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Denise Kenney

March2010

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Professor Denise Kenney is an educator’s educator. I suspect she might be surprised by this assessment, but our one-hour conversation in her UBC Okanagan office was as instructive as it was engaging, and this impression is one I cannot dispel despite Professor Kenney’s multiple accomplishments outside education in the film and theatre industries. Having been a member of UBC Okanagan’s Creative and Critical Studies department for three years, Professor Kenney is the first UBC Okanagan faculty member I have interviewed who has a Bachelor of Education Degree as well as other professional accomplishments. She has worked in theatre, dance, film, television, and on independent documentary production, and when I ask, she tells me her Bachelor of Education Degree has assisted her equally in and out of the classroom.

"You know,” says Kenney, “I would have to say, it has been infinitely useful to me. I first worked in Vancouver on a number of features and shorts and wow, that was useful for me because you learn pretty quickly to assess what people’s learning styles are and how they respond to you.”

Professor Kenney goes on to describe for me the many different people working on film production – from the gaffer to the director – and how they all “speak a different language.” She credits the principles of people management taught in her education courses for assisting her in making such productions move forward constructively. She also says, “Ed training [gives] a clear sense of learning outcomes, what you think you are doing, and what you are actually doing. Because you are not teaching curriculum, you are teaching students. With an ed degree, that is pounded into you.”

I listen to Professor Kenney discuss her experiences in the film industry and her ideas about education, and realize that hers is an intellect that is equally creative and analytical. She tells me that her education training prepared her to communicate and collaborate and facilitate environments. She tells me these are the exact things she has done in her professional film career: “So, I have to say, in terms of my under-graduate work, my education degree was as important in some ways as the theatre training was.” Then she concludes, “Weird, eh?”

It takes only moments in Professor Kenney’s company to realize that she enjoys and excels at imparting her knowledge, observations, and also technical skills to others. She brings complicated technical practices to an attainable level for me during our conversation, and yet manages to keep the conversation both interesting and inspiring. Her work reveals that the situations that stimulate her interest are social ones. Reflecting the intricacies of human experience, her professional projects have included observations of the gaze on women (Other Eyes), and domestic violence (Captive Theatre). She tells me that rather than being encouraged to explore themes, “I simply respond to what is interesting or what I am drawn to. I think in all my work I engage in something that I am genuinely interested in or questions that I have or can’t answer... In some ways I don’t set out to make any big changes – they’re just issues I am interested in.”

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This credo is also what Professor Kenney would most like to impart to her students: “The biggest job [students] have is to pursue their genuine interest and let the chips fall where they may. And to pursue meaning. That is a huge job.” She also feels this is the best thing that has ever been taught her, and says, “If I am not doing something that is meaningful for me, then why bother.” On the other hand, the most useful critique she has ever received or could offer involves overcoming fear. She feels it is important to learn to separate her sense of herself as a person from her work. Sometimes her work might fail; it doesn’t mean she as a person has failed. This is the kind of knowledge that allows artists to continue to pursue meaningful projects and still take the criticism that enables the project and the artist to become stronger. “If you are a committed artist then your stuff is out there and... you have to figure out pretty quickly, I have to separate this or I can’t survive this environment... You have to look at [criticism] as potentially diminishing the piece, not you personally.”

Currently, Professor Kenney is excited to be helping her students prepare for a spring presentation with the working title Inside Out. For this performance, Kenney’s students explore the public and private personas of students at UBCO, what is meaningful for them and how this conflicts with public pressures and opportunities to act. “[The performance] is in the ballroom,” Kenney tells me. “The audience will move around the space and there will be little private performances as well as public performance spaces. It is infinitely fascinating when people are being honest and talking about what matters to them. It is theatrical and interesting, so our challenge now is to translate that into performance.”

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It is a good challenge. So is the self-actualization Professor Kenney wants her students to attain. Theatre students at UBC Okanagan, she tells me, tend to be mature with previous theatre experience. When potential students approach Professor Kenney, she tries to direct them where their interests can best be served. Says Kenney, “We often get students who have the notion they want to be actors and they have an image of what that means. I find myself asking the question, do you want to be an actor, or do you want to act? If you want to be an actor, then in some extent you are subscribing to the notion that you need to train for work within the conventional theatre of an actor; if you want to act, well, then you simply act.” It is the later type of person most predominantly attracted to UBC Okanagan, Professor Kenney tells me. “In a really simple way, [acting is] not a commodity but a regenerative process by which you live your life.” Finding meaning within this process can, according to Kenney, be much like the greyhound chasing the rabbit across the track. “The thing in and of itself is fairly meaningless, but to achieve is extremely difficult, so it becomes the holy grail just because it is hard to be successful.”

In her current professional life as an artist, Kenney has just applied with colleague Michael V. Smith for a participatory film project and is working with Professor Nancy Holmes on the Woodhaven Project as well as writing an article for Canadian Theatre Review on Eco Art. She is also working with Professor Neil Cadger on a multi-media interdisciplinary performance piece, previously named Inner Fish but currently called The House at the End of the Road. The change in title Kenney relates to an extreme wide shot narrowed down to a close up. With so many projects on the go, however, it seems clear that Kenney is nowhere close to the end of her own road.

Professor Kenney does tell me that as artists it is possible to lose meaning amidst the struggle to survive. Her own path, though, has been and continues to be full and varied. She is passionate about what she does, and about seeing other artists realize their paths, as well. At UBC Okanagan, Professor Kenney enjoys being a part of facilitating the artistic experience for others.

"The very nature of the work is such that other artists will inevitably have their own journey,” says Kenney. She tells me that she and the other professors at UBC Okanagan are committed to helping students on this very personal journey.

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Article by Leigh Macfarlane

Last reviewed shim11/14/2014 3:50:11 PM