research furthers innovation and teaching at the University of Lethbridge | summer 08 vol 1 issue 3 Research in Practice Dr. Ches Skinner disseminates his findings on the human condition in front of a full house Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Dr. Ches Skinner, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Lethbridge, wholeheartedly agrees. Fresh off directing the exceptionally well-received production of To Kill A Mockingbird, presented on the University Theatre stage in March, Skinner has reinforced his career-long belief that the theatre is a microcosm of the world at large – a kind of showcase laboratory where life experiments are conducted before the eyes of a riveted audience. As an artist, Skinner has personally experienced the discoveries that occur through the creative process time and time again, but as a scholar and dean of the Faculty, he faces the ongoing challenge of placing those discoveries in an academic context. In an environment where research findings are by-and-large expressed exclusively in print, it can be difficult to explain that performance art is all about experimentation. The finished product – the play – is the end result of hours and hours of research both on and off the stage. “People tend to think of research as something that happens in white smocks,” Skinner says. “In Fine Arts, we don’t work like that, but we’re effectively doing the same thing. We’re trying to get a better handle on who we are, what we’re doing here and the world in which we live. A lot of our exploration has to do with styles and genres, but also with relationships, messages and ideas.” Skinner’s brand of research is organic in nature – a kind of play within the play that aims to find out what works and what does not in relation to the script, its message and how the cast interprets it. “I believe very strongly in the power of creativity,” he says. “I try to create an environment where actors feel safe and free to try things. Someone will eventually say, ‘Wow, that’s really good,’ and what we end up with is a production that is unique to this time, this Lethbridge, this cast.” Because Skinner’s training and expertise are in the area of theatre history and theory, as opposed to studio performance, he has several articles to his credit in publications such as The Journal of Popular Culture, Prairie Forum and Theatre Research in Canada. Still, Skinner is inclined to let his work speak for itself. “I very rarely write about the process because I think my research is adequately disseminated on the stage. Almost 3,000 people saw our production of To Kill A Mockingbird, so more people have been exposed to my work than ever would had I simply written a paper about the script.” Theatrical findings aside, first and foremost Skinner considers himself to be a teacher responsible for nurturing the talents and curiosities of drama students. “My main concern is that fine artists discover their voices and develop the confidence to speak,” says Skinner. “Studio art is collaborative research. Everyone can and should contribute.” This spring, the curtain will close on Skinner’s ten years as dean. During his tenure, the Faculty of Fine Arts made the transition from “School” to “Faculty”; the Department of New Media and bachelor of fine arts degree in new media were introduced; the number of tenured faculty increased from 14 (Spring 1998 Semester) to 26 (Spring 2008 Semester) and the number of fine arts majors grew from 145 to 592 in that same period. Skinner, who was first appointed to a 10-month teaching position at the University of Lethbridge in 1976, has directed more than 30 plays at the U of L during his career. Over the years, he has seen firsthand that theatrical research and production have far reaching impacts. “The message in a play like Mockingbird comes through very clearly,” he says. “It reminds all of us about our responsibilities to each other as members of the human community. Its implications are as valid today as when the play was written.” Skinner was one of the U of L faculty and staff recognized with a 2006 Internationalizing the Teaching and Learning Practice Award from Alberta Advanced Education and Technology for his contributions to the Malaysia Work-Study Program. In 2007, he was named as one of 100 people to make a significant contribution to Alberta theatre in the Alberta Playwrights’ Network’s book, Theatre 100: Celebrating 100 Theatre Practitioners Over 100 Years.