SPARC Interviews… Robin Sutherland and Miranda Bouchard of Thinking Rock Community Arts, Thessalon ON

Back in April, Rebecca (SPARC’s Network Coordinator) had the opportunity to speak with Robin Sutherland and Miranda Bouchard – the Founding Artistic Director and General Manager of Thinking Rock Community Arts. They discuss how Thinking Rock approaches community-engaged arts, their practice of “radical inclusion”, ‘The Rivers Speak’ project, and other resources for those interested in community-engaged arts. 

 Tell us a little bit about Thinking Rock Community Arts

Miranda: Thinking Rock is a non-profit community arts organization based out of Thessalon Ontario that makes art with, for and about the people of Central Algoma; from Bawating – that’s Sault Ste Marie – to Genaabaajiing – that’s Serpent River First Nation – and all points between. We specialize in very participatory, collaborative, cross-cultural and intergenerational art projects that take many forms.

What do “community arts” look like for Thinking Rock? What does that mean for the work that you do and how it is created?

Miranda: As it has been explained to us, community-engaged arts can take many forms and it’s certainly a very emergent field of practice. Typically it involves a connection to and collaboration with diverse community members, focusing on a particular community. It is a process that is led by professional artists in a paid capacity. And, for us, it has also taken on a multi-year residency model that we have learned from Jumblies Theatre; projects unfold over a longer timeframe.

The first part of our process is getting to know the community and getting the community to know us; developing deep and trusting relationships not only with the community participants, but also with partner organizations within the community.

The second portion is developing and producing the project. And that can take many forms and involve many different forms of media.

And the third phase is usually a process of evaluation and reflection – on the process and the project; things that have gone well, trying to spark spin-off projects, making sure the project continues in some form in the community if there’s interest, and feeling out some directions for the next project.

Robin: I think that at the core of community-engaged arts is the idea that the process is just as important as the final product. Community members are engaged in the creative process, as well as being presenters of the final product. It’s a co-created work and is also co-presented.

Miranda: Community is a really intrinsic part of it, but we do try to maintain a very high artistic standard of quality – which is why bringing on professional artists is extremely important. And not just professional artists, but those who have experience within that very specific community engaged environment. Our community is rural and there are a number of First Nations communities here, so we really focus on using the work to build bridges between those communities. It’s really collaborative between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, while making sure that we are centring Anishinaabe culture, knowledge, and language in the work as well.

You’ve used the term “radical inclusion” to describe your practice on your website. What does that term mean to you?

Robin: It’s the idea that everyone is welcome, which is a really difficult thing to actually make happen, but that’s what we strive for.

Are there any specific practices that you have developed over time that help increase project inclusivity and accessibility?

Miranda: I think creating and sharing in a very open and welcoming environment is key. Something we have found really successful is serving tea and sharing some kind of a meal or a snack.

Robin: Emphasizing that it really doesn’t matter where people are in terms of their artistic skills is important too– ensuring they know that’s not as important to us as their willingness to dive in, try things out, and be a part of the work. We really try to get to know people, and what their skills and interests are. Then, over time, we can cater to those communities and the strengths and the interests in the room.

Can you tell us about The Rivers Speak project as an example of your approach to community-engaged arts and the different practices you follow?

Robin: The Rivers Speak started in August 2013 with a pilot project in Mississaugi First Nation. We partnered with Toronto-based community arts organizations SKETCH and Jumblies Theatre to bring their artists to help us facilitate a week of drop-in art making. We had about 200 people participate in that. We did oral history with Elders that came to visit, we did story sharing circles, made lanterns, and we had the local youth drum group participate. With permission from local Anishinaabe Elders and story keepers, we also made a big river serpent puppet that came out of some of the stories that the Elders told us, about a river serpent who lives in the rivers of this area. We then put it all together as a big river pageant along the banks of the Blind River. It was really well received.

From there we decided to go forward with the ‘Rivers Speak’ theme, which I chose because central Algoma is such a rural area and the rivers are so central to everyone’s life here. They’re also very central to the Anishinaabe history, culture, traditions, and way of life, so that seemed like an idea that many people could relate to.

Over the next four years we spent a lot of time building relationships in the community. We developed an advisory committee of local Anishinaabe Elders, youth, and community members to help guide the process and make sure that we were following traditional protocols and practices. We also did more story sharing circles and oral history with Elders and youth, as well as skill building workshops.

Then we brought it all together last summer!

We hired 30 artists – people who were recommended to us, and people we had worked with. A lot of them were from Toronto but local artists were also hired. Miranda acted as the main designer, and we hired Varrick Grimes as our Director who led the 3-month rehearsal process. Throughout the production period we held open houses as an opportunity for the community to come in and get a sense of what we were doing, and to help us find ways to get them involved.

We had 8 performances of the final play at the Mississaugi First Nation’s Pow Wow grounds. It was an unconventional format – kind of a combination between a play and a pageant in that the audience actually went around the Pow Wow grounds in a circle, following the action of the play. It wasn’t really one plot, but multiple storylines from people who had shared their stories.

About 600 people came to see it – we were pretty taken aback by how many people showed up. Word really spread and the last performance was packed with about 150 people.

That’s awesome! Are you connected to any other organizations in other areas that do community-engaged arts work? I know you’ve mentioned SKETCH and Jumblies…

Miranda: Both SKETCH and Jumblies Theatre have supported the creative aspects of what we’re doing, as well as the administrative and organizational capacity aspects, which has been extremely helpful. Jumblies Theatre – and particularly their Artistic Director Ruth Howard – has worked closely with us as a mentor throughout the Rivers Speak process.

Robin: We’ve been connected with other community-engaged arts organizations across Northern Ontario and across Canada as well, not as direct partners but as colleagues. 4Elements on Manitoulin Island, Aanmitaagzi in Nippissing First Nation, Vancouver Moving Theatre, and Runaway Moon Theatre in Enderby B.C work in this way too. Runaway Moon has probably done the work most similar to what we do because they’re also in a rural and First Nations context.

I understand that you are both available to do consulting with groups. Are there any other resources that you would also recommend to people interested in learning more about community-engaged arts?

Robin: Art Bridges is really great, they hold a lot of information. The International Centre of Art for Social Change just did a huge research project on art for social change. I think that they’re going to have a lot of resources for people who are interested in getting into this kind of work.

Miranda: The OAC has also published a couple of papers about community-engaged arts, including Framing Community – A Community Engaged Art Workbook which is very helpful. There are so many ways to approach a community-engaged project and this manual has a number of examples of community-engaged work in it, as well as a number of working definitions of what it means.

Robin: And Jumblies’ Art Fare Essentials is also a really great resource. We both trained through it, with Ruth Howard, and also apprenticed with Ruth through Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program.

One final question: What drew both of you to this kind of work?

Robin: I was introduced to the world of community arts when I was at U of T in the Arts Management program and did my first year co-op placement at Clay and Paper Theatre. I was always interested in social justice and, specifically, building more positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I saw how the work of Clay and Paper and similar groups could bring diverse people together to witness each other’s stories and create relationships. I always knew that I wanted to go back home to Northern Ontario and do work that involved creating opportunities for artistic involvement and building relationships. The idea of using the arts as a way to gently and surreptitiously bring people together is my form of… activism, I guess… in a very gentle sense.

Miranda: I grew up here in the North as well, and from an early age I was actively involved in my community. I was really interested in visual art, gravitated towards volunteering, and was really interested in gatherings and fellowship – doing things together.

When Robin told me about the project she was working on, I had finished my schooling to become an individual visual arts practitioner, and was working at an art gallery. I was really hungry in the work that I was doing for ways to more directly and immediately engage with the public. So I hopped on board and my mind was totally blown by the idea of community-engaged arts practice. My journey for the last few years has been about finding the meeting place between being an independent visual artist and being a more collaborative and community-engaged designer for theatre. This work combines my passion for the arts with my passion for community in a way that has a lot of impact.


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