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Passionately pursuing theatre through mentorship program

The RISE UP program aims to get Indigenous, Black, and other young people of colour into a one-on-one mentorship with experienced creatives with similar backgrounds
Shams Al-Haddad, one of the 2023 participants of the RISE UP program offered by the Stratford Festival.

Realizing a passion for theatre certainly wasn't easy for Shams Al-Haddad. 

A 17-year-old student, Al-Haddad has passionately pursued having theatre in her life from a young age. 

“I grew up in Syria,” Al-Haddad told StratfordToday. “And so we didn't really have theatre back there. And then we moved here when I was seven, and I watched Phantom of the Opera … I fell in love with it.”

After asking their drama teacher for advice she began to get involved in local theatre. Since then it has become easier, though Al-Haddad noted that it can still be hard to find audition notices or to meet people of a similar background. 

“I live in Windsor and I do a lot of theatre here,” Al-Haddad explained. “But I haven't met any people of colour in theatre … I just wanted to meet other people and hear their stories and just get to know more people in the industry.”

Enter stage-right, a new program offered by the Stratford Festival: RISE UP: An IBPOC Youth Mentorship Ensemble.

RISE UP, in its second year, is a program geared to getting Indigenous, Black, and other young people of colour into one-on-one mentorship. One of the main goals of the program is to promote the inclusion of individuals of all backgrounds and identities – whether on the stage or behind the scenes. 

Mentors come from many areas in the theatre industry, including acting, directing, design, and production. 

Al-Haddad started acting in productions when she first got started in the industry. Now a little more experienced, she is pursuing behind-the-scenes production. 

Anahita Dehbonehie, a production designer, is Al-Haddad’s mentor. Although it is still early days, on the first meeting Al-Haddad said they spoke about creative concepts, writing and directing instead of just acting. She is looking forward to what they will explore further as the program advances. 

Participants meet virtually once-a-month, alternating between group workshops one month and one-on-one mentorship the next. Two in-person retreat days begin and close the program: the first in Toronto, the second at the Stratford Festival to see one of the 2024 productions. 

This year, according to Kerri Lee, a member of the education department at the Festival, there were more than 70 applicants.

“It's definitely encouraging to see that there's interest, there's passion out there,” Lee said. “And the 10 students that we have this year for the program are all exceptional.”

As East Asian, Lee said that it is empowering and encouraging to see so many young, burgeoning creatives gathered with a similar passion and background. 

For anyone interested in applying for next year, Lee said that there isn’t an exact checklist for successful applicants. Organizers try to pair applicants with the best mentor available to create a strong combination. 

“It's a bit of a puzzle, trying to figure out how to match similarly identifying individuals,” Lee said. “We're just trying to make this the strongest possible combination that we can.”

Participants come from across Ontario. Theoretically, because most of the program is online, the program could be open to anyone in Canada, provided they can make it to in-person events.