Influential GC Players Reminisce: An Interview with Former Residents Vanessa Timmer and Melanie Thompson

Green College Staff

"All the world's a stage" writes Shakespeare—and that includes Green College!

The GC Players, Green College’s volunteer acting troupe, has been fostering “ideas and friendship” since nearly the beginning of this graduate community. Through the organization of theatrical productions, Resident Members experience the thrill of performance and a collective sense of accomplishment. To learn more about the history and lasting influence of the GC Players—including the pivotal roles that our Principal Emeriti Richard Ericson and Mark Vessey played in past productions—current Green College Resident Member Kyla McCallum sat down with former Resident Members Vanessa Timmer and Melanie Thompson.

Vanessa’s era of the GC Players began with a scavenger hunt organized as part of an initiation week welcoming new residents. The GC Social Committee instructed each team to incorporate the objects they found into a skit, which led one particularly ambitious team to create a fantastic, Shakespearean scene. Vanessa was inspired. Having just studied at Oxford University, she recalled the common practice of students performing plays—especially Shakespearan ones—in college gardens. Newly emboldened by the scavenger hunt’s theatrical sketch, she decided with GC friend Michelle Patterson that Green College could do the same! They posted a call for participation. Many Resident Members auditioned, and Melanie signed on as the Stage Manager.

“Vanessa thinks really, really big,” Melanie said. And think big, she did. Over the following two years, binders and binders of minute details for their productions were drawn together. They started with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but by the end of their second play (a full-length rendition of The Importance of Being Earnest), they saw an opportunity to do more. “We wanted to do a musical,” Melanie said, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat offered parts for all the fabulous singers in their cohort. To the readers who are surprised that graduate students had the time and energy to devote towards Joseph, Vanessa offers the following explanation: “this was a group that put on Type-A Halloween parties,” with no costume detail too small, no idea too out of reach for them to create. In addition to musical talent, they also had artists, rock musicians and dancers eager to participate in Joseph. “We were even doing salsa classes that year,” Vanessa said. “The energy was moving in a musical direction,” and was conducive to putting on a large production. Joseph allowed everyone to shine.

Even Green College Principals became involved! Richard Ericson, the founding Principal, made a “hilarious cameo appearance” as a soldier in Twelfth Night. So, when the Players began planning Joseph, it seemed “more than appropriate” that Richard play Jacob, the father of Joseph and his eleven brothers. Melanie notes that his participation was a “surprise to a lot of people,” given his gentle and reserved nature—but he likely saw the roles as a chance to “get to know the resident community in a whole different way,” and to be a model of bravery for stage-shy community members. Outside of his acting, Richard was also financially supportive of the productions, allocating funds toward set creation, costume and equipment rentals, as well as authorizing use of common spaces for rehearsals and performances. Matt Ericson, Richard’s son, was also the lighting technician for Twelfth Night, giving Resident Members the opportunity to get to know the Ericsons, with Richard, his wife Diana and son Matt even hosting celebratory cast parties!

Richard wasn’t the only Principal to jump into the ring, however. The GC Players’ run of Joseph was so successful, they were invited to perform in the Graduate Students’ Centre. When Richard, playing Jacob, wasn’t able to make it, they knocked on Mark Vessey’s door. Mark had filled in as acting Principal the year prior. After impressing Resident Members with his presentation skills as well as his dance moves at Green College parties, Melanie and Vanessa were confident in his ability to play Jacob with short notice. Vanessa says their bet on Mark paid off: “He stepped in so beautifully.”

But like any theatre production, Joseph wasn’t without its challenges. On one memorable night, in the first few minutes of the musical, Richard Ericson as Jacob went to retrieve the amazing technicolor dream coat from a wooden chest but came up empty handed! Melanie, as the stage manager, watched this from the audience with horror. “It’s called the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so it’s kind of a critical prop!” Vanessa, on-stage as one of the brothers, realized that the coat was still hanging on the back of her bedroom door at the College! She made an unplanned exit from the stage, running back to her room to grab the coat. Unfortunately, “it had been raining, so I slipped and made the whole side of my costume brown! I managed to hold the coat up high out of the muck.” Vanessa says. Meanwhile, the actors were singing the ‘Joseph’s Coat’ song and miming their interactions with the coat, to the bemusement of the audience. When a muddy Vanessa burst back onto stage and swung the coat around dramatically, “energy went through the roof.” In recalling the story, Vanessa laughed: “The audience was probably wondering what other surprises we had in store!”

“I think it’s important to say that there was no one involved who was actually studying theatre or music,” Melanie said. “We were all outside of our comfort zone, learning new things, and that’s part of what was so magical about it—just getting to see a different side of people and ourselves. We all learned things about ourselves.”

Melanie was perhaps one of the most affected by her time in GC Players. She is a professional stage manager today—a position that she would not be in if it hadn’t been for Green College. Prior to the GC Players, she had “no clue” what being a stage manager entailed. She signed up for the position because she wanted to participate, but stage manager was the only role that didn’t require performing. “It was kind of a revelation, in retrospect,” Melanie said. “It brought together a lot of skills I had that I didn’t know could all be useful in one job.” It took her a while, after graduation, to begin stage managing again, but when she did, Joseph returned to her life as well. “This is one of those shows that keeps coming back into my life. I think I’ve done it five times now, all in very different contexts.”

Vanessa has taken on a very different role in her professional life as a leader of environmental nonprofit OneEarth Living, but the lessons learned during GC Players stick with her nevertheless. In taking over as play director for Twelfth Night, she remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility. As she gained more experience with The Importance of Being Earnest and Joseph, Vanessa realized that the best way to support a production was to simply “hold it together,” allowing the talented people around her to thrive. For Joseph, the director’s responsibility was split between four Resident Members—Vanessa, Melanie, Dayna Lee-Baggley and Shannon Bredin—a testament to the power of collaboration. The wider UBC community was “so supportive and encouraging” of these productions as well, with the majority  of Green College involved in some aspect of GC Players, and performances taking place in front of sold-out audiences. The UBC Theatre Department and Fencing Club also provided crucial resources. “When we’re in this time of uncertainty about the direction of society in light of our many challenges, having that [experience of] encouragement and teamwork is critical for moving beyond fear to active hope.”

Green College provided a community not only in the form of the GC Players, but also through bolstering conversations around the dinner table. Her first night at Green, Vanessa remembers the sheer diversity of academic disciplines around her. “Within the first moments of sitting down, everywhere I turned people were doing very passionate, amazing work.” And what emerged from these conversations was truly remarkable. “This collaboration to do GC Players, the deep support for each other when we were going through hard times, the encouragement to talk to your crush!… we talked about everything from discussing philosophy and the latest science to the ups and downs of life.”

When asked if she has any recommendations for new residents, Melanie said to explore opportunities without inhibitions. “Don’t stop yourself from doing something because it’s new… I had that conversation with myself before signing up to be stage manager, and now I can’t imagine what my life would be if I hadn’t.” She’s a life-long Green College member, even returning in 2013 to see a production of The Tempest in the Coach House. “It continues… it just takes someone to decide that they want to do it.” And as long as there are residents who continue the legacy of the original GC Players, Melanie and Vanessa are there in enthusiastic support. In reference to upcoming shows, Vanessa said, “We’ll be there in the audience! We’ll bring a whole alumni group to celebrate the magic of Green College theatre.”

  Melanie Thompson is a freelance writer, CAEA stage manager, and arts administrator based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Melanie holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from McGill University and a Master of Arts from the University of British Columbia, both in History. Her scholarly specialty was cultural nationalism in late-19th-century Britain and Europe, and more specifically the role of music and theatre in the formation of identity and community.

Post by: Kyla McCallum, Green College Content Writer and Resident Member.