Tuesday, 7 March 2017

YAC 2016 Youth Festival Series: Kingston’s Juvenis Festival

by Jocelyn MacNeil (2016 Youth Advisory Committee)

The two-part youth festival series aims to introduce readers to the inner workings of the major youth-run theatre festivals across Ontario.

In this segment, Jocelyn MacNeil interviews Michael Sheppard and Jane Karges of Kingston’s Blue Canoe Theatre Productions about how they got their new youth festival, Juvenis, off the ground.

It can feel like the arts has taken a back seat in the lives and education of many young people. But in Kingston, Blue Canoe has managed to breathe new life into the city’s theatre community by putting youth first. With no shortage of effort and passion, Artistic Producer Michael Sheppard and his team have done something invaluable for Kingston’s artistic community: they have gotten people to believe in it again. 

Blue Canoe was formed as a youth-led and youth-focused theatre company in 2006. One of its major achievements has been the creation of the Juvenis Festival. Now in its second year, Juvenis (named for the Latin word meaning “youth” or “youthful”) is a youth-led arts festival that aims to inspire involvement in the arts across all levels and disciplines for people aged 13-30. 

Mike tells me that the idea for the festival started six years after he founded Blue Canoe. Around 2012, he noticed a lack of summer theatre programs in the city. He had been toying with the idea of a youth-run theatre festival but was met with skepticism. By this point, Blue Canoe had proved itself to be a viable and successful organization. But Mike was also discovering that the impact it was having on Kingston youth was greater than anticipated; participants in Blue Canoe productions were not only actively engaging in the work they were staging, they were also building relationships within the company and the greater community. Mike ventured that a youth theatre festival that acted as part showcase, part professional development would be the perfect way to keep this dynamic going. He explains that given Kingston’s size and status as a university town, the opportunity for professional development in theatre has historically been somewhat limited. He felt the demand was there, and set out to use Blue Canoe to create the first blueprint for what would eventually become the Juvenis Festival. 

So: how do you organize a project whose main goal is to involve youth as leaders at every step of the way? Mike first looked to timing. National Youth Week takes place annually at the beginning of May and seemed to be the perfect platform to generate interest and involvement. It was decided that the festival would coincide with that week each year.

Mike teamed up with Jane Karges, a recent Queens Drama graduate, and they moved to secure funding and support. As they went about trying to transform dreams into reality, they were prepared for push-back, but Jane tells me she did not anticipate that the point of reluctance would stem from a fundamental lack of faith in the age group. When they told one school official that the festival would be geared towards people aged 13-30, the administrator simply said, “good luck with that.” Jane explains that the woman believed this age group would be too difficult to engage, and that this kind of project would be better suited to elementary school ages. Jane was shocked that she had to defend an idea designed to benefit youth to a school administrator. A veteran of dealing with skepticism from the community after years spent advocating for Blue Canoe, Mike was not at all surprised. Both were delighted to find that many arts groups and businesses eventually decided to help them, in what felt at the time like a 180-degree shift.

Mike, Jane, and their army of enthusiastic young volunteers had to be strategic. Juvenis needed to forge partnerships with local organizations so that the festival’s impact could be furthered through those networks. They were lucky enough to find friendship in organizations such as the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre, Reelout Arts Project, Kingston Canadian Film Festival, Kingston Writer’s Fest, Boys and Girls Club Kingston, Youth to Kingston Strategy Group, and the Kingston-Frontenac Public Library (with whom Blue Canoe had partnered previously for their storytelling coffee house, 

As plans progressed, the team was very careful to avoid a structure that would be in any way restricting. “Structure” can sound like a four-letter word to many in the arts, and staying true to a format that best promoted youth engagement was the primary goal. To that end, they organized themselves according to the seasons. Fall was for developing youth engagement: visiting local high schools, St. Lawrence College and Queens University, and finding out what the youth of the city wanted the festival to look like. Winter was for project submissions: reviewing applications and selecting from a wide range of content, ages and disciplines. As the snow melted and spring arrived, their next and final task was promotion. 

The team also had to consider who they were making the festival for. “The festival is for everyone, and I say that knowing it’s a cliché, but let me explain…” Mike tells me that Juvenis’ mandate is to create an environment where every artistic endeavour is possible. So if you are brand new to theatre? There are workshops designed for beginners to help cultivate creativity, network with other artists in the community, and build connections for future festivals. Whether you are 13 and have never tried anything “artsy” before, 16 and the lead in your school musical, or 21 and have always wanted to produce a concert or art show, there is a place for you at Juvenis. 

Mike and Jane tell me they have both witnessed first-hand that the high quality of the work comes from people having fun. “We haven’t found that introducing the youth to the arts under the notion of working tirelessly, isolating yourself and avoiding the playfulness of the arts has worked. When we have a fun atmosphere and people connect with one another, good art comes out of that.” And given that every event at the festival ticketed, the statement to the community is clear: there is value in what youth produce.

While funding cuts seem to be taking place left, right and centre in almost every school board in Ontario, youth-led, youth-empowering initiatives cannot help but be a source of hope. I can tell you that it is especially heartwarming to get to talk to such an inspirational team, one that is creating meaningful opportunities for youth and that genuinely wants every young artist to believe that the sky is the limit.

The plan is for Juvenis to be entirely youth-run within the next five years. Obviously this is not something that can happen overnight, but it is Mike’s hope that the festival will be an opportunity for students fresh out of post-secondary to gain practical experience in what they have been studying at school. It is clear that whoever succeeds these two will have big shoes to fill, but if this interview has left me with anything, it is a feeling of confidence in what young people can achieve.

The Juvenis Festival will run in Kingston as part of National Youth Week from April 30-May 7, 2017.

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