On the Banks of the Mississippi, a Gathering of SPARCs

By Sandy Irvin, Almonte Ontario

On a bright morning

On the cusp of summer and fall

On the banks of the Mississippi

A gathering of SPARCs occurred!

A few members of the SPARC team dodged thunderstorms (and tornadoes) to spend Saturday, September 22 at the Almonte Old Town Hall. Our town builders had the foresight to leave us a good one. People came from all over Lanark County (Perth, Smiths Falls, Carleton Place, Elphin), and from points beyond the County, including Merrickville, Arnrprior, and Renfrew County. There were a lot of folks from different theatre troupes, a comedian, a storyteller or two, a pianist and composer, a handful of presenters, community animators, a well-behaved dog, and an even better-behaved baby. We even had a couple of municipal leaders join us – and they were only going to stay for a while (it is election season, after all), but they spent the better part of the day with us. And we discovered, to our chagrin, that we had no dancers with us.

A small group of us started the day with a special Zoom video call with SPARC Steering Committee member Jim Blake, who talked to us about the Haliburton County Community Co-op model. We were amazed at the diversity of initiatives (Trails! Sculpture gardens! Festivals! Research!) that the community has been able to start with support from the co-op. As rural organizers, we were also intrigued by the way they share resources and save time for each other. We see a lot of possibilities for community-building through this model. We have some homework to do (some of us will be attending a screening of A Silent Transformation, a film about the co-op movement), and we look forward to following up with Jim.

We then trooped upstairs to join the rest of the attendees in our auditorium. I’m so proud of this hall; I didn’t build it, but I’m part of the team that maintains it. I love seeing people’s jaws drop when they walk in. I love hearing music ring through it, or laughter, or the murmur of quiet conversation. On this day it was filled with all three – as well as beautiful sunlight and lots of people I’d never met before! I was so excited to see new faces. One of the issues we face as an arts community in Lanark County is that we often work in silos. Some of us know each other; we do a lot of really good work as professionals, as volunteers, and as fans, but few of us collaborate. And one of the great lessons of SPARC, one I’ve been trying to bring back home since my first symposium, is the importance of working together. We may not be able to tear down all the silos, but we can at least open a few doors in them.

Chris Lynd leads a session on SPARC in the sun-filled Old Town Hall auditorium. Kismet is snoozing in the foreground.

After some delicious doughnuts (made fresh in town!) and coffee (likewise), we had some fun getting-to-know-you exercises led by Michael Clipperton. We can count to seven, but some of the other steps may confuse us!

Our movers and shakers then broke into two groups to discuss volunteer management and cross-promotion. Each group was led by a SPARC facilitator as well as a guest “expert” (Brigitte Gebauer for volunteer management and Marie Zimmerman for co-promotion)who provided insight on the subject matter. And what was drawn out of the participants in the room was just as important. As I see it, SPARC meetups are all about making connections – between groups and people, and also between ideas. It’s really exciting to be in a room where people hear an idea, relate it to their own experience, and draw something new out of the connection.

We saw more connections happen over lunch. By the end of our meal time, one local theatre group had formed new connections and new ideas for getting set pieces from a local furniture renter, and they had a promise they could borrow a sofa from another troupe if that didn’t pan out. The chesterfield in question is not the issue; it’s the fact that people with common problems got together to solve something. And they will keep doing so.

Our day also included a recap of what SPARC can do, how to join, and why we all want to attend the next SPARC symposium. There were a lot of heads nodding in agreement, and I suspect the Lanark contingent for the next symposium will be a force.

Our final session of the day involved breaking into small groups to talk about ideas near and dear to delegates’ hearts. I sat with a storyteller, to talk about a festival she wants to organize for 2020. Details are under wraps for now, but it sounds really exciting. I can’t wait to help put it on. Another group discussed infrastructure, and yet another discussed producing site specific theatre around Almonte.

So what did we learn after a day together? Here are a few points that stand out from the day:

  • Butter tarts and beer sell well to all demographics; look for pairings in your own community. (Chocolate and theatre, beer and music, bicycles and…?).
  • We have resources and skills; we can share them; we can organize that sharing.
  • When we gather people together for the performing arts, we also build community.
  • When recruiting volunteers, take the time to find a job that suits them; the relationship will last longer.
  • Don’t micromanage; give the volunteers the tools and the time to rise to the occasion. If you can’t be everywhere at once, appoint a team captain to lead a group.
  • Co-promotion can strengthen all participants in a partnership; it works better if you let go of personal goals and take the long view.
  • Look to tourism associations for support in your promotional efforts.

We learned that we have a lot to learn from each other. We’re going to look at setting up a regular roundtable or a brunch session where ideas can flow freely. Thanks to SPARC for getting us started!

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