Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Space to Create: Reflections on the Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities

Theatre Ontario was proud to be part of SPARC, the Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities.  We hosted a panel on “Producing Quality Theatre in a Rural Setting” and two members of our Youth Advisory Committee were part of the Youth Caucus.  We asked two of our representatives to share about their experience at the conference.

Madeline Smith, Theatre Ontario Youth Advisory Committee
When I was first accepted to be a member of the Youth Caucus at SPARC (Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities), I must admit I had my concerns: How were we going to talk about performing arts in rural communities for four entire days? Approximately twenty minutes after arriving at the Haliburton School for the Arts where the symposium took place, my concerns shifted: How were we going to say everything we had to say about performing arts in rural communities in only four days?

Rebecca Ballarin and Madeline Smith,
from our Youth Advisory Committee, at SPARC
It was clear that for many of the attendees, these conversations had been a long-time coming. As presentations would end, the room would explode into rapturous applause. The clapping of hands together was a sign of solidarity, of understanding, of gratitude for putting seemingly intangible thoughts we all shared into words, or better yet, action. There was also a sense of relief that hung in the air throughout: relief that we weren't alone on the vast stage of Canada's wilderness. Applause would die down, as applause tends to do, but it would not be replaced by the usual silence of what now? Conversations would pick up where they had left off. New conversations would spark, fuelled by the latest inspiration we had received. Timidity and small-talk were at an all-time low: everyone had stories they needed told, and messages they needed heard. We were a raucous crowd, so accolades to our highland hosts for keeping us on schedule.

What was truly inspirational throughout the conference was how people living in rural areas were consistently celebrating the things that differentiated them from people living in cities: the land on which they lived and the remoteness they sometimes felt. It was not a gathering to bemoan the lack of resources and funding that trickle through more populated areas before reaching smaller communities. These challenges were raised, but only in the context of providing and seeking plausible solutions. In equal proportion to the conversation surrounding challenges, there were presentations of success stories. A theme emerged while listening to everyone who had “made it work”: rural-ness was central to their work. When it came to the actual making of art, this was embraced and used to further the work. In some cases that meant putting to use the sense of community present in small towns. In others, it meant creating performances that were inspired by or held in the open air, surrounded by trees, rock, mountains, lakes, and ocean, the homes of these people who are living on the land, opposed to living off the land.

I attended sessions with a wide range of focus including collaboration, creating site-specific work, and performing arts as a path to healing. It struck me that in rural communities there is simply more space—to let the mind wander, to try things out. There is also less risk of creating work motivated primarily by the feverish pace and the need for competition of the city.

As part of the SPARC Youth Caucus I had the opportunity to meet 20 other young people, aged 16-29, from many different rural Ontario communities, all of whom were performing artists, producers, facilitators, or supporters. We met briefly on each of the four days to talk about the assets and challenges we faced.

We heard a lot of “how do I get youth out to my event?” from the older crowd at SPARC. Unfortunately we weren't able to make a grand proclamation with all the answers to this question. What did come forward as a first step, was to work towards erasing the differentiation based on age categories. This separation is acting as a roadblock to trust, respect and collaboration. Youth expressed that they often felt “other-ed” in their communities by older artists with whom they might in fact share common vision and passion. Finding ways to support youth who face unique challenges, such as access to transportation, funding, and a lack of experience without segregating them can be a challenge.

Despite the endless list of barriers to art the youth raised in discussion each day, nightly we gathered in the hall of our residence and spent hours dancing, juggling and singing along to the improvised guitar (made by one of our own, no less), ukelele, cello band.

The need and passion to create are alive and well across age demographics, just as they are across the country.

Jack Brezina, Highlands Summer Festival and Theatre Ontario Panelist
SPARC brought together an untapped wealth of energy, ideas and experiences. Of course, my attention was focused on the sessions where theatre was being featured, but even those not directly related to theatre had valuable nuggets of information and ideas.

Theatre Ontario's Panel on "Producing Quality Theatre
in a Rural Setting" at SPARC
Our panel explored a variety of topics, mostly all related to theatre. The panel provided a number of perspectives on issues of the day and those who came to listen also added their own and expanded on what we presented. It was a valuable hour and a half that continued as the session broke up and people were walking back to the refreshments—always a sign of total engagement by everyone.

Overall (full disclosure, I was part of the organizing committee), the four-day symposium was charged with energy and a sense of excitement for the future of the performing arts outside of urban areas. The youth contingent infused the four days with a vitality that carried the conference to an exciting conclusion: we have to do this again and there should be some kind of formal network to keep us all linked.

I was personally impressed with the enthusiasm and participation from everyone involved and look forward to the growth of performing arts in rural settings.

Sticks and Stones Productions of Haliburton also produced a terrific video profiling the conference.  You will spot a few faces from Ontario’s theatre community.

SPARC Symposium for the Performing Arts in Rural Communities from Sticks and Stones Productions on Vimeo.

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