With theatres dark since the start of COVID-19, performers have sought to deliver their art through virtual mediums such as Zoom, Facebook Live, and Vimeo. But these digital options lack a key element of performance: a live, responsive audience.
“I don’t believe theatre exists without an audience,” says Sandra Guerreiro, Audience Services Manager in the University of Victoria’s Department of Theatre. “A live show actually changes depending on the audience. The audience informs the show. The show is not real without an audience. It’s just a rehearsal.”
Guerreiro has attended almost every performance of every show at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre since 1982. She speaks from experience when she says the magic of live theatre requires a symbiosis of performers and audience. Energy from the stage intermingles with energy from the audience, creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A graduate of the UVic Theatre program, Guerreiro has worked in the department for 35 years, since the year after her graduation in 1985. She’s part of a small team of eight PEA members, from technical director to the head of wardrobe, to head of props, who form the department’s core professional staff. She met her husband, Charles Procure, through UVic theatre; he held the head of scenic construction position for more than 30 years until his retirement in 2020. Two of their three sons went through the department; their third, a dancer, studies performance at another institution.
Although she started as an actor, Guerreiro’s calling has been to ensure audiences have an incredible experience at the theatre. Her passion for the work comes through in her memories of past shows at the Phoenix. She recalls in delightful detail scenes of crowds jumping to their feet, cheering; shows held over due to demand, and audience members donating funds to the theatre, moved to give by the power of performance. “They’re not just coming to see the show. They’re supporting the students, the process, the creative experience,” she says.
Originally from Vancouver, Guerreiro was introduced to UVic in 1981, when she attended a seven-week summer theatre program for high school students from across the country. It changed her life.
“I fell in love with UVic theatre,” she remembers. “I thought, these are my people, this is what I want to do and where I want to go.”
Already scheduled to begin her post-secondary studies at Langara College, Guerreiro returned to Vancouver for one year and then transferred to UVic. She’s been there ever since.
As an acting student, Guerreiro performed in student productions but also learned about theatre administration. Over the summers she balanced acting with working shifts in the theatre’s box office.
The summer after graduating, half-way through the teacher education program at UVic, her supervisor and mentor, Bindon Kinghorn, the theatre manager of the Phoenix at the time, asked her why she was leaving the theatre to teach. Guerreiro jokingly answered, “It’s not like someone’s offering me a job.” The next day, Kinghorn did just that, offering her a part-time position as his assistant.
She took the job, and over the next three decades, the position evolved to match the changing times. She went from assistant to the theatre manager, to assistant theatre manager to audience services manager, with a few other titles in between.
“I guess I made myself indispensable,” she says humbly. “Literally, I created my job based on my own skills.”
In addition to her work as an audience services manager, Guerreiro team-teaches a production management course for first- and second-year students. The other theatre PEA staff also instruct in their areas of specialization—costumes, lighting and sound, stage management, scenic construction, props, communications, and audience services.
She also plans special events for the department, which over the years have drawn thousands of people and raised tens of thousands of dollars. She organized the department’s 25th and 50th anniversaries, the latter of which involved six themed events over a long weekend. It was attended by alumni from across Canada and the United States and as far away as England.
Guerreiro confesses that finding work-life balance is a work in progress. The typical 9 to 5 schedule doesn’t exist in the theatre world, even when the theatre is connected to an institution that follows more traditional business hours. It’s not unusual for the production team to work all day and stay at the theatre late into the night, Guerreiro explains, admitting she has even postponed two family funerals during show runs. “No one forced me to do this, and my department was very supportive of me taking any time off, but I just felt that I couldn’t leave my students or my department without back up,” she says.
When asked what it is that makes theatre people devote that kind of time, effort and heart to a production, she laughs and says, “Artists are kind of crazy. They’re very, very committed and passionate about their art.”
For her, it’s also about love of what she does: “I love working with students. I believe in what we do; I believe in the program.”
Guerreiro’s commitment to her theatre students and colleagues inspired her to get involved with the PEA in 1995, the year the UVic chapter was formed. She’s been a local representative from the start and has sat on every bargaining committee since 2004. She’s also a member of the committee that meets with university administration in between rounds of bargaining and was recently elected to the UVic PEA executive.
For someone with self-declared difficulty achieving work-life balance, why add this extra commitment? Because of her colleagues, Guerreiro says. “I feel like, here in the Department of Theatre, we’re different. We’re a small department and a poor department, and we have different needs when it comes to our collective bargaining,” she explains. She wants to be a voice for her colleagues and to play an active role in conversations with the university about the best interests of the department.
Joining the PEA helped immensely with improving working conditions, she adds. Now members track their overtime and are compensated fairly for it.
Work-life balance has been better during COVID-19, Guerreiro admits, but it’s only because public performances are prohibited. She feels the loss immensely. Live theatre is her vocation and passion; her work and life. Audiences feel the loss, too, she says. “I’ve been doing a donation campaign, contacting all our patrons. They’ve been so generous. They say they miss the work we do.”
Livestreamed performances are on the horizon for the Phoenix Theatre, but they don’t have the same magic, for either students or audiences, Guerreiro says. Nonetheless, as audience services manager, she’ll use her creativity to think of ways to engage people watching on screens. As she always has, she’ll adapt her role to deliver an unforgettable theatrical experience.
Remembering theatergoing before COVID-19, she reminisces about productions she’s seen at the Phoenix, on Broadway, and in London’s West End. She recalls musicals attended during family holidays and plays she snuck out to between conference sessions. She describes the thrill of being thoroughly swept up by the energy of a performance that closes with a genuine, spontaneous standing ovation.
“You just stand up,” she says. “You don’t even know you’re standing up; your body just does it. You’re yelling and clapping. You are in love. That’s what I love about theatre.”