The Baroness von Sketch Show’s Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen get serious about the teachers who inspired them to think creatively and have a deep respect for the arts.
BY BILL HARRIS
PHOTOS: (ABOVE) BLAKE MORROW; (BELOW) SUPPLIED BY TEACHERS
Sketch comedy seems easy when performed well, but Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen know first-hand how difficult it is to master their craft. If you’ve watched the hit CBC series Baroness von Sketch Show, you know it’s a fun and daring romp. Co-created, co-produced, co-written and co-starring Browne, Whalen, Meredith MacNeill and Carolyn Taylor, the series has busted barriers as it barrels toward its fourth season.
Considering the success they’ve enjoyed and the hard work required, the Ontario-born-and-raised Browne and Whalen fondly recall the high school teachers who instilled in them a deep respect for the arts. Browne thinks back to Barbara Kuschak, her art teacher at Fort William Collegiate Institute in Thunder Bay, Ont., while Whalen credits Peter Kunder, her drama teacher at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont.
“I knew of her before she was my teacher; I had four older sisters who had gone to the same high school,” Browne says of Kuschak. “She’s such a personality. She was a loud person (she will say this about herself!) and she was expressive — someone who would talk about her own experiences, as well as the work at hand.”
Browne has a particular memory that continues to inspire her to this day — and it’s especially relevant as she navigates the television business. It’s related to Kuschak’s dissatisfaction with renovations that were being made to her school art room, and she shared her frustrations with the students.
“She told us, ‘I can’t believe it — I was having a discussion with this architect, and I was asking where are we going to put the books, and he was like, you don’t need books to teach art, and I was just so angry!’” Browne says.
“It was a really cool thing for me to see; my parents are quieter, very sincere, deeply Canadian mid-century people — so it was amazing to have this person who could advocate for herself.”
And Browne also appreciated Kuschak’s fantastic feedback. “My philosophy was to teach the student as well as the subject, but not by coddling them or giving them false hope,” says Kuschak, an Illinois native who moved to Canada in the late 1960s to attend Lakehead University, and still lives in Thunder Bay. “Teach them to take constructive criticism, so they learn to think creatively and anticipate issues.
“Visual arts gets a bad rap about being totally in the eye of the beholder, but if the beholder is ignorant of art traditions, history and technical skills — sorry, it is not art, not yet. Everything one does and calls art should be validated by expression, design and/or technical skill — preferably by the artist, and not some well-meaning sympathizer.”
The 33-year teaching veteran recalls the Brownes as remarkable girls who “came as a unit back in the day,” but she described Aurora as the most boisterous of the family.
“Her sense of humour was boundless, but she also had a thoughtful, introspective side,” says Kuschak, who retired in 2002. “I am delighted that she has continued our friendship through social media; I am now also a devoted fan! No teacher could be more impressed and pleased.”
The common theme between Browne’s experience with Kuschak and Whalen’s with Kunder is the notion of taking art to heart and not regarding it as a flight of fancy.
Whalen’s family moved from London, Ont., to Mississauga as she was entering Grade 8; by the time Grade 11 rolled around — factoring in the transition from elementary school to high school — she had attended three different schools in four years. For most, that would be plenty — but not for Whalen. After discovering the specialized arts program at Cawthra Park, she gave her parents a shock when she informed them that she wanted to switch schools again.
“I leapt at the chance,” Whalen says. “I couldn’t tell you what I did for my audition — I was super nervous — but I got into the school, and I was thrilled.”
Once there, Kunder made an immediate impression — not only because he was a good teacher and a nice person, but because he had experience as an actor. One of Whalen’s best memories is when Kunder took her and some classmates on a field trip to Second City in Toronto. Mike Myers was in the cast doing an early version of Wayne, his character later seen in Wayne’s World.
“It really directed the course of my subsequent career,” says Whalen, who eventually took a Second City course when she was in her early 20s. “I don’t know if I ever would have found that had Mr. Kunder not taken us.”
Although Kunder grew up in Stratford, Ont., his immediate family wasn’t into theatre and he didn’t visit the Stratford Festival until years later. He began his career teaching adults at Humber College in Toronto, then transitioned to teaching English at Parkdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto, adding drama when it became a subject at the school in 1970.
While at Parkdale, Kunder worked with Ken Gass in the English department. Through his friendship with Gass, founder of Factory Theatre in Toronto, Kunder entered the acting world — leaving his teaching position in the early 1970s to pursue acting full time. Two years later, Kunder returned to teaching at TL Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga, where he stayed for seven years before applying to Cawthra Park.
“The principal there had the idea to open a regional arts program, because Cawthra Park was suffering from declining enrolment at the time,” Kunder recalls. “So it was a coincidence that I went there, but a happy circumstance.”
Kunder taught at Cawthra Park from 1980–99, then returned to teaching adults — this time at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont., for 14 years. The 45-year-teaching veteran remembers Whalen as a bright and gracious student who excelled in an area that he himself found challenging.
“One of her strengths was improvisation,” Kunder says. “We didn’t spend a huge amount of time on improv in class — it didn’t happen to be one of my strengths. Give me something I can memorize! But every year there was one unit and Jennifer was always fabulous at it.”
According to Kunder, one of the best things about being a teacher in the arts is that sometimes your students wind up doing things that you get to see in public.
“I’ve been watching,” Kunder says of Whalen’s work on Baroness von Sketch Show. “She’s terrific, of course.”
No matter what your chosen field may be, one of the keys to finding success is honouring your craft. Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen learned that lesson from Barbara Kuschak and Peter Kunder, respectively. And, now, with a beloved and critically acclaimed TV show on the air, the viewing public gets to marvel at the creativity and go along for the hilarious ride.
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.