The play's the thing to define student success

By Allyson Rowley, August 26, 2013
photo by Whyishnave Suthagar     Taryn Crankshaw received an Undergraduate Student Research Award this summer to work on a new script for IRIS, the annual theatre production that McMaster offers first-year students during Welcome Week.

While other McMaster students have spent their summers working or taking extra classes, Taryn Crankshaw has been collaborating on an original play about first-year student success.

Thanks to an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA), Crankshaw has been working this summer as the dramaturge and co-director of IRIS, McMaster’s annual Welcome Week theatre production. This year marks the 10th production of the one-hour multimedia show, which inspires first-year students to make a successful transition to university life.

“A dramaturge is like the architect of a play,” says Crankshaw, whose research project explores how to portray student success in theatrical terms.

For this year’s production of IRIS, the broad themes were brainstormed by a team of McMaster faculty, staff and students during workshops held in April and May. The actual characters, scenes and dialogue have been improvised and recorded during rehearsals over the summer with the student actors. As dramaturge, Crankshaw leads the collective creation process and refines the overall structure of the play.

A co-production of the Student Success Centre and the School of the Arts, IRIS is an acronym for “Inspiration, Reflection, Integrity, Success.” The seven actors are each responsible for writing a monologue on any topic of their choosing, as they look back on their own first-year experiences.

“IRIS deals with serious subject matter, such as mental health, sexuality, and academic integrity,” says Crankshaw. “There’s that desperation you feel in first year to get everything right.” The goal of IRIS is not to preach, but rather to generate discussion and offer examples, Crankshaw says. “First year is daunting and intimidating, but everyone has been through it. Here are some experiences you might encounter, and here are some ways you might handle them.”

One of eight students from the Faculty of Humanities to receive a USRA this summer, Crankshaw is going into her fourth and final year of a BA (Honours) in Theatre & Film Studies. Now 24, she entered McMaster as a mature student after a few years in the work force.

And truth be told, she has been working this summer, part-time. “It’s my bus money,” she says, while the research award will cover most of her tuition for her final year. “This is an opportunity to be paid to write. I’m very grateful.”

This year’s production of IRIS is directed by Julie Lane and stage managed by Zoe Blenkinsop, both also entering fourth year in Theatre & Film Studies. Associate professor Catherine Graham is academic advisor for IRIS, as well as Crankshaw’s USRA supervising professor. IRIS was founded in 2004 by Michele Corbeil, program coordinator with the Student Success Centre.

“This experience has shown me there are many different aspects of theatre that I enjoy,” says Crankshaw. She emphasizes the open and collaborative nature of McMaster’s Theatre & Film Studies. “One of the great things about the program is you don’t have to be an actor to be in a play, and you don’t have to be a technician to work on the lighting. It’s very tight-knit, very welcoming.”

She describes her time at McMaster as “like a buffet. You get a little bit of everything, and you learn all these skills. It’s pretty wonderful.”

This year’s performances of IRIS will take place during Welcome Week from August 30 to September 4.

A preview show for members of the McMaster community will take place on Friday, August 30, at 3:30 pm in MDCL 1305. A special community performance will also be presented on Wednesday, September 4, at 12:00 pm in Robinson Memorial Theatre. You are asked to please arrive 15 minutes before show time.

Further information about IRIS can be found on McMaster’s Student Success Centre site at http://studentsuccess.mcmaster.ca/orientation/iris-theatre-production.html