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Donald Sutherland got his start at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre.

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

At the beginning, Donald Sutherland, Kate Reid, Don Harron, William Hutt, Charmion King, Ed Follows, Norman Jewison, Lorne Michaels and other Canadian luminaries like them were students at the University of Toronto, but they got their real education at the school's Hart House Theatre, treading the stage boards when not tied to their books.

What they learned there – dramas and comedies and musicals and more – put them in great stead when they went into the world, postgraduation.

Mr. Sutherland went on to become a Hollywood movie star, while Mr. Michaels found fame and fortune creating and producing Saturday Night Live. Mr. Jewison, meanwhile, directed a number of important films including In The Heat of the Night, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1967, and Ms. Reid, Mr. Hutt, Mr. Harron and Ms. King all became great actors of the stage and screen.

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If you need proof that what a student does outside the classroom is as important – if not more – than what happens on the inside, this is it.

"When I came to Toronto," reminisces Mr. Sutherland in a letter outlining his connection to Hart House, "I came for that theatre. Expressly for that. From a small town in Nova Scotia. I'd never been inside a theatre before; I'd never even seen a play. I knew nothing but that I was an actor."

Students who involve themselves in extracurricular activities, be it acting, debating or participating in young-entrepreneurs clubs such as Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone business incubator and the University of Ottawa's Startup Garage are learning skills that count for job experience where many employers are concerned.

"Social activities on campus – be they extracurricular clubs, internships or student politics – are absolutely something students should be participating in," says David Rodas-Wright, who is the co-ordinator of employer relations at the career development centre at the University of Ottawa.

"What employers look for is a well-rounded profile of strong academics, volunteerism, work experience and extracurricular activity. These all reinforce one another and test a student's ability to work in a team environment with peers. It depends on the club," Mr. Rodas-Wright continues, "but one of the skills that extracurriculars can activate for a student is how to interact with the external community."

Founded in 1919, Hart House Theatre was always meant to form a bridge between student life and the outside world. Soon after its genesis, it emerged as a leader of Toronto's "little theatre" community, attracting talent near and far.

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Located in the subterranean reaches of ivy-clad Hart House on the University of Toronto's downtown campus, the art deco theatre was gifted by the Massey family whose sons, Vincent and Raymond, also acted and directed plays there between the wars. Sets and costumes were designed by members of the Group of Seven, including Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer, and productions ranged from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Alice in Wonderland.

After the Second World War, the 454-seat Hart House Theatre, under the direction of Robert Gill, evolved into an extracurricular student theatre where many of Canada's entertainment giants took their first tentative steps.

In 1960, the theatre formally joined forces with the academic side of the university by helping spawn the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama. In the 1970s, Hart House Theatre formed an integral part of Toronto's burgeoning live-theatre scene, a status it holds to this day.

The theatre continues to attract more than a thousand U of T students annually to participate in its productions. It also continues to nurture stars.

U of T student Paolo Santalucia honed his acting skills on the Hart House stage before graduating with a degree in drama studies in 2011. This past summer he played the lead role in Driftwood Theatre's production of Hamlet, which toured Ontario. He will return to Hart House to direct his version of the Shakespearean tragedy in November.

"You can spend all the time in the classroom you want," Mr. Santalucia says, "but there's no better way to develop your craft than actually doing it, and that's what Hart House did for me as an actor."

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Fellow alumnus Aaron Williams's first stage show was with Hart House last season. He played the role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and "within five minutes of the curtain coming down he was offered placement with at least two agencies and is now auditioning and performing in and around Toronto," remarks Andrea Wasserman, a Hart House administrator and director who witnessed it all from the wings.

Mr. Williams is still reeling from the experience.

"It contrasted greatly from my studies of philosophy and religion, which were highly conceptual," he says.

More stories from the Canadian University Report

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