Rural Arts Advocacy

A blog by Fanny Martin, Executive Director & Creative Producer – Art of Festivals

It started with frustration. In March 2019, Mass Culture hosted a Digital Gathering on cultural planning in rural & remote communities in response to feedback from SPARC Steering Committee member Felicity Buckell, who attended the first city-focused webinar of the series. 

In conversation with Annalee Adair, Felicity highlighted some challenges of rural cultural planning, from the lack of genuine local political support for the arts to limited resources to effectively advocate for that support.   

The Community Presenters’ Network took up the baton and, with the support of SPARC’s Collaborative Community Initiatives program, put out a call to start unlocking the network’s collective advocacy potential. This was the beginning of my work with SPARC and the CPN. I had produced the Digital Gathering that spurred this desire for action and wanted to dig deeper into these questions, so I embarked on interviews and research to understand how deep the disconnect is and what steps the network can take to rewrite the narrative. 

Advocacy is a long game, and context varies widely from one rural community to another. Success stories are inspiring but often dependent on structural conditions that take years to shape. So how do we get started on a change process with lasting power? What can we achieve with a concerted effort? The Advocacy Starter Guide I produced outlines 5 key steps to mobilize and amplify the network’s potential for making its case: 

  1. WHY: What is our VISION? 

Compelling advocacy is driven by strong values and ambitious shared desired outcomes. Change doesn’t start or end with more money: what is required is a lasting, genuine shift in attitudes and perspectives that reshapes power relations and priorities. This vision could take the form of a manifesto, charter or set of principles, like the HIGH FIVE framework for children’s sport and recreation programming, which promotes cross-sector collaboration to create the conditions for children to thrive. 

  1. WHAT: What are our key MESSAGES? 

Vision and values need to be translated into messages that are clear, compelling and consistent. We need to rewrite the script: it doesn’t have to be hockey or theatre, and there are enough resources for both sport and culture in a well-rounded society if we shift our assessment of what matters. 

  1. HOW: What are our TACTICS? 

Advocacy is a long-haul journey that requires a tactical approach: a series of campaigns and actions, sustained by research projects and monitoring mechanisms. Making these efforts visible and transparent through “advocacy diaries” – for example a shared open blog – could amplify the network’s impact and support ongoing dialogue between stakeholders. 

  1. WHO: Who are the PEOPLE we are working with, for and against? 

Identifying who holds power and how to reach them is a key step in designing a campaign. Strategic alliances with other networks, organizations and individuals with overlapping agendas can also help leverage third-party advocacy and reach targeted decision-makers.

  1. WHEN: What is our STRATEGY to make systemic change happen? 

What is the anatomy of a good campaign? Who does what – and when? What resources should be allocated to which actions? What constitutes success? How can progress be measured and milestones celebrated? Creating an advocacy checklist and timeline can help focus efforts and track outcomes: this could take the form of a step-by-step approach to crafting and delivering effective messages and a regularly updated calendar of important dates for the different levels of campaigning (Council meetings, regional conferences, budget reviews…). 

_ _ _ 

The Advocacy Starter Guide, finalised in February 2020, expands on these questions, with quotes, checklists and additional resources, to provide a foundation for customized toolkits and campaigns. But what does this all mean now, in the time of the pandemic? 

With remote working now an option for thousands of workers, urban density perceived as a risk, international mobility patterns affected by health, cost and environmental considerations, we know there will be changes to the ways we live, work and play.

We don’t know yet how deeply the performing arts sector has and will be impacted, how our gatherings and celebrations will be modified in the short and long-term, or how artists will make a living. But we heard official declarations of support for artists; we saw grant conditions overturned to accommodate shifting new contexts, and public funding fast-forwarded to organizations at risk. 

How will this impact rural and remote areas? What opportunities are emerging to make a powerful case for rural arts as the beating heart of vibrant, attractive, caring communities? 

The Advocacy Starter Guide is the first step in exploring these questions and rewriting the narrative. I invite you to read through it and share your thoughts! How can we channel our frustration into collective action? 

 

Follow this link to the Advocacy Starter Guide or email Rachel (rachel@sparcperformingarts.com) for a copy to be sent to you.

reIMAGINE What Is The Way Forward?

A blog by SPARC guest blogger Denise Lysak exploring one festival’s way forward during COVID-19.

Kitchen Party poster - August 22

All across the country, companies struggle just to survive. Theatres, galleries, museums, and festival sites sit empty. So many artists, musicians, painters, actors, directors, guides, technicians, carpenters, janitors, marketers, designers, and arts practitioners face crippling financial strain, professionally and personally, as well as uncertain futures. Spaces AND people are in unprecedented times. Museums, galleries, playhouses are all cultural gems and losing them would hurt our shared history and heritage. 

As we, the audiences, wait and hope that soon: a) world premieres will come back; b) new exhibits will open; and, c) festivals will find their way forward.  So much hinges on science and discovery – therapeutics or a vaccine and until then, arts and culture are on hold as the coronavirus silently waits. What is the way forward?

Is there a new temporal home for a new season? Can people pivot? Can musicians make a living with live streaming concerts?  Can playwrights, directors, designers, and actors sit at tables, not in the same room, and create new works? Can art exist without audiences – in halls, in seats, in unusual spaces and places – on street corners, on buses or on roof tops?  Can the home, for now – be online?  

If you had asked me this, ten years ago…I would have said no. If you asked me this same question, two years ago, the same response would have been uttered – just no.  And, today, I am still uncertain.  My head says “yes” and yet, my heart says “no”.  Stay with me for just a moment.  Imagine if you will – a kitchen table littered with newspaper headlines and images, cut from free presses.  What do you see?  

THE SHOW GOES ON(LINE): AS EVENTS CANCEL DUE TO COVID-19 

EVENTS ARE GOING DIGITAL: SHOULD YOUR COMPANY FOLLOW?

MUSIC STARS ARE LIVE-STREAMING AT-HOME CONCERTS

OTTAWA FACING SILENT SPRING AS FESTIVALS, EVENTS CANCELLED

EDEN MILLS WRITERS’ FESTIVAL CANCELLED, REPLACED BY ONLINE EVENTS

The headlines bring more questions than answers.  Will the shift to online events forever change the experience that exists between the artists and the audiences? Will people pay to listen to a live-streaming concert online?  Will dialogues be silenced as gallery guides no longer stand in front of a large canvas, discussing the feelings evoked by a series that begs for critical thought and freedom of expression? My simple answer is “I hope not”. 

How then does that square with a decision to curate an abridged version of the now cancelled Moose n’ Fiddle Music Festival in 2020 and produce a 90-minute online event? I hope this is temporary. I hope the online home is truly a temporal home. Let’s focus on the idea that the online platform is simply a tool. A resource to connect to audiences. A way to move through a time and space – until we can all be together again.  

The KITCHEN PARTY is aptly wrapped by the idea of standing together, while staying apart. What does that mean for the artists and the audiences who have put the Festival on its feet? 

In ordinary times, it would mean: a very, long pause.  But these are extraordinary times and we wanted to meet the moment.  So…we have assembled a small group of the who’s who of Moose n’ Fiddle past and present.  We will mark COVID-19 with an abridged version of the Moose n’ Fiddle Music Festival.  

On Saturday, August 22nd, we invite you to continue to shelter in place, to stay home and be safe while enjoying the sights and sounds of an online KITCHEN PARTY.  In the spirit of standing together, while staying apart, this Kitchen Party will be 90-minutes in length and it will kick off at 8pm. Say hello to Siouxperboat, Belle Plaine, Adrian Sutherland from Midnight Shine, and Fu Fu Chi Chi Choir! Our narrators will be Wanda Kabel and yes, me – Dee Lysak.

The KITCHEN PARTY, online event will be hosted by 89.5 The Lake [Acadia Broadcasting] and the link will be on the moosenfiddle.ca website.  So, grab a cold brew from Lake of the Woods Brewing Company, order up some wood-fired pizzas from Black Oven Pizza, kick off your shoes, and tune in! This KITCHEN PARTY will be in the cloud and we invite you to join us. Yes, things are going to look and feel different. 

The online platform is a virtual room, to see – to hear – to learn – to entertain – to reIMAGINE. 

Ghost Light Stays On

A new blog by SPARC Guest Blogger, Denise Lysak.

On stages all across Ontario, ghost lights are on.  Plawyrights, storytellers, actors, musicians, comedians, masters of marionettes, and, so many more #stayhome as COVID-19 – a coronavirus threatens the lives of many.  

Dark, empty theatre seating with one bare bulb shining

A ghost light is a small, single bulbed light usually a floor lamp of some sort, that shines on the dark stage throughout the night. It is both practical and mystical. There are many crooks and crannies in theatre spaces. And, trip hazards abound, including orchestra pits and false bottom floors. It is best to keep the spaces lit and on more than one occasion, you will hear theatre techs, grips and gaffers – telling the last one to leave for the night, “to turn on the ghost light”.  

For others, the ghost light takes on a more, mysterious meaning. If it is true that every theatre has a ghost, then the ghost light illuminates and defines the shadowy world that people from our past inhabit. According to Playbill.com, it is said that the Palace Theatre is one of the most haunted theatres on Broadway.  There is an old Masonic lodge in Winnipeg – on the corner of Ellice and Donald – that has been home to many a theatre production and it is known to be haunted by a ghost. More than a century ago, one of Canada’s largest unsolved mysteries occurred. Theatre tycoon Ambrose Small, who owned The Grand London and many other Canadian theatres, sold his empire, deposited the money in the bank, and then disappeared. Eerie encounters with this grand ghost continue and the ghost of Ambrose Small has been seen as he continues to haunt The Grand Theatre, in London, Ontario to this day. Whether it is fact or fiction, the tradition lives on.  And, as emergency measures and shelter in place orders mark these trying times, ghost lights stay on.

In the heart of Ontario’s bread basket, The Blyth Festival has postponed its season but has not yet cancelled any of its shows, the first of which is scheduled to open June 10, with the world premiere of Airborne: The Life and Legacy of Lorne Bray.  Port Stanley Festival Theatre postponed its first two shows of the season, The Crooner Show (May 19-23) and A Legal Alien (May 26-30).

The list goes on. The Stratford Festival has suspended its 2020 season indefinitely.  The Shaw Festival has now cancelled all events until after June 30th as the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake extends its state of emergency and ban on all public events and meetings. The curtain has also fallen on smaller outdoor summer music festivals including The Trout Forest Music Festival in Ear Falls and the Moose n’ Fiddle Music Festival in Nestor Falls, far off the beaten path in northwestern Ontario.  

The revenues lost from non-existent ticket sales, fundraisers, and membership drives may prove to be insurmountable for many festivals, theatre, galleries and museums. Tourism dollars will not be flowing and the ripple effect will be felt at lodges, resorts, restaurants, and retail shoppes from James Bay to Point Pelee and all places in between. The livelihoods of artists, musicians, painters, ticket takers, and arts practitioners lay in the balance. 

As not-for-profit organizations and people pivot, stories of wardrobe mistresses making masks and sewing garments for front-line workers and musicians streaming live online are coming to light. And, even in the midst of a global health pandemic, we are all connected. To something bigger than ourselves. To causes and challenges that were only known by generations before us.  Times have changed. Are we all standing at the portal? In the days before COVID-19, this was a familiar hymn heard at New Year’s and a song of praise and worship.  

Image of sheet music St Alban 65.65 refrain

Today, Standing at the Portal represents a before and after: pre-COVID and the new normal. For now, we are all striving to find a new rhythm. To navigate uncharted waters, with ways and means seldom called upon before. When will musicians play live onstage again?  When will actors and actresses leave small gifts in dressing rooms, just before they take their places to perform beloved classics or world premieres?  When will festivals occupy city spaces, open fields and forested glens – connecting people to places again? Only when we turn off the last ghost light…

 

 

How COVID-19 Has Impacted 4th Line Theatre

Kim Blackwell, Managing Artistic Director of 4th Line Theatre, shares how COVID-19 has impacted their season.

It was so unfathomable to imagine on March 8th of this year that the public reading we held at the Peterborough Museum and Archives would be the last in-person art presentation that 4th Line Theatre would be doing for the foreseeable future. We ended the public reading of D’Arcy Jenish’s new work The Tilco Strike and the audience present was so excited by the excerpt public reading we had presented. Everyone dispersed and I went off on a planned family vacation early in the morning of March 10th. And of course by March 12th the entire world had been turned upside down.  Things changed radically for the entire world, in almost an instant. 

For me, the initial stress was getting my family safely home from out of country and then doing the two-week isolation period was only the beginning of a stressful realization that the theatre, where I have spent the past 26 seasons would be altered drastically for the near future.  After that initial personal stress, it was time to regroup with the administrative staff and Board of Directors of the theatre and me wondering, “Is it possible that we might not have a 2020 summer season at 4th Line.” 

Since theatre was now closed, we were doing these meetings and musings online over Zoom. We were madly learning the technology and trying to keep in touch. The immediate focus of the theatre administration and the Board of Directors was the financial health of the organizations. We all know that eventually COVID-19 will end and people will be free to move around freely and meet in groups. And we have to ensure that our arts organization was still around to welcome the people back. There was a period of grieving I had to do, as I came to terms with the possibility that the theatre would not have all or part of its summer season. After 28 seasons of producing large-scale new Canadian plays, it caused me incredible sadness to imagine that the 29th season might not happen. As I came to terms with this very real possibility, so many other ideas of how to engage with our audiences started to percolate. 

At the heart of what we do at 4th Line Theatre, is an exploration of the relationship between art and audience. It is at the core of the art practice at 4th Line. For me, the idea of missing even one season of this delicate and important interaction was too much to imagine. And so we started to devise ideas for continuing to engage with our audiences remotely. Equally as important for me is to look to our artists, most of whom are now without work and think of how to engage them as well. 

We decided to start slowly, with a series of informal artist talks online in the month of May. We have a program at 4th Line entitled the Epic Women’s Directing project, which focuses on training and giving directing opportunities to women of all levels of directing experience. The program offers women directors the chance to work in the epic milieu of our theatre with large casts of actors in the outdoor setting. For several years, I have wanted to create a podcast series, talking to women theatre leaders about their lives, careers and artistic ethos. But like so many ideas you have as a leader of a busy arts organization – there was never enough time to set-up such a podcast series. And now suddenly we have nothing but time, so the idea of finally developing the series as a weekly live online chat was borne. We also wanted to try online readings of plays as an offering for our audiences. The challenge with readings, specifically of our plays, is that there are so many characters and actors in a typical 4th Line play. It would be a real challenge to do an online reading with say 25 actors. We wanted to try something smaller and so have gone with a one-woman show as our first offering. And we are also exploring an online development workshop for a script in development. We will be putting together 12 or 13 actors for a 1/2 day reading/workshop of our new Halloween play. 

We continue to look across the globe at what other theatre companies are doing online to engage theatre audiences for ideas which might be applicable to 4th Line. Many large companies have excellent video of their plays and are making them available online. We simply have never had the financial resources to pay for excellent quality video recordings of our productions. But it is interesting to imagine capturing our plays in this manner going forward. We will also be exploring online workshops for the general public including acting, directing and playwriting – to name only three. There are many possible electronic engagement activities we will be creating over the weeks and months to come, especially if our entire 2020 season is shuttered. 

The biggest challenge with creating online content is figuring out if there is a way to monetize the content. Presently, most artist content being offered online is being offered free of charge. I am not sure that audiences are interested in paywalls for our type of artistic content. It will be important to observe how it goes for the first companies who try to get audiences to pay for access to online content. For now, at 4th Line Theatre, we wait and watch the rest of the world for best practices and we dream of a time when we can congregate again in large groups.

Kim stands in front of closed box office