Staff, former students chime in on 'heartbreaking' University Players closure

The closure of the University Players, the theatre company arm of the University of Windsor's School for Dramatic Art, isn't a blow just for students — it'll hit the community hard, former students say after the university announced its closure this week.

"I would liken it to the OHL to the NHL, it's like your feeder, your way of getting known, getting out there, working with directors," said Sean Sennett, a 2019 graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program and now professional actor.

"This is a fundamental part of the program that unfortunately the University of Windsor has blindly and quickly gotten rid of. The university is going to get overlooked more and more now for the arts."

Sennett says the University Players was integral in his development as an actor. And without the company, he doesn't know what the landscape is for current and future students as they study at the school.

Sean Sennett is an actor and 2019 graduate of the University of Windsor's School of Dramatic Art. He is urging the university to reconsider the closure of the University Players, the school's in-house theatre company.
Sean Sennett is an actor and 2019 graduate of the University of Windsor's School of Dramatic Art. He is urging the university to reconsider the closure of the University Players, the school's in-house theatre company. (Kathleen Saylors/CBC)

"The University Players is really an integral part of the School of Dramatic Art because ... it's where you can experiment, put theory to the test, apply it in front of an audience and in front of paying patrons who are excited to go see quality theatre in the community."

On Tuesday, the University of Windsor announced the closure of the University Players and layoff of 10 staff. The union representing some of the staff, CUPE Local 1393, says six of the affected staff work for the University Players.

The university cited budget considerations, including "fluctuating" enrolment, a domestic tuition freeze provincial policy as reasons for the move, as it looks to slash a $5.6 million shortfall.

The university will also close the Entrepreneurship, Practice, and Innovation Centre (EPI Centre) in its current form, though it will be "reimagined," the university said. CUPE Local 1393 said its two members at the EPI Centre are not being laid off but will see changes to the reporting structure of their job.

"Every aspect of all of the different types of drama programs … without the actual theatre production, it's like you're taking out the heart of this community," said Alexandra Filiplic, who graduated in 2016.

She took the Drama in Education and Community program. As part of that program, she took a class that had students work in theatre labs and dramatic criticism. All of that, she says, was done through the University Players.

LISTEN: Kristen Siapas joins Windsor Morning 

Kristen Siapas is one of the staff losing her job in the closure of the University Players and is the president of the Windsor-Essex Theatre Alliance. She says she saw the struggles of the theatre company during the pandemic.

Closure impacts Windsor-Essex theatre community

"It's been tough, but we made it through … and we thought that we had made it through the worst of it. But with the budget cuts coming to the university, obviously, you know, we became an easy target," Siapas said.

"This decision is heartbreaking, not just for us, for the staff, for our students, for their experience, but for the impact to the theatre community as a whole. … It also raises some questions about what this means for the future."

The University Players was set to enter this 66th season in October with a production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They finished what they now know is the players' last production, Little Women, in March.

Kristen Siapas, organizer of Windsor's Jazz in the Park series.
Kristen Siapas is shown in a 2024 file photo. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

"We will still be graduating these students, but they won't have that practical knowledge," Siapas said.

Sennett says he's urging the university to reconsider its decision and even explore possible donors or public-private partnerships, alongside other current and former students who have penned statements.

"We're at a point in society where we're so close to forgetting what human beings need and how humanity operates that we are just concerned about money or power ... rather than who the people are that we are affecting," he said.

"In the acting program, in the University Players, you're able to learn humanity and all of the arts is about that, and it's important."