Teaching by story-telling

Knowing how to tell stories takes practice.

Sugith Varughese is a professional teller of stories and teaches screenwriting at Centennial College’s East York campus. For him and his students, telling a story is not as simple as it might seem.

 “There are things to learn about how to tell a story and you may have a great story to tell, but if you don’t know how to tell it, nobody’s going to hear it,” Varughese said.

Varughese is this year’s “storyteller-in-residence” at the college. Several of the programs at the Carlaw Avenue campus, such as journalism, game design and film, incorporate various forms of storytelling.

Although he is now in his second year at Centennial, Varughese, who also plays a recurring role on the television show Little Mosque on the Prairie and has been nominated for several Genie and Gemini awards, never anticipated teaching.

 “I’m not really a teacher by profession,” he said. “I have taught, but I’m a screenwriter by profession. They wanted somebody who would crank up the level of storytelling in the program.”

Varughese teaches the second year film and broadcast students using various key techniques.

 “My approach is kind of holistic in that we go to square one in terms of what is a story and I start the semester by asking that question,” he said.

He helps students get a better understanding of storytelling and encourages them to develop their own liking towards story.

 “(We) try and analyze how great stories have worked and by using that analysis figure out some principles,” he said.

Varughese grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and was the first student at the University of Saskatchewan to complete two years with a pre-med/drama double major. He then transferred to the University of Minnesota and graduated with a major in Theatre Arts.

After returning to Canada, Varughese remembers his first job in the business while studying film at York University.

 “It wasn’t what I was learning in school, it was that the guy who was teaching was a producer at CBC television in the drama department,” he said. “I gave the script to him to read as part of my course and he liked it and invited me to pitch an idea for a TV series he was producing…. I learned screenwriting by teaching myself by learning on the job. My course is the course I wish I had taken.”

Since breaking into the field, Varughese has written for such TV series as “Fraggle Rock,” and “Blue Murder.” He has won various awards such as a Governor General’s medal and a Writers Guild of Canada award, although he admits winning an award in Canada doesn’t guarantee winners a set path in life.

 “I won a thing called the York Trillium Award for the most promising writer in television and I didn’t work for 11 months after that,” he said. “I get nervous when I get nominated now.”

As for the future, Varughese has no plans to leave the East York campus, as it continues to help him.

 “I’m not interested in giving any of it up because it’s all important,” he said. “The teaching helps me be a better writer. The teaching helps me be a better actor. The acting helps me be a better teacher. And I’m only interested in getting better as I get older. Story is how humans communicate.”