The teacher that changed my life

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It's September and no matter how old I get, I can't help but think about the start of school. The sharp change in the way the air smells mixes with the brain chemistry and I am struck with a sudden desire to buy duotangs (do they still use them?)

We are also now embarking on the silly season âe" the campaigning that infects all media in the run-up to a federal election.

Somehow, these two thoughts have merged for me, triggered by the most unlikely of all films: Hamlet 2, starring Britain's brainy court jester, Steve Coogan.

In the film, Coogan stars as a washed up former actor (a self-described "farm boy from Manitoba"!), who ends up teaching drama at a high school in New Mexico. At one point in the movie, Coogan is fighting the bully principal over his re-imagining of Hamlet and has a brilliant, vitriolic monologue about art and freedom that immediately struck me as exactly what I'd say to Stephen Harper about his recent $45-million plus worth of cuts to the arts.

Instead of going on a diatribe about how grants to artists are called "handouts" while tax relief programs for corporations are called "incentives" âe" I'd like to dedicate this article to my high school drama teacher, Ken Agrell-Smith, affectionately known by his hundreds of former students as "Agrell."

If you'd like to join in a campaign against these cuts and the Tory agenda, log onto the Department of Culture site, created by artists Darren O'Donnell (a former Agrell student) and Greg Alstrand.

It was the mid-1980s when I first enrolled as a grade 10 student in Agrell's drama class at Harry Ainlay High School in Edmonton (a.k.a. as the "Home of the Titans"). In our first class, this mountain of a man âe" with a salt-and-pepper beard and a bearing not unlike Moses âe" gazed intently at us.

"What do you think about the starving people of Ethiopia?" blared Agrell as he stroked his ZZ Top beard.

I was mystified, what did this have to do with art? He repeated the question and then pointed at each of us to reply.

Answers were variations on a theme: "I feel kind of guilty and bad about it."

"So, why do you feel guilty?" Agrell said, as if proclaiming a commandment. We just didn't know why.

"Could it be that you've been made to feel that way? Maybe it's the way the media has been reporting it? What if I told you this could have been prevented? That, perhaps, governments are responsible for this?"

I didn't sign up for this but what the heck, Agrell was telling us stuff that no one had bothered to. He was opening doors, pushing us to question the world around us.

At the time, I had no idea that my three years in that dark cave of a drama theatre would provide the light that nurtured my mind and spirit for the rest of my life.

Agrell introduced us to the foundation of theatre, taking us back to Greek and Roman times and explaining the politics that drove theatre. We learned about Aristophanes, Socrates, Joseph Campbell, Freud vs. Jung and agit-prop plays of the time. He made us perform entire monologues from Greek plays. We learned about the pagan myths that would seep into the plots of modern plays.

Essentially, he was giving us a first year course in theatre and a first-rate education in history and politics. Each year, we would tramp through different eras in theatre and touch upon topics of the time. From medieval morality plays to Theatre of the Absurd. I directed A Slight Ache by Harold Pinter in my last year of high school. It is the best memory I have of those awkward years and probably set me up to be the person I am today.

In examining certain plays, we were asked to look at the times the writers lived in and how society and political events may have shaped the play. There is no dollar amount that I can put on Agrell's three-year tutorship. It is priceless.

I went on to study journalism and now I make documentaries. In my most recent project, Twin Trek, I examine the effect of ethnic oppression on identity. The film has been screened a few times in Norway (where it was shot) and bought by several institutions there. It is distributed by Ouat Media.

I got a travel grant from PromArt to screen my film in Oslo back in January. PromArt, administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, provides money for Canadian artists to exhibit their projects and make connections abroad. The $4.7 million program has been cut.

Travelling to Norway allowed me to make invaluable connections, which may trigger a larger documentary project for me. Grants for creating business opportunities are a no-brainer. The amount is a drop in the bucket, but now it's gone.

We are living in the Theatre of the Absurd.

All I want to do these days is crawl back into that theatre cave at Harry Ainlay, where a passionate teacher named Agrell lit a match and fuelled my fire.

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