I try to conjure up passion and enthusiasm. I hope students see I care about the subject. They might not remember all the content but I try to draw them into this rich and varied world. I am the MC, the cipher through which they follow my journey and passion.
You want Tim Fort on your team if you are playing a board game that requires extensive knowledge of the field of musical theatre. Since he was a young boy, Fort has lived and breathed this art form. "I lived near New York City when I was growing up, and my mother took me to Broadway shows. I even saw the original stage production of The Sound of Music with the 40-year-old Mary Martin playing an 18-year-old nun. My parents also gave me a 78 rpm record player and the original cast albums of South Pacific, so I played them all. I have loved musical theatre since I was small, but never really thought of going into it."
In fact, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Fort only did his first play at 16. When he headed to Amherst College in Massachusetts, he had plans to be an English major and eventually a writer. "But then I started doing college plays, and eventually went to The Drama Centre at the University of Toronto. There, I met many who went on to become forces in Canadian theatre, and I started working in the Toronto theatre scene myself."
Learning from an industry legend...
He did a lot of acting, directing and designing in those early years – much of it with Toronto Truck Theatre. "These were great learning opportunities and, in 1980, Truck Theatre invited Josh Logan, who wrote the book for South Pacific with Hammerstein, to do his one-man show and to direct Charlie's Aunt. I was Assistant Director – so there I was, working side-by-side with him! He was in his seventies by then, and was still famous for having directed Marilyn Monroe in the movie Bus Stop. He was stopped and asked about Monroe every single day. But, always the southern gentleman and a great storyteller, he always acted like he had never heard the question before, and seemed to add a new part to the story every time. He couldn't stand to tell any story the same way twice."
By 1986, Fort was a union lighting designer, the Producing Director at The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company in Vermont, and was teaching at Queen's. He credits his success with some very important teachers early in his life. "I had a grade 7-8 teacher who was hard on us about getting the rules of writing and our grammar right. I had another great English teacher in grade 11, too. So I got a firm grounding from both of them and learned to write really well. Also, we had smaller classes in those days, so you were never faceless."
At the University of Toronto, scholar Ann Saddlemyer became a huge mentor to Fort. "She would walk into a class with three notes on a card and give amazing lectures. She was also rigorous about marking. I was her TA and she barely let me do it. She would go over every single paper, showing me how to do it better. She worked with me and I sat in on all her lectures. She had endless time for people she cared about, and showed me not only how important it is to spend the time on marking, but also how to slow down and focus, and how to be passionate about a subject."
The approachable approach...
Fort tries to bring that wisdom to his own teaching. "I've always been enthusiastic about my subject – that comes easily. But I'm always trying to be approachable so students feel like I'm in the trenches with them and not some god on high. Others here in Queen's Drama feel the same way. Some have 180 students in their class, and make a point of learning all their names in the first three weeks."
His student Radissen Ramoutar is a huge fan. "Professor Fort understands. He understood me in first year when I was trying to figure it all out. He understood me in second year when I got in over my head. He understood me in third year as I started to discover my passions, and he understands me now, in fourth year, as I take on different leadership positions. No matter what path we take or where we end up, he understands. Whether it is because he had been there before or just because he listens, he just gets us. He guides us along as we journey forward and we are fortunate to have him always there, understanding."
Fort is always looking to grow as a teacher as well, and wrestles with the new technologies that students bring to class. "It is a fact now that students multi-task in class with their laptops. They have grown up that way, so it becomes essential for us to compel them to want to hear by virtue of the information itself. I was watching a theatre production in the round once, and the young person in front of me was talking to a friend on his iPhone. Suddenly he said, "You have to hear this" and then held up his phone to the stage. I wondered if this was rude, or perhaps, just like at a Lady Gaga concert, this is the language of live performance. After all, it was done out of enthusiasm."
"So if kids multi-task, perhaps I need to multi-present. In my large musical theatre class, I play audio clips, we listen to music, I lecture, and I tell stories about musical theatre. I am still a working practitioner, so I have experienced this subject and been transformed by it. I hope they can see that I care about it deeply. They might not remember all the content, but I try to draw them into this rich and varied world. I am but the MC, the cipher through which they follow my journey and passion. Hopefully they think – if this person can do this, I can do this."
Where make-believe meets real-life experience...
These days, Fort still does a lot of directing as well as teaching advanced directing, theatre administration, and two musical theatre classes. "And in all of these classes, I do believe that it is the assignments that they work on themselves that are the most valuable part of what they will take away. What keeps them engaged and what they do themselves will be better than me telling them about anything."
To that end, in musical theatre class, Fort has students write an essay about any topic they want in the subject area. "They can chose any work ever written, but they must care about it. If I know practitioners still living who can help them, I put them in touch with those people." The second task his students have to do is a Backer's Audition. "Basically, they can work with any story that hasn't been "musicalized" and make it a musical. Or they can take an existing musical and prep it (making casting, staging and design decisions) as if they were going to direct it."
In the Theatre Administration class, his students learn the power structure of how shows and theatre companies are put together. "One assignment is for them to create an actual theatre company themselves, where they need to plan everything from the season's budget to how to handle waste disposal. Later they have to do a White Paper on a real theatre company. They have to contact the company and engage with them directly. Many are actually offered jobs with the companies they write about once the course is over! They have to do the assignments themselves. I simply become the facilitator which is essentially the same job I do as a theatre director. I just try to facilitate them being brilliant. I hope to help people realize what they have and what they are and bring it out."
Fort admits he would never want any other life. "I still get up and am amazed that I work in this world and teach it. Passion and immersion and some structural technique in a subject are still important. Every class is a show and it always has to sound fresh. So, just like that writer of South Pacific, I have to always act as if I have never heard the question before."
Profile by Patricia Henderson