History

Off the Wall offered its first season of classes out of a shop at the Stratford Festival and a small ground level studio in one of Stratford’s oldest downtown neighbourhoods. Off the Wall began by offering fall weekend workshops, after the Festival’s production artists’ contracts were completed, in such specialty areas as artistic welding, sculpting and prop making. Encouraged by the response to enrollment and positive student evaluations we received, we sought a larger venue where we could expand the program.​

Photo by Irene Miller

Off the Wall recognized the need to expand from casual weekend workshops for hobbyists, to a summer course suitable for high school and university students with a keen interest in theatre. A two-week Setting the Scene course was introduced in 2008, giving students intensive backstage production experience -- interpreting designers’ sketches and renderings, building masks and props, and assembling and lighting a stage set.  Setting the Scene continues to be Off the Wall’s most popular course today. For the next three seasons, Off the Wall continued summer courses and fall workshops, all the while raising funds to build a teaching studio.

Photo by Irene Miller

Off the Wall expanded the program again to include six specialized one-week courses that run in tandem with Theatre Production Arts in 2012.  This same year marked the start of Off the Wall’s collaborations with local, independent theatre companies in a unique arts education initiative. Our students have the opportunity to create a set, complete with all props, masks, and puppets, for a professional theatrical production.

 

Partnering with small theatre companies gives students the opportunity to liaise with designers, directors and actors, strengthening their understanding of theatre's collaborative process and gaining an appreciation for the world that actors inhabit. We continue to serve the community by supplying high-quality sets and displays to small acting companies or arts groups that could not afford them otherwise.

In the summer of 2014, Off the Wall formed an educational alliance with the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at the University of Windsor.  Students enrolled in that program can receive two transfer credits for each Off the Wall course they complete successfully.  We are currently in discussions with other colleges and universities, hoping to establish similar partnerships throughout the province.

Today, Off the Wall offers more than 100 instructional days a year, including the five-week certificate in Theatre Production Arts and the two-week Setting the Scene program, as well as increasingly popular fall weekend workshops. We employ about a dozen artist instructors and welcome students from across Canada and beyond. We are proud that many of our students have gone on to careers in backstage theatre arts.

Founders

Off the Wall Stratford Artists Alliance was founded in 2005 by artist Susan Starkweather and master props builder, Ken Dubblestyne. Recognizing a shortage of intensive learning opportunities, Off the Wall was formed to raise awareness about the backstage world of theatre and to inspire the next generation of production artists.

 

Personally inspired by the generous mentorship both received from world renowned designer, Desmond Heeley, Susan and Ken collaborated to establish a creative environment where teamwork, inclusivity, imagination and artistic growth are encouraged and nurtured.  

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Photo by Irene Miller

In the winter of 2006, Off the Wall moved to Factory163, a historic furniture factory rejuvenated to provide arts organizations with an ideal “space to create.” We have made the factory our home for the past 12 years. Off the Wall was incorporated in April 2006, and attained charitable status the following year.

Photo by Irene Miller

In June 2011, Stratford’s Mayor and Perth/Wellington’s MPP cut a steel ribbon leading to the Desmond Heeley Theatre Production Arts Studio at Factory163. Thanks to further fundraising efforts on the part of Off the Wall’s volunteer Board of Directors, the factory studio is now equipped with a vacuum-forming machine, welding machines, fume extractor hood, band saws and more, allowing students the full backstage production experience.

 

In the summer of 2011, we expanded our program to include a six-week summer course in Theatre Production Arts (which was shortened to five weeks in 2015). The course was designed for students with keen interest in pursuing apprenticeships in large theatres, employment in small theatres, or further study in theatre and visual arts programs at the university and college level. Theatre Production Arts introduces participants to all the skills required by artists working backstage in theatres -- text analysis and design interpretation; mask and prop making; scenic painting (marble, brick and wood facades); set building, decorating, assembling and lighting.

Off the Wall’s 2013 summer program culminated in a fully realized stage production of “A Wind in the Willows Christmas” that was produced by Alternative Theatre Works and performed by seasoned professional actors on sets and in masks built by the production arts students.  The production was promoted and supported by the Stratford Tourism Alliance, and included workshops at four elementary schools, and special showings for elementary school children. This same production was redeveloped and expanded in December 2014.

Off the Wall and Theatre Ontario launched a new theatre education partnership in 2017. Funding from both the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) and RT04 (Ontario’s regional tourism funder), allowed the two organizations to learn under the same roof for two weeks in Stratford’s historic Factory 163. The partnership enabled students to see theatre from a new perspective, combining Off the Wall’s extensive workshops in all things behind-the-scenes − set assembly and decoration, prop building and mask making − with Theatre Ontario’s immersive acting, directing and playwriting courses

Timeline photos from Off The Wall archives.

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©2016 Off The Wall  |  design by Creative Feats  |  title photos by Terry Manzo and Bill Chan |  additional photos used with permission