In 1987, SFU’s Patricia Gruben and Colin Browne had the foresight to convince the BC government that developing screenwriters meant developing the province’s film industry. With a grant from BC’s Funds for Excellence in Education, they established the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts.
A few years later, SFU stepped in to become the centre’s core funder. Over the years, as a centre for the professional development of screenwriters, Praxis has helped develop over 200 scripts — more than 30 of which have been produced as feature films.
In June, Gruben was honored for her contributions to Canada’s film industry at the Women in Film and Television (WIFTV) 2015 Spotlight Awards, where she was presented with the Teamsters 155 Woman of the Year Award. The award acknowledges her significant success in film as well as her mentorship of other women in the industry.
Carolyn Combs, Executive Director of WIFTV, noted that it was a pleasure and privilege to honour so many women at the Spotlight Gala for their high level of achievement, but that Gruben was well deserving of the award. “It honours her career,” Combs said. She added that Gruben has been “a key influence in the industry for a long time not just as a professor, but also as an artist.”
An associate professor with the School for the Contemporary Arts, Gruben is the Director of the biennial field school to India and the director of Praxis. She completed graduate studies in film at the University of Texas, and then moved to Toronto, where she established herself in set and art direction.
She also delved into experimental narrative film, and her work has screened at festivals such as Sundance, the New York Film Festival, and TIFF. In 1982 she moved to Vancouver to teach film production at SFU. She also helped organize WIFTV to create a way for women in film and television to support each other and advocate for better access to key creative and leadership opportunities in the industry.
In an interview with The Peak, Gruben reflected on the early days of WIFTV. “We used to get together and everyone else had these well-behaved baby girls who would sit nicely in their carriers. I had twins,” she said wryly, “and they were boys.” WIFTV now has over 300 members and is part of a coalition of 15 organizations representing women in Canadian media that has taken its concerns over the wide gender and racial gaps noticeable in public funding of media to the Canadian government.
Recently, Gruben’s interests in experimental narrative led her to conceive of an immersive transmedia experience inspired by the famed 19th century Russian occultist Madame Helena Blavatsky. One part play, The Secret Doctrine, and one part multi-media installation The Veil of Nature: Museum of Liminal Science, her project was a collaboration with Martin Gotfrit, composer, instructor, and Associate Dean of FCAT Undergraduate Studies, and Toronto-based designer Marian Wihak. Gruben is now working on two feature screenplays set in India and plans to do more installation work.
This year is a poignant moment for Gruben to be acknowledged for her work at Praxis, because the centre will soon be leaving SFU. In the wake of post-secondary budget cuts, SFU’s capacity to support Praxis has dwindled. In 2014, the program lost its last piece of funding, with which Gruben used to employ the program’s assistant, Liz Cairns.
Vancouver filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich, a Creative Advisor for Praxis’s Workshop Series for Feature Scripts, knew of WFF’s interest in promoting Canadian film and developing a space for emerging artists similar to the Sundance Institute. The first WFF-Praxis Screenwriters Lab was held during the 2014 Whistler Film Festival. Gruben plans to remain involved with the Screenwriters Lab and is investigating ways to keep access to the program open for SFU students.