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UWindsor's decision to cut University Players theatre group sparks outcry

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Ahead of the University Players' 66th season this fall, Allyson Johnston has been preparing to fulfill a dream she's had since she was eight years old: to perform in a leading role with a professional theatre group.

Currently taking summer classes to dedicate more time to the four productions staged annually by the University Players, Johnston has already been cast in a leading role for the fall production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

However, this week brought news she describes as “devastating.”

Johnston learned that the theatre production unit within the University of Windsor's School of Dramatic Art is being cut due to campus-wide budget reductions.

"We got one email that basically said, 'We have news about the University Players.' When we opened it, it basically said it is no longer going to be a thing," said Johnston. "I was shocked. I was angry."

The University of Windsor announced it will eliminate 10 staff positions and cease operations of the University Players to save $5.6 million.

The University of Windsor School of Dramatic Art will continue running but without its theatre production arm, starting in the 2024-25 academic year. (Sanjay Maru/CTV News Windsor)

"The University of Windsor, like many post-secondary institutions in Ontario, is grappling with significant external pressures on budgets from ongoing domestic tuition freezes, provincial policy and funding impacts, competitive forces, and fluctuating enrolment," the school said in a statement released on Feb. 18.

The upcoming 2024-25 academic year is Johnston's final year as a student in the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting program at the University of Windsor. This was her last chance to perform on stage as a student, which is crucial for her acting portfolio.

"In our first year, the first thing we are told is that, ‘In your fourth year, you're going to be in two shows and you need to be in them to graduate,’" said Johnston. "So we're all at a loss."

"Our season had already been announced. We've already been cast. We know our roles. So we're all at a loss," she said.

Kristen Siapas, a former University Players performer and now a staff member in the School of Dramatic Arts, said she will be affected by the layoffs.

Speaking with CTV News, Siapas expressed uncertainty about her job status due to the staffing changes.

"Honestly, our biggest concern is the legacy of University Players. So many of us have years of hard work into this theatre company and to see that all of it ending after 65 years of history is the most devastating thing," said Siapas.

According to Siapas, some current theatre performers in Stratford started their careers with the University Players. Locally, the University Players has been a "backbone" of Windsor's growing arts scene.

"Many leaders of different arts organizations in Windsor-Essex have come through this program," said Siapas. "We’re hearing similar sentiments from across Canada. Our graduates are everywhere."

Siapas believes the university's financial decision signals that administrators view the University Players as expendable, disregarding the arts' impact on people's lives.

"It feels like an abrupt cut in the middle of building this season. Shows have been designed, and costumes made. Cutting us off now is heartbreaking," said Siapas.

Johnston is particularly upset about the timing of the budget announcement, as high school graduates might have recently accepted admission into the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting program, expecting to perform with the University Players in their fourth year.

"There are the students who are years under me, the first, second, and third years, who no longer will have the opportunity to be on stage like they expected. So it's just so upsetting for all of us," said Johnston.

In a statement to CTV News, the University of Windsor acknowledged, "This is a challenging time for our community, especially for current and past students who worked directly with University Players and may have questions about their future."

"Faculty are actively working to develop immediate solutions within our programming to ensure that students still have meaningful avenues for experiential learning and meet their graduation requirements," the university said in a statement, adding more information will be shared with students in the coming months.

"Credits directly related to University Players are being reimagined to include new programming, interdisciplinary opportunities, and fostering collaborations within the university and strengthening relationships with the broader theatre community."

The University Players first formed in 1958.

“It sucks that the arts is always the first thing to go,” added Johnston. “When was the last time you went without interacting with some sort of art? On your phone, watching TV, listening to music on your way to work. It's something we all interact with every day but it's the first thing that they decide to cut every time when it comes to education.”

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