Why Faith and the Arts should Cohabitate

Today on our blog we want to share a post written by Kendra Fry – a Regeneration Works advisor working on the Regeneration Works: Places of Faith project (a partnership between Faith and the Common Good and the National Trust). This project offers consulting services, workshops, and self assessment resources to communities interested in ‘regenerating’ a place of faith to create a viable community space. To learn more (and to read through the profiles of ‘successfully regenerated places of faith’) visit http://www.placesoffaith.ca/


By Kendra Fry, Regeneration Works Advisor (Dec 4, 2017)

Playwright Marcus Youssef, upon accepting this year’s Siminovitch Prize for playwriting, gave a speech that clarified for me why I am interested in the intersection of faith communities with the broader community. Youssef wrote about his interest in points of intersection and the space between people, spoken and unspoken. He wrote about moments of unexpected connection between people, across culture and groups and about learning from these liminal explorations and the richness that comes from these moments.

Photo Gary Beecher of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church

That, in a nutshell is what I have been trying to express since taking on the position of the General Manager of Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts. Theatre, where I spent the majority of my previous professional life, often lacks in diversity of age, culture and ability, in both audiences and practitioners. Life, more generally speaking, does not encourage us to explore those outside of our experience. Young parents gather with other young parents, seniors with those of an age, professional spaces often have a narrow band of generational and cultural diversity.

From the moment that I entered Trinity-St. Paul’s, I felt the difference that this community centre offered. Babies were being fed by young mothers, the daycare was filled with children, many mid life and elderly people were attending classes or meetings, teens were playing dodgeball. More than that, groups occupying the space, like Dancing with Parkinsons, Viva Youth Singers, Japanese moms and tots, twelve step groups and Community Living Toronto ensured that we saw all walks of life in all stages, ages and abilities; all the time.

This for me was an entirely new expression of community. It was messy and slow. It required patience. I had to learn to connect with people where they were at and how they were best able to express themselves. It was and is a glorious collision of amateur and professional, expert and explorer. Those tenants, like Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, who are world renowned and at the apex of their profession are balanced and reminded of their journey by the baby in the room next door with the bloody loud drum! The child just learning to sing with Viva Youth Singers is encouraged to pursue mastery by walking past Brent Carvers’ rehearsal. In the age of social media where we retreat ever more into our inner circles, where else do we regularly encounter “the other”, those who are NOT us? Meanwhile, the two congregations of faith resident in the building provide a strong backdrop of social justice and an awareness of our requirement to act with kindness and charity and care for the other; wherever they come from.

Knowing that Trinity-St. Paul’s is far from the only community of faith pushing these boundaries, I began to explore the further dimensions possible when faith buildings chose to broadly open their doors to a cross section of the community. As faith congregation numbers dwindle, there is inevitably a real estate problem; too much space and not nearly enough people to occupy it. While faith leaders wrestle with reintroducing the relevance of faith to this age, I felt that my job was to share and expand this vision of how faith buildings can provide a home to overlapping groups of humanity, living and growing in community together.

And so, when the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation offered an opportunity for a Leading and Learning grant, I requested funds for a couple of exploratory trips to other places to see how the general community works with and within faith communities. Travelling with ArtsBuild Ontario and the Toronto Arts Council and wearing both my Trinity-St. Paul and Faith & the Common Good hat (for whom I’m an advisor), we set out to explore what might be and how we might enable it in Toronto and beyond. We visited synagogues and churches, former churches and community centres that house multiple congregations.

Over the coming weeks I (and my colleagues) will report back on the wonderful tales of other groups walking this road, culminating in a public presentation in the spring. I hope that you will share with me your stories of these types of spaces as well.

Welcome to the journey. Welcome to community collisions. Let’s see what happens next.

SpiderWebShow: Thought Residencies

This week for our blog post, I want to share SpiderWebShow’s “Thought Residencies”.

If you are unfamiliar with SpiderWebShow, it is “the first and only nationally-driven performing arts website of its kind in Canada. It is a practice-based network where cultural change is captured and examined. SpiderWebShow began as a dramaturgical inquiry. The question that led the charge was straight up and complex: What defines Canadian Theatre now?”

SWS runs foldA a festival of live digital art, hosts the ‘CdnStudio‘ – an online room that brings together collaborators from across Canada, launched the Performance Wiki project, and hosts ‘Thought Residencies’. These residencies provide a platform for creators across the country to share their thoughts on creation, the arts, work/life balance – whatever is on their mind!

I love visiting this page of SWS’s website and letting someone else’s thoughts and perspectives roll around in my mind and interact with my own every once in a while. Enjoy!

https://spiderwebshow.ca/cdnthought/

— Rebecca (Network Coordinator)

Rural Resilience: Some thoughts on Rural Talks to Rural 2018

by Eric Goudie, SPARC Network Steering Committee Member

 

Blyth Ontario’s Centre for Rural Creativity is a lot like SPARC. It’s focused on rural communities, it’s arts-based, and when I walked into the Blyth Memorial Community Hall for the first day of their biennial Rural Talks to Rural Conference, I felt like I was in the company of a great many like-minded individuals.

What makes R2R unique is the way its focus extends beyond the performing arts in small towns; R2R positions the arts alongside other sectors in the community. Over the course of the conference I rubbed shoulders with people working in areas like community organization, poverty reduction, and sustainable development, as well as leaders in agri-business, financial services, and municipal planning, among many others.

I thought it a rare treat to sit down to dinner one night with a grain farmer, a retired globe-trotting road-grader salesman, a venture capitalist, and an adviser to the European Union on the economic impacts of climate change. But I was a little worried – what did I, a small-town theatre manager representing a performing arts network, have to offer that would be of interest to these wealthy, successful, influential people?

As it turns out, quite a bit. They were every bit as fascinated about what we are doing here at the SPARC network as I was fascinated by their stories of scuba diving in the Philippines, or the challenges of selling heavy construction equipment in the Middle East.

It was a sobering lesson that we shouldn’t sell our efforts short, especially when it comes to our art. What we do as creators, producers, and presenters requires great skill, and when we do it effectively our success is every bit as legitimate as success in business, or in any of the many other environmental, community organization and social justice causes that had representatives sprinkled throughout the conference. The function we serve as drivers of the arts in our respective communities is every bit as important as the functions other leaders in other areas, and we can (and perhaps we must) talk to those other leaders as their equals.

If you are interested in learning more about R2R, the conference program, speaker bios, and conference proceedings can all be found here. There are also a number of links to conference materials and articles written about conference proceedings on their Facebook page!

 

2018 Folk Music Ontario Conference

By Mike Martyn,  SPARC Network Steering Committee

I attended the 2018 Folk Music Ontario (FMO) Conference, held near Toronto’s Pearson Airport, for a couple of days at the end of September, ostensibly as a panellist for SPARC. It was not my first time attending this conference but, as it had been several years, I was interested to see what had changed, who was new (and who was old), and how the DIY spirit that permeates folk festivals would survive in the shadow of Pearson International Airport, arguably one of the least folkie places in the country.

ABOUT FOLK MUSIC ONTARIO

Since forming in 1986 under its original name “Ontario Council of Folk Festivals”, FMO has grown from an ad hoc collection of well-organized hippies into one of the most important networks for independent musicians and presenters in the country. FMO’s services include a number of networking and development opportunities for musicians, presenters, administrators, and other industry professionals. The FMO Annual Conference is a moveable feast occurring each fall which, for 32 years, has been one of the best[1] music events in the Province.

The folk festival circuit is artist focused and grassroots. To understand the FMO conference one must be familiar with the informal nature of folk festivals compared to other segments of the music and entertainment industries. Ontario Contact, for instance, has a long and admirable history of showcasing a range of commercial performers, with broad appeal to community presenters, and also providing networking opportunities to industry supporting businesses such as agents, production companies, venues, etc. The FMO conference reflects the grass roots and artist focused culture of the folk festival circuit: while some facilitation is provided for newcomers most of the professional networking remains informal.

 

WHY I LOVE THE FMO CONFERENCE

There are plenty of scheduled and official industry events at FMO, but everyone knows the after-hours showcases are where the fun’s at. Imagine a major hotel being the temporary home to hundreds of folk musicians and festival organizers. In the early years of the conference, as official showcases ended around 11:00 pm, most musicians were just getting warmed up. The shows didn’t stop, they simply migrated up to the various hotel rooms in the form of “unofficial” showcases. Then different festivals and small labels began featuring their favourite independent artists, usually unamplified, in these low key settings. Like any good festival the jams went all night, sometimes to the befuddlement and frustration of hotel management.

Some of the most remarkable musical moments of my life have taken place in these rooms. At Ontario Contact the showcases and interactions are fairly regulated and limited to specific times in specific rooms; at FMO you can be riding in an elevator when a spontaneous bluegrass jam starts up and four hours later you’ve decided to name your first born child “banjo”[2]. I don’t think anyone ever quantified the dollar value of business transactions done at this conference in its early years, but at a guess I’d say it’s got to be at least 2 or 3 bucks.

Since my last time attending there have been some controls put in place to manage this, at least in part because OCFF was running out of hotels that would host the event. The biggest difference I noticed is these smaller showcases have achieved a level of “official-ness” by being limited to a single floor of the hotel. They still start at 11 and go until 5, and many of these rooms now feature an alcohol sponsor, in addition to whatever “presenting” company or organization is paying for the room that night. This effectively keeps the interactions between itinerant washboard players and widget salesmen on layover to socially acceptable levels.

NETWORKING AND TOURING FROM A REMOTE LOCATION

Our friends at FMO approached SPARC to lend some perspective to a panel focused specifically on the challenges of Networking and Touring from a Remote Location. Joining me on the panel were my fellow SPARC steering committee Barrie Martin; musician, FMO Vice President, and CFM rep Rosalyn Dennet; and, all the way from the Yukon, singer-songwriter Diyet.

The format was unstructured: conversation ranged across performing, touring, presenting, and professional networking. The themes that emerge when performing arts people from outside the population centres get together tend to resonate around overcoming isolation and reaching the audience. In the small crowd was a good mix of artists and presenters from across Ontario, mostly in the early stages of their careers.

Each panelist’s individual relationship with place affected our commentary. Barrie and I spoke from the perspective of SPARC, and our desire to establish stronger networks that serve rural and remote cultural sector workers. Both Barrie and I live within a couple of hours of cities of a million people or more. Our networks are relatively direct to the cultural capitals of the country. Rosalyn, while originally from Manitoba and raised in a largely rural context, now lives in Toronto. Our professional networks are our daily reality and what resources we don’t have locally are accessible fairly easily. That is one valuation of place.

For Diyet, who lives three hours north of Whitehorse in a community of about 60 people and performs with her husband, the value of that physical place is in the way it sustains her creatively. The integrity of her work is derived in part from her relationship to her place, which is the place of her ancestors. A long-term planning window is essential for her to work because of the logistics involved. She is writing grant applications for tour support and recording three years into the future.

The makeup of this panel is indicative of the challenge it is set up to address. Specifically, the fact that 3 of the 4 panelists all live 1 – 3 hours from the hotel where it was taking place, there was a sameness to our perspective. I’m optimistic that resources can be found to support more people who have overcome major barriers to creating a sustainable income or organization while continuing to make their homes in places far removed from the urban centres.


[1] Author’s note: it’s the best music event in the Province but I’m supposed to present as being unbiased.

[2] Not me, of course; although in case you’re wondering I was overruled by his mother on that one.

The Ontario Shebang

In anticipation of our Expert Chat with Catherine Frid on Community-Engaged Play Creation (which will be on Wednesday, October 31st at 12pm), we are sharing this piece from Arts Engage Canada‘s “Idea Box” (posted April 16, 2018). We love the project’s focus on relationship building, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and public participation! Is this a model that could be replicated in a rural community? Why not?! 


The Ontario Shebang is a multi year, inter-arts, inter-cultural journey into a process that brought together artists and individuals from diverse backgrounds to be supported in a space for creative discoveries, and to explore collaboration and shared experiences. TOS creates a legacy of new and deepened connections, and the capacity to collaborate successfully across differences in perspectives, training, orientation, and practices. The Ontario Shebang is developed and presented by Dreamwalker Dance Company and guided by instigator Andrea Nann.

Where?

The Ontario Shebang took place in four Ontario communities and was hosted by each municipality and their local performing arts organizations:

  • St. Catharines (FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and Brock Centre for the Arts)
  • Guelph (River Run Centre)
  • Burlington (Burlington Performing Arts Centre)
  • Kingston (City of Kingston, The Grand Theatre & The Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning).

How?

The process in each community evolved over an extended period of time to allow participants to develop meaningful relationships, and to allow Andrea time to adapt and grow the process in response to feedback and reflection from participants. As a result, The Ontario Shebang uniquely manifested itself in each host community, creating an environment for discovery, exchange, collaboration and bridging. Each process concluded in a public, participatory, multiarts event/presentation that featured artists/people from various walks of life and lived experience.

There were a number of different methods that the host presenters adopted to identify and connect with community partners and local artists. Guelph, for example, brought together programming directors from 5 local arts organizations, representing a wide range of art forms, and they each nominated an individual to form the core group of participating artists. This collaborative nomination process expanded the community of support for The Guelph Shebang from it’s very start.

 

The Ontario Shebang’s discovery process began with the commitment to do something that had never been done before with everyone participating in the learning and exploration. Andrea explains, “Much of our journey was focused on getting to know one another, cultivating trust, and discovering and practicing new ways of maintaining a strong sense of self while being a member of a partnership or a group. Every meeting session included dialogue and activities to cultivate an explorative practice to ‘move forward’ while ‘not-knowing’ what was going to happen next. The process offered participants tools and strategies to activate states that included ‘arriving, awakening, sensing, discovering, responding, connecting, togethering, and reflecting.’

 

Individuals were asked to make choices ‘in the moment’ with an intention to further the process, thus further the evolution of the group. As the process deepened and the core participants entered unfamiliar territory, we observed amazing changes, amazing outcomes. We started measuring the impact of people’s experiences, and looked for ways of translating what the process was and how the impacts might ripple out. How they would translate into the community or how the process might impact individuals directly and indirectly.

 

The process demanded another layer of observer to become involved in the form of ‘translators’, who tracked the artistic process through 2 lenses – the needs in the community and the experiences of the participating artists and arts organizations.

 

Reflection was a crucial aspect throughout the Shebang process. Reflection guided the shape of each project.

Timeframe

The timeframe of each Shebang project ranged from twenty-two months to four years.

Communities Involved

Community members were introduced to the project in various ways. In general community members connected to each project via the participating artists or via the host presenters.

Genre/Art Form

The Shebang Process is a dynamic practice for diverse people to come together to co-inspire trust, consciousness, and connectivity. At the heart of the process is a practice that called The Conscious Body, discovering the body as the instrument through which we open new avenues of perception and awareness, widen our imagination, and realize new ways to communicate and BE together. With this body, we can explore how our experiences and ideas can interrelate with authenticity; this becomes the basis of how and what we can create together.

Outcomes 

The nature of the final public performances varied. Some coincided with celebrations of the opening of new community hubs like The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines and the re-opening of The Tett Centre for Creativity & Learning in Kingston while others were celebrations in and of themselves in which the community could gather, connect and participate. For the artists involved, The Ontario Shebang created an opportunity to share and grow their artistic practices in ways that they may not have achieved while working in isolation. The process also allowed for the artists involved to discover new aspects of themselves while exploring different artistic mediums in a process oriented, non-judgemental space. The success of The Ontario Shebang can be attributed to the overwhelming generosity from the core artists, participants, partners, guest artists, supporting organizations, and hosting communities; to all those who said “yes” and dedicated their time, energy and imagination to the project.

Budget/Scale

The project received multiyear public support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Ontario Arts Council (Ontario Dances) with project support from Canada Council for the Arts, host city presenting organizations, arts organizations, and community groups.

For more information, check out:

 

 

 

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!

Ontario Contact 2018

by Wendy Fairbairn, SPARC Network Steering Committee Member & General Manager of the Orillia Opera House

Every year Ontario Presents produces Ontario Contact in various locations throughout Ontario.  What is Ontario Contact? “An exciting, engaging celebration, Ontario Contact is an opportunity for those working in the performing arts touring and presenting sector to come together to network, and to share information in a three-day conference featuring music, dance, theatre, spoken word, and youth orientated programming.”  And that it is.

As a facility manager and presenter it is great to attend this event, which is so much more than your standard conference. Contact is a convergence of likeminded individuals who work in the fields of art and culture daily; people who are passionate about what they do and how they affect the communities they work in.  I always find myself learning a lot from what others are doing, and am always reminded that we all are on similar path – some more advanced than others – but all working towards the same goal: To support arts and cultural in our cities, towns and regions.

The conference is a four-day event but you don’t need to be present for all four days to gather lots of invaluable information.  There are workshops, showcases, pitch sessions, a trade show (which takes place in the aptly named “Contact Room”), breakfast meetings and breakout sessions.   I was lucky to be asked to sit on the panel for the Prologue for the Performing Arts’ breakfast, where the topic was Children’s/Family programing in rural and remote areas.  This being the last day of a very full conference I was amazed at the number of participates who arrived for the 7:30am panel discussion – the room was full!  Facilitated by the Ontario Arts Council, we discussed challenges that are often faced in rural and remote communities, and also spoke about the unique forms of support these communities receive from municipalities, local businesses, libraries, schools and parents.  We covered all the topics we could in an hour – from the cost of busing to winter weather – and then we were entertained (or rather we were guided) by a Prologue performer who had the room dancing, singing, and smiling.  Following this breakfast were a number of breakout sessions for smaller groups with the Northern Young Audience Volunteer Presenters.

On that note, Ontario Contact provides a number of opportunities for smaller networks of presenters with specific similarities to meet. Those present at this year’s conference included the: Ontario Classical Music Network (contact Stan Passfield – stanpassfield@gmail.com), Northern Young Audience Volunteer Presenters (Ceilidh Wood – ceilidh@ontariopresents.ca), Community Presenters Network (Eric Goudie – egoudie@centrewellington.ca), Northwestern Ontario Volunteer Presenters (Ceilidh Wood – ceilidh@ontariopresents.ca). The only one not present was the Ontario Presenters’ Education Network (Ceilidh Wood – ceilidh@ontariopresents.ca) .   These networks are usually made up of presenters from rural and remote communities who work together on event bookings, marketing, ticketing programs, funding opportunities and so much more.   This is the beauty of Ontario Contact – so many people from some many areas all together in one spot, meeting and sharing face to face.

In the beginning Ontario Contact seemed to be geared to the larger facilities but now I see the volunteer presenters and the smaller facilities attending more and more each year.  I think this is a great starting point for so many of these groups to get together and begin sharing ideas and learning from each other.

And no, I’m not on the Ontario Presents membership committee nor am I making any money to promote them,  I just think they do a wonderful job of bringing people together to celebrate the arts.

If you haven’t visited their website please take a few minutes to view it www.ontariopresents.ca and if you’d like to learn more about the resources they provide, you can watch the Expert Chat that Ceilidh and Natalie did for SPARC back in the spring! I also know that any of their staff members would be happy to chat about what they do to support arts in your community.

Culture Days are Here!

That’s right – Culture Days start tomorrow! From September 28-30 you can enjoy thousands of free, hands-on, interactive activities in communities across Ontario. An opportunity for you to discover the world of artists, creators, heritage experts, architects, curators, designers and other creative professionals in their communities, Culture Days is a collaborative initiative that welcomes public participation. Everyone has a part to play in Culture Days whether you’re already passionate about the arts or interested in discovering something new.

This week we are highlighting three blog posts from the Culture Days blog to excite and inspire you to seek out the events happening near you!

Creating Theatre in the Deep Woods: A reflection on the scenography of R. Murray Schafer’s Patria Cycle

This piece was written by Jerrard Smith, professor, University of Guelph. The piece was not written specifically for the SPARC blog, but rather is a post that we felt would be of interest to the SPARC community. Jerrard has kindly shared it with us to share with you. 

For more information about the Patria cycle you can read this entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia. 


                                    Body casting at Asterion

I am writing this in my tent in rural Ontario, Canada; I was watching the fireflies but the mosquitos finally drove me into this netted enclosure. I have spent the day with a small crew sculpting a form to be cast in concrete and covered with a moss slurry before being placed along a wooded path. Every summer since 2004 I have been coming to this rural field and forest environment to work on the creation of a theatrical labyrinth with a group of students, colleagues and friends. One of these friends is Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer who created the text and concept for this labyrinth and with whom I have had the pleasure of working for some thirty years. This paper is a reflection on those portions of his work that I have been privileged to help realize. Asterion (the labyrinth) is one of a series of music dramas1 Schafer has conceived, all of which speak profoundly to our tenuous relationship with the natural environment. A passion for the wilderness drives these works and demands that the audience put aside some preconceived notions about the nature of theatre and make an effort to engage with the various environments that are both the location and content of the work. Their efforts are often rewarded by a transformative experience.

Theatre begins in the dark

Theatre begins in the dark of night. Musicians and singers are carried by canoe to their positions around the shore of a small lake. Other canoes with actors and dancers set out for their entrance positions. The sounds of warmup are replaced by a deep quiet as the stage manager announces the imminent arrival of the audience along a path illuminated by candles and flashlights. Here in the predawn darkness, the intrepid spectators, having made a kind of pilgrimage to this remote location, are greeted by guides who with a series of simple gestures indicate silence and the direction they should take to find a seat at the edge of the lake where the water laps gently against the shore. As the birds begin to awaken and sing they are joined by the musicians and singers. A light appears from across the lake and as it approaches the audience, it reveals a mysterious figure who begins a tale of myth and ritual. As the story unfolds, the characters described appear out of the dawn mist in large canoes to the accompaniment of the musicians. At the conclusion, all the canoes disappear and the last echoes of song fade into memory, leaving the audience to contemplate the beauty of morning light on the lake which is of course what the work is about.

The forest as locus of enchantment

Earth Mother (Eleanor James) from The Enchanted Forest, Haliburton, 2005

There is a story told in the forest and by the forest; it remains only to bring an audience to hear it. The Enchanted Forest is a quest led by a group of children through the darkness of a forest environment where those willing to make the journey encounter a series of archetypal creatures and characters who provide the threads of narrative that the audience must unravel as they proceed. Active participation on the part of the spectator/participant is an essential element in the realization of these works. The texture of the leaves and twigs that form the forest path and the stars revealed by lack of ambient light from centers of civilization become characters in the drama. Smell and touch become engaged along with sight and hearing, rewarding the members of the audience with an experience which connects them in a very real way to the natural environment through which they travel. On several performance evenings (in the late summer of 2005) the finale, consisting of a costumed singer floating in the centre of a large circle of candles on a lake, was enhanced by a display of aurora borealis playing overhead as if in accompaniment.

Role of creation

The role of the scenographer in realizing this site responsive theatre is one of enhancing, not imposing. We begin with the landscape which often provides a natural point of view as long as we take advantage of it by careful placement of the spectator. Scenographic elements must consider the possibility of extremes of proxemics where the performer may be situated across a wide expanse of terrain or water or conversely be very close to the spectator or even crossing into the audience space.

Often, the works we create involve an ambulatory audience so that the focus is in a perpetual state of disintegration and recombination with the audience immersed in an environment that changes as the narrative unfolds. The experience is perhaps filmic in a way but the enveloping surroundings allow the spectator to readjust her own point of view and control the focus.

There are times of course when the team creating these works must make a concerted effort to maintain the narrative threads in the face of potential distractions. This is ameliorated by noting that the distractions are those of the natural surroundings and it is the appreciation of nature that we are trying to convey thematically through the work. By spending the time working with and within the environment, we can make decisions that will reinforce the spectator’s appreciation of the performance and facilitate the performer’s interactive relationship with the performance space.

These relationships that are established as the performers engage with the audience are tenuous ones that must be negotiated and renegotiated as the spaces of the performance go through their transformations. The notion of stage and audience area is always subject to reevaluation and surprising configurations are possible. The very nature of this questioning of the respective relationships of performer and spectator and the malleability of the performance space provides a theatrical experience that is very much removed from that which occurs within the confines of a theatre building.

Theatre as challenge

As a result of almost thirty years of working toward the realization of these site responsive and environmental works, we are finding new and interesting ways to challenge the audience and performers alike. At times this challenge is simply a shift in the time of day for the performance, whether dawn or midnight. There are works which demand extra effort such as RA, which lasts all night and The Spirit Garden, which engages the audience in actively creating a garden as part of the performance. And presenting work in non-traditional venues is always a challenge for everyone involved.

Creating the floating stage for The Palace of the Cinnabar Pheonix, Haliburton 2006

For those of us involved in preparing the settings, properties, masks, costumes and sometimes puppets, there is the challenge of organization. A team must be assembled of theatre craftspeople who are willing to camp on site for a month, who can build stages with chainsaws and rough lumber and then float them on a lake, who can run cables through the trees to light a variety of unusual performance areas, who can set up and equip tents for workshops, wardrobe and kitchen. Production personnel must plan each step very carefully as a trip to the nearest hardware store, for example, may require a two hour drive. The performers too must be able and willing to walk for long distances to rehearse in all but the most severe weather. The relationship of the performers and production personnel is a very special one under such extraordinary conditions and mutual respect is of the utmost importance as we work toward the common goal of creating art in remote environments. And ultimately, despite the challenges and obstacles, the work of creating art that speaks of our relationship with the natural world in that very environment is a satisfying experience for all concerned. It is that satisfaction that keeps us coming back.

A journey through the labyrinth

So I return to the labyrinth as I have for the past several years. I spend a few weeks every summer developing the labyrinth Asterion. The work involves a relationship with the surroundings that informs every aspect of the work, whether working in harmony with the place, or fighting the difficulties.

Our facilities are acceptable in spite of having to bring in water for both working and drinking, portable toilets, tents and tools. We have a large kitchen tent and a steel shed for workshop and

                                  Sculpture, Asterion 2009

storage and a generator for electricity. We are working toward solar power. Everything is dependent on weather but we are used to that. This summer (I am writing this in July 2009) has been cold, windy and rainy so far, while past years have been unbearably hot. There are times when the weather forces us to stop work as it sometimes forces us to cancel a performance – it is one of the challenges that must be taken into consideration when working out of doors.

On the other hand, camping and working together creates a community of focussed individuals and we have the opportunity to discuss the project activities in the evening around a campfire. We go to sleep to the sounds of frogs or the arguments of coyotes and raccoons instead of traffic.

The team every summer is prepared to take on the daunting task of working to create something vast and monumental – that will be a transformative experience for the audience. The personnel vary and have included students, artists, a few skilled assistants and many volunteers who represent a diversity of backgrounds, practice and experience.

Research

Pathway through cedar forest, Asterion 2006

The process of developing Asterion toward public presentation is a research project, an exploration of the ways in which the configurations of theatrical spaces can create a narrative and just what it is that makes a space theatrical. Over these past six summers, we have cut pathways through dense cedar forest, constructed enclosures of straw, cement and steel, cedar and fabric and have placed large truck trailers and a prefabricated steel building on the site to provide protected dark spaces. We have played with the text in these spaces in order to understand the possibilities for theatrical interaction between one participant and one performer. And now we are beginning to create the installations that will provide most of the narrative content, for while the experience will involve live performers at times, most of the journey will be made by the participant alone and will rely on artifacts within the spaces to provide the narrative thread. For like any labyrinth, there is a route that must be travelled and making the journey is like threading a string through the whorls of a complex shell. The participant or spect-actor becomes an active and engaged player in this drama. They may not be conscious of their performative role but nonetheless it is their response to the environment that creates the story of the journey through the labyrinth.

So each voyage is unique, every story is shaped by the individual’s experience; this is true for every participant who undertakes the journey through the labyrinth and for those of us who are working to form the environment of the experience.

Theatre is unique

The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix, Haliburton 2006

Every piece of live performance is unique; every work of theatre is a tenuous engagement of trust between performer and audience. There are layers of complexity in all performance narratives and each journey creates a new story with innumerable ways to get lost along the way. Site based work such as the music dramas we present in natural settings provides opportunities to add to the complexity, to create stories imbued with the essence of the surroundings. And the process requires the practitioners to adapt, to improvise, to overcome physical barriers, to work with the weather and ultimately to open new avenues down which will be found the treasures of transformation.

 

SPARC Shares…

Sometimes instead of posting our own “SPARC-created” content written by SPARC staff or guest bloggers from the SPARC community, we want to share posts written by other organizations or publications that we feel would be of interest to the SPARC community. In case you missed our Facebook post today or last Thursday, here are the blogs we shared:

Today (September 6, 2018)

A selection of blog posts from Arts for Children and Youth

With students returning to school this week, we want to share a selection of blog posts that focus on children and education through the arts. Arts for Children and Youth is a website that has “tried to create articles with actual examples to guide you in creating your own programs.”

The team behind these blogs firmly believe “in the value of artistic education for children that led us to create this site. Inside you’ll find articles that explore why a love of the arts is important for children and how it can help them grow into mentally healthy adults.The time to establish a love of the arts is as soon as your child is able to communicate in a meaningful way. This is the responsibility of both parents and educators.”

Let’s all start the new school year with a running, dancing, singing, expressively bold start! A new generation of artists and arts enthusiasts are ready to leap into play!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Asking Questions About Mental Health in the Arts” by Jenna Reid for Canadian Art

In this piece Reid reflects on the Workman Arts symposium “#BigFeels: Creating Space for Mental Health in the Arts”. 

Aimed at creating “positive connections in our communities through meaningful conversations, workshops, creative activities and exhibitions”, this event focused on unpacking ideas about mental health, equality, and caring for the well-being of everyone involved in artistic projects. We hope the big ideas help inspire our SPARC community to bring even more mental-health awareness into community activities and team-building practices!