U of R alum Judy Wensel acts her way to the top
Judy Wensel lives and breathes theatre.
Wensel first discovered her love and passion for live theatre when she was a kid, watching her-now sister-in-law perform in stage productions at the University of Regina, and watching her brother perform in the Canadian Improv Games (CIG).
“My sister-in-law … was a theatre student at the U of R,” Wensel said. “I would have been 10 or 11, and so I got to see her on stage, [which] was one of the big things that sparked my interest. My older brother was an improviser with the Canadian Improv Games. When I was a kid, those were two major influences.”
When the Regina native entered Miller High School in 2002, she followed those influences and got involved in drama classes and camps around the city, becoming involved in the CIG that her brother exposed her to.
Looking back on the experience, Wensel admitted she may have taken the CIG a little more seriously than she should have.
“CIGs are so funny, because they’re so consuming to teams that take it really seriously, and I was definitely one of those improvisers in high school,” Wensel said. “It was like my life during those months.”
That being said, Wensel’s experience at the CIG exposed her to a world of theatre that she never would have been able to reach at that young age had she just stayed in Regina.
When Wensel was in Grade 9, the CIG hosted its annual improv camp in Saskatchewan. The camp has since moved to British Columbia, but the experience was invaluable to Wensel.
“[Improv Camp gave me an] opportunity to meet other improvisers from all across Canada and to learn tons from trainers and teachers, all in a fun summer camp environment,” she said. “That was another big kind of aspect that supplemented my improv [training] in high school.”
But for Wensel, the largest influence on her theatre career came in 2005, when the then-Grade 12 student got involved in the Globe Theatre’s Fusion Project, a training program for young actors to work on and create new work.
“It was the first year of the Fusion Project, which still occurs at the Globe, and Joey Tremblay conceived it and directed it that year,” she said. “That gave me my first taste of acting on a semi-professional level, not because I was in high school, but at a theatre company I guess. It also gave me my first taste of theatre creation and developing new work, which continues to be a love and focus.”
It would ultimately be her involvement in the Fusion Project that would push her into studying theatre at the U of R in 2006.
“When I was applying for university, it was either go into arts ed or go into theatre,” she said. “And my parents were like, ‘Arts ed, arts ed,’ but I was like. ‘Theatre, theatre.’”
Wensel won over her parents and went on to study theatre at the U of R, which she said gave her “a wide-range of experiences and knowledge in different forms and styles.”
Despite the wealth of knowledge she gained from her university education, she still felt that her improv roots were being neglected. In 2007, she co-founded and co-produced Combat Improv with Daniel Maslany, whom she met during her circuit of theatre classes and camps in high school.
“All throughout university that was something I was always doing,” Wensel said. “Because improv to me is a huge love, and I wanted a place to perform, and I wanted there to be a place where my friends and other improvisers could perform.”
Wensel didn’t leave her Globe Theatre roots behind when she enrolled at the U of R and started Combat Improv. Throughout her degree, she remained involved with the Globe as a teacher at its theatre school and performed in shows on the Schumiatcher Sandbox stage.
In her third year, Wensel got involved with the Globe Theatre Young Company, which would reunite her with her Fusion Project director Joey Tremblay.
“Essentially the idea is that it’s a step up from the Fusion Project,” Wensel said. “Graduates of the Fusion Project … create a company and create a new show … The idea of the young company is to create new work, so we created a show called The Alice Nocturne, which was written by Joey but co-created by all of us.”
The show proved to be immensely popular, and was commissioned by the Globe Theatre to be expanded into a full-length production in the fall of 2009, which Wensel also performed in.
But prior to her involvement in the full-length production of The Alice Nocturne, Wensel was involved in yet another new work, Daniel MacDonald’s Radiant Boy, in the spring of 2009 as a part of her graduating practicum.
Wensel and the rest of her graduating class began work on the play almost a year before it premiered, and credits MacDonald, who also taught her creative writing and drama in high school, as one of the reasons for the show’s success.
“He was someone I was always so fond of as an artist, as a teacher, and as a human, so it was really, really great to work with him in a theatre sense,” Wensel said. “That show was so much fun and I guess something that always brings me back is creating new work or wanting to work on new work, whether its ensemble creation or working on a new play with a playwright, it’s just that you feel this sense of ownership or like connectedness in the room where it was first happening … I mean, I also like reading a play and then being part of the rehearsal process to bring that play to life, but there’s a special spark in being in the room when it’s first coming to fruition.”
And it’s the excitement of creating new work and working with established work that Wensel finds herself returning to today. Wensel was involved in a handful of productions at the Globe Theatre after graduation, including The Alice Nocturne, Marion Bridge, and the upcoming Robin Hood, but she was recently she was involved in creating Dot & Mae: Delusions of Grandeur, an amalgamation of traditional and improvisational theatre styles, with fellow Combat Improviser Lucy Hill for the Schuimatcher Sandbox Series.
Wensel is also returning to the Fusion Project this year, this time as a director with Daniel Maslany.
“[It’s] kind of coming full-circle with that show, because that’s where my interests are rooted, I think, and now being able to take it over is really neat [and] really exciting,” she said.
Wensel said she was excited to go back and work with young theatre actors, as she kind of sees a bit of herself in them.
“It’s really humbling,” she said. “There’s such a magic in their energy and their openness, which I feel like when you get older you kind of get set in their ways, like a cynical edge or something to you.
“They’re the kind of crème de la crème of energetic youth. So it’s really exciting working with these kids. They’ll jump in hands tied behind their back headfirst, so even just remembering I used to be totally like that, and I don’t think it’s all gone, like I think I still do that, [but] there’s a freshness to them that’s really, really lovely.”
As Wensel comes into her own as a theatre artist, she’s aware that she’s not the only artist in Regina who has had as many opportunities as she has had for growth. She credits her experiences at both the Globe Theatre and the U of R as instrumental in fostering her growth as an artist.
“I think the U of R has provided me with array of experiences and knowledge,” she said. “I mean, I could have read a book, but I guess this is a better route to study. I love that at the same time I was able to learn at the U of R and at the Globe and [the] two supplemented each other.”
And for Wensel, winning the Stage West-Equity Emerging Theatre Artist Award this year is a reminder of what you can achieve in Regina.
“Receiving the award was so jarring, but gave me a lot of hope because I think artists [are often] hoping to have a nationally recognized career,” she said. “When you’re in Regina, you feel segregated from a national community, and I’ve had that great opportunity to work with directors from out there that the Globe brings here.
“It is doable, it is thinkable to want to pursue a career in the arts and hope that it is something that can one day be national. I think you feel a bit cut off from the world here sometimes in a small community, which I love … It’s definitely not just me, it’s a whole kind of generation of us who are emerging into our careers.”