unless they needed them,” she marvelled. “I came back reminded of how good it is when people interact with each other.”
So on the first day of class she was determined to bring that Bermudian sense of care and community to the classroom. She wrote “Welcome to Bermuda!” on the board and explained this remarkable culture to her students. “I said, ‘We are going to be Bermuda for each other.’ It was the goofiest thing I think I’ve ever done in a classroom, but it worked remarkably well,” she mused. “It created a really supportive atmosphere. It was amazing how they responded to each other and created some real connections. It certainly enabled us to interact more than we would have otherwise both inside and outside the classroom.”
Creating connections was something that Klassen knew was immensely important for a theatre student, not just on campus, but also in the greater Hamilton community and amongst the theatre community in Ontario. Because of this, she made efforts to take students off campus and into these communities where their in-class experiences were greatly enriched by interacting with others.
From 2006 to 2014, Klassen formed a partnership to work on literacy projects with challenged downtown Hamilton elementary schools. Over a series of Fridays, she took Redeemer students first to Queen Mary and then to Memorial City school to help a class imagine, write and perform stories. “It was kind of an experiential learning project when nobody was doing a lot of experiential learning,” she says.
I’ve always felt there was a third person with me in the classroom… I always felt that there was a thread there where sometimes God would just kind of let me know that I needed to do something.
Klassen also recognized the importance of students experiencing theatre off campus. “I felt all along that one of the critical things for students was to understand how theatre could work beyond the Redeemer mainstage,” she said. Over the course of her time at Redeemer, she took students to performances at the Shaw Festival, Stratford Festival, University of Toronto – Mississauga, York University, Canadian Opera Company, Opera Hamilton, Tarragon Theatre, Canadian Stage Company, George Brown College Young Centre for the Performing Arts and more.
Klassen feels you don’t completely understand a play until you’ve seen it performed. “You’ve got to remember the visual; what happens on stage and how you see it. It’s very difficult to get from the page to the stage unless you have some kind of visual record or a really good visual imagination. Invariably when I see a play, even a play that I’ve read more than once and know well, there are jokes I don’t get until I see it. There are moments, (sometimes a moment is a few lines of stage direction) which are easy to pass over when you’re reading, but could be huge on stage. Theatre is meant to be an experience of sound and light and colour and movement – not just dialogue – although good dialogue is fun too.”
Klassen also made efforts to build relationships with different theatres over the years. In 2003, performers from Opera Hamilton began to visit the university regularly. This connection created on-stage opportunities for Redeemer students in multiple productions culminating with The Pearl Fishers, which had four Redeemer students on stage. She also built a longstanding relationship with the Shaw Festival. The manager of education and the stage manager at Shaw came to talk to Redeemer students. More than once, a student stage manager was invited into the booth to listen on headset and watch how a stage manager called a show. Redeemer students took tours of Shaw and attended several workshops relating to costumes, British and Jamaican accents and stage combat. “It was a really productive relationship,” said Klassen.
Attending the Centre for Drama at the University of Toronto, where she later also received her PhD in drama in 2019, provided Klassen with some fruitful relationships. In 2010 and 2015, Klassen orchestrated Redeemer’s participation in performances of the Road to Emmaus, part of the Chester Cycle, a series of medieval plays that were performed on wagons. These plays saw Redeemer students, faculty and alumni come together to perform alongside people from all over North America and sometimes beyond. “It was nice for Redeemer to have a presence at those events,” she says. The performers had an opportunity to think differently about a familiar story. “They were really exploring what it would have been like to walk along the road to Emmaus. You’re upset and you’re sad and then you bump into Jesus. It was fun to explore how you would react when Jesus suddenly appears in the room. How would you react when Jesus suddenly disappears? Invariably we ended up finding humour because the first thing you’re going to do if he disappears is look for him. If you’re sitting at a table, the first place you’re going to look for him is probably under the table, which immediately becomes funny.”
Klassen cherishes these memories, and many others, of her time at Redeemer as important experiences she could help provide for students that introduced them to rich new communities, times and places.