SPARC as an outsider on the inside

FEATURED, The Haliburton Echo
By Zach Cox
Tuesday May 6, 2014

From Thursday, April 24 until Sunday, April 27, the Symposium for the Performing Arts in Rural Communities was held in and around Haliburton County. I had the opportunity to take part in the full event as both embedded press and a youth delegate. What follows is a summary of my experience.
I wouldn’t call myself a performing artist. Throughout high school I helped behind the scenes for a few productions and was a member of the jazz band for a couple years, but my one big break that proved I was destined for the stage occurred when I ended up stepping into a skit as a boy-band fangirl when a friend of mine was late. Yeah, I’m no performing artist.
I was slightly anxious, then, when I was invited to be, in conjunction with embedded press, a youth delegate for the Symposium for the Performing Arts in Rural Communities. The first thought to come to my mind: “I’m not going to have to sing or dance, am I?” Rationalizing that they probably wouldn’t force me to do so against my will, I agreed.
Prior to the event, the youth delegates had an opportunity to introduce themselves and interact through a Facebook group. Scrolling through the introductions I was bombarded with an incredible listing of talents and accomplishments; theater director, scriptwriter, luthier, dancer, musician in numerous bands, sound technician and more. To say I felt out of place would be an understatement.
Regardless, on Thursday, April 24, I arrived at the Fleming College Haliburton campus bright and early and registered right at 11 a.m. Being one of the first people at the venue, I had the opportunity to be the trial photography subject. In order to facilitate getting to know other attendees, the plan was to have each person make a profile page with their picture on it. Of course, standard pictures are no fun, so there was a giant bag of costume items to pick and choose from. Fake moustaches, pig noses, an Indiana Jones whip, this was a symposium for performing artists alright.
The thing is despite my misgivings once the event was underway, I no longer felt out of place. In fact, I was made to feel right at home. There were all sorts of backgrounds, and I certainly wasn’t the only non-performer, nor the only one who was concerned about being out of place. The atmosphere was welcoming and electric. MPP Laurie Scott felt the same, saying in her speech on Thursday night, “The positive atmosphere and the delightful people that I’ve met since I’ve come into this room is just so engaging.”
“The best things happen around the arts.” Those words were Kendra Wishlow’s, the energetic youth intern for Sticks and Stones Productions and the Haliburton County Folk Society. Over the next few days, they proved to be true. An astounding amount of content was packed into each day of the symposium, with numerous simultaneous workshops, performances, keynote speakers and discussion sessions.
From A Crash Course in Site-Specific Theatre Making in Rural Surrounds to Theater Without Walls: The Story from Scotland to Rural Artists’ Contributions to Resilience & the Emergence of a Local Culture-based Economy, there were sessions aiming to appeal to seemingly everyone.
On the Friday, I attended a session called Celebrating Local Stories with Shadow Puppetry, and something that the facilitator Krista Dalby said really stuck with me. “A place doesn’t need to be famous to be important. Same with a person. Same with a story.”
Throughout the event I witnessed first-hand that the creativity that performers apply to their work is present in their thought processes as well. During a youth caucus discussion on both the challenges and assets of performing arts in rural communities, there was a push to change perspective and think of challenges. “You can’t stay in the box if you don’t know what the box is,” quipped one of the youth delegates, Madeline Smith. “We should be celebrating what makes us rural rather than skirting it.”
SPARC did exactly that, highlighting the possibilities that rural areas can present. “As a rural community you have to be innovative, interesting, a little bit different but a little bit yourself,” said Tammy Rea during her session, Finding the World in Your Neighbourhood…Bringing your Film to Light.
Jack Brezina emphasized the fact that rural communities provide opportunities as well. “Hey, we’re more than just a municipality that plows roads and looks after garbage, we have a character and it’s generally found in performing arts.”
“This summer, in Haliburton County, from May 1 to the end of September, 34 presenters will be offering 64 shows, and this is only in musical performances. So I think this definitely demonstrates performing arts are alive and well in rural communities,” said SPARC organizing committee chairwoman Lesley English.
It’s no secret that the performing arts are a big part of Haliburton County. There is a reason that this was the location for the very first Symposium for the Performing Arts in Rural Communities. SPARC has shown though, that we’re not alone. The rural performing arts community may be spread across the province, country and beyond, but it is by no means small, and certainly by no means silent.
There is the desire to expand the industry, and there is the passion to fuel the growth. Those in attendance demonstrated that they are willing to add their voice, but also that they are willing to listen. This was clearly shown on the Sunday when the youth delegates spoke. The Great Hall was dead silent as everyone gave their full attention to the youth. To me, this level of respect and willingness to collaborate was proof that there is true dedication to moving the rural performing arts industry forward.
SPARC was a tremendous event, one that celebrated rural performing arts while simultaneously looking at the industry critically. “Let’s keep the spark glowing,” is the plea, and from what I saw, the call to action is being eagerly answered. I am looking forward to the next steps and the establishment of the network that will facilitate even more interaction and collaboration between rural communities.
I would like to thank everyone who devoted time to making the event happen, and for inviting me to take part. Thank you especially to the Township of Minden Hills, as it was a generous donation on their part that permitted me to be brought on as a youth delegate. SPARC may have ended, but the flame burns bright.


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