Madison Thomas on film set.
Madison Thomas on film set.

MTYP Theatre School Alumni shine in CBC’s Burden of Truth

It’s impossible to watch CBC’s Burden of Truth without seeing at least one MTYP Theatre School alumnus.

Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with MTYP Instructor Madison Thomas who has been working in the film industry as a writer, producer, and director for many years. She started her own film educational journey at the University of Winnipeg, and then onto Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. Madison is of Ojibway/Saulteux and Russian/Ukrainian ancestry, and was the first ever Indigenous person from Canada to attend the school in Prague. After writing and directing countless films of her own, Madison most recently wrapped up a four-season stint working on CBC’s Burden of Truth.

Burden of Truth is set in the fictional town of Millwood, Manitoba and follows a lawyer who returns to her roots and helps those who do not have a voice navigate the choppy waters of justice.

The two production companies behind Burden of Truth are ICS in Toronto, and Eagle Vision, based in Manitoba. Madison had worked extensively with Eagle Vision on their documentaries work, but, as she describes herself, she “was ready to move into writing and directing serialized work.” Madison subsequently began working for Eagle Vision wearing many different hats each season for Burden of Truth. In season one she served as a director shadow under Jordan Canning. In season two, she shadowed the producers.  Then in season three the show’s creator, Brad Wall, sent Madison off to Toronto. Wall wanted a Manitoba perspective in the writer’s room “Because,” as Madison explains, “even though it’s set in Manitoba, it had only been written by Toronto-based writers.” Happy with her work in the writers’ room, they asked her to write a full script for season four.  Halfway through that process, she was invited to direct a few episodes, “And that’s the journey of Burden!” she exclaimed.

Madison has been a part of MTYP for quite some time, most recently co-instructing the After School Leaders program. ASL is a free program of the Province of Manitoba, that MTYP has been selected to deliver on their behalf, and is open to all Manitoba high school students. The MTYP ASL courses are specialized, with a focus either in musical theatre or film, and the teens are encouraged to gain hands on experience during class time. For many participants, this is their only opportunity to access arts education and participation.

However, Madison was not the only MTYP connection on the set of Burden of Truth. MTYP Theatre School alumni Victoria Turko, Brynn (Tyra) Godenir, Reanna Swan, and Julia Davis all took part in various episodes of the show. “We squeezed a lot of MTYP grads in there,” said Madison, her smile evident in her telling. Knowing Madison had worked with youth, the show asked her to forward some names of young actors to audition. All were subsequently booked on the show. As Madison herself observed, the success of these young actors “really is a testament to MTYP’s training and what it has done to prepare these young women.” The characters are a far cry from the kinds of parts the four young actors would normally play in Theatre School productions at MTYP. Their roles on the show were intense, including, in the case of Turko’s character, depicting a human trafficking survivor. “There were no easy scenes,” said Madison.

Actor Victoria Turko sitting on bed looking sad
Victoria Turko. Still from CBC’s Burden of Truth Episode 2, Season 4 (5:30)

The MTYP connection to the show continues though. Peter Mooney, who plays Billy Crawford on the series, also went to MTYP as a teen and is “the ultimate MTYP graduate,” exclaimed Madison. She continued that “Burden has a lot of reasons to thank MTYP…I wouldn’t be surprised if half the local cast didn’t attend MTYP at some point.”

The film industry has had to evolve in the pandemic era, and Madison talked about how in an odd way there were pros and cons to the new ways of working. “On the positive side of things, I think the reason why so many local performers were considered for season four in all of the guest roles was because of COVID.” Madison continued, “They really were trying not to fly in people in for smaller roles.” In the past, it was commonplace to bring in actors from Toronto or Vancouver, something that always bothered Madison, who believes “there is a wealth of talent here in the acting community.”

While that may be a positive, there were certainly challenges to filming during a pandemic, like trying to direct and communicate to the actors while wearing a mask. “They can’t read my expression, so I need to be extra clear in my direction,” she said. Madison’s voice took on a sensitive tone as she continued, “This might sound super sappy and a little sad,” she continued, “but it was hard to wrap up four seasons of a show and not hug anyone.” Little things like having lunch together or having a wrap party “had to go away.” Even though those common traditions of saying goodbye were gone, there was still “so much pride in getting things done.” She added: “And done well, if I say so myself!”

“It is a really emotional thing closing out a show,” she says, but hopes for opportunities in the future to work with the artists and crew again. And it will certainly not be long before Madison is working with an MTYP Theatre School graduate again. Soon, she will start on a new film where Victoria Turko is working as a stand in. “I keep people in my orbit as soon as they enter,” she says about the MTYP talent, “and they don’t get to leave!”