Preserving the magic of theatre and children's literature

Kate Black - 20 October 2016

Valerie and Allen Swanson

Valerie Swanson's Shakespeare professor was an eccentric (the class could tell what he had for lunch by looking at his tie) - but it didn't stop him from teaching her how to read the Bard.

"I don't want you to sit in some dark corner and just read this and fall asleep," Valerie, '59 BA, remembers him saying. "I want you to get up and march around wherever you are, and

speak the words aloud." The lines, he said, mean so much more when they're spoken, not read.

And he was right. Shakespeare, Valerie says, can be "deadly" when the dense old English is restrained to the page. But when actors or students read the words aloud, they breathe life into a 400-year-old text. For Valerie, that's what makes live performances so special - they show that Shakespeare's humour still holds its weight and the dilemmas his characters face aren't all that different from what we experience today.

Theatre is one of the things that bond Valerie and her husband, Allen - she, a self-described "Energizer Bunny" and librarian; he, a civil engineer and the quieter of the two. Valerie took Allen to his first play shortly after they met at the University of Washington in Seattle and they've been hooked ever since. They attend the Shakespeare by the Bow performances in their hometown, Calgary, and the annual theatre festival in Stratford, Ont., every year.

It was this shared love for theatre that inspired the Swansons to support the U of A through a gift in their will. Half of that gift will establish the Shakespeare Travel Scholarship, which will fund drama students' trips to see Shakespeare performances around the world.

'When the curtains part, you're instantly wherever the actors are taking you: that's magic. And I want other people to experience that magic.'

- Valerie Swanson

The Swansons see this gift as a way for students to not only see Shakespeare in action, but to inspire students to continue performing Shakespeare themselves. For the Swansons, theatre has the power to transport and transform audiences - something they hope this gift will bring to future generations.

"When the curtains part, you're instantly wherever the actors are taking you: that's magic. And I want other people to experience that magic," Valerie says.

The other half of the Swanson's gift will establish a children's literature collection in the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. Valerie worked under former chief librarian Peel himself in the university's libraries. He's the one who showed her the importance of libraries and, ultimately, encouraged her to become a librarian herself - first, a children's librarian and then a corporate librarian with TD Canada Trust.

From literature to theatre, it's the arts that allow the Swansons to transcend the responsibilities and realities of the everyday. The couple can't imagine their lives without it and see their gifts as a way to preserve the things they love.

"The imagination is a vital part of being human. If you don't nurture it, you become kind of dry, dusty and boring," Valerie says, with a laugh. "Arts give you quality of life and they need to be supported."