Tuesday, 14 February 2017

YAC 2016 Youth Festival Series: Toronto's Paprika Festival

by Annie MacKay (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, Annie MacKay interviews Paprika’s Darwin Lyons about the Toronto youth festival that has now been around for as long as many of its participants have been alive!

“I think it’s very important for young people to have a space where they are treated as people who have things to say, because they do.” 

Since its establishment by then-eighteen-year-old Anthony Furey in 2001, Toronto’s annual Paprika Festival has supported the work of over 1,000 individuals and helped launch more than 100 professional careers, welcomed over 10,000 attendees and connected with a community of over 25,000 professionals and families. I spoke with Darwin Lyons, currently in her second year as Paprika’s Artistic Producer, about where Paprika has been and where it is going as its 16th iteration approaches.
Like the majority of Paprika’s current staff, Darwin’s first encounter with the festival was as a participant. She explains that when she first took part, as a member of the Artist’s Lab in 2006, it was the first time that work that she had created was seen as valuable and valid. “It wasn’t that my ideas were young, it was that I needed support in how to get them up.” This combination of support and autonomy is the crux of Paprika’s mandate: treat young artists as professionals, and help them say what they need and want to say in the best way possible. The starting premise, as Darwin puts it, is “you’re already an artist.” No one is telling you “this is the kind of art you should be doing, and this is how you should be doing it”—a deliberate contrast to much of the artistic training that is available to youth.

It would be hard not to be impressed by the festival’s evolution. Paprika has grown from, in 2002, a showcase of five new plays created by artists 21 and under, to become a facilitator of year-round programming that encompasses ongoing mentorship, playwrights-in-residence, a youth advisory board, and more, culminating in a week-long festival in May. The different components of Paprika have changed along with its leadership, as each team finds its own answer to how they can best serve young artists. Ultimately, Darwin explains, “the need for our programming is higher than the resources that we have,” and that means tough choices.
Paprika 2016
Photo by Taku Kumabe

One of Darwin’s major moves as Artistic Producer has been to shrink the festival in order to better serve the participants. Paprika accepted fewer people in 2016 than the year before, despite receiving double the number of 2015 applications. “People often interact with Paprika as if it is a much larger organization than it is,” Darwin says. As a now very established festival, the staff’s time and effort is pulled in a lot of directions. From an organizational standpoint, “especially in the arts, there are so many things you could be doing.” With that in mind, the 2015-2018 Strategic Plan for the organization was crafted, under Darwin’s leadership, as a means of identifying concrete things Paprika can be doing to fulfill its values.

The values identified in the strategic plan are community, accessibility, youth leadership, and artistic development. You can find (and download) it on the Paprika website to read about the underlying assumptions, strategies, and measurable outcomes associated with each goal. The plan, Darwin explains, took a long time to develop but has proven to be very worthwhile. “I think it’s always a good idea for an organization to be very specific about what they’re trying to do.” For example, the first goal reads: “Work actively to increase the accessibility and diversity of Paprika’s artistic programs.” Strategies include: targeting at least one new school, program, or organization focused on an equity-seeking group every year; appointing an accessibility and diversity officer on the festival’s Board of Directors; and tracking participant statistics. 

Paprika's 2016 Regent Collective
Photo by Brian Postalian
Outreach is, as Darwin describes it, one of the most time-consuming but important ways to promote accessibility. Participant applications have helped the staff identify that word of mouth is “huge,” so the goal is to get to as many networks as possible. The festival makes a point of interviewing every single applicant; a monumental time commitment, to be sure, but also a significant way of increasing the program’s accessibility. Outreach is a consideration for hiring as well: if Paprika is sending out a job posting and only getting a certain demographic back, “we’re doing something wrong.” Darwin emphasizes how important it is to have individuals in leadership roles who can help people feel safe and who represent the experiences Paprika participants may have had. Of course you need to make sure the person you are hiring is the best person for the job, “but I can’t imagine the best person for the job is always a cis white male.” Amid an ongoing discussion in the theatre community about this very subject, this is as succinct an argument for equitable hiring practices as I could ever hope for.

Another strategy that Paprika is implementing toward their goal of increased accessibility and diversity is partnering with organizations focused on equity-seeking groups. 2015/16 marked the first year of the festival’s partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts. Paprika has called the Aki Studio, Native Earth’s performance space in Regent Park, its festival home since May 2016. Native Earth had another significant effect on Paprika in the last year when its leadership prompted the festival to refashion its age cut-off for participants into a suggested cap. Darwin explains that a priority for Paprika has been making its spaces safer for Indigenous youth, who can sometimes, for many reasons, come to the theatre later in life. With this application flexibility now in place, age becomes a conversation in the interview room.

Paprika's Youth Training Day
Photo by Brian Postalian
For many of Paprika’s programs, it is suggested that participants have not completed a post-secondary degree. Historically the program has focused on youth 21 and under; today, that cap applies to Paprika Productions, the Creators’ Unit, the Playwriting Unit, and the Resident Company. The Advisory Board and Director’s Lab are both available to artists under 30, as is the annual conference “The Intersection”. Given Paprika’s status as a youth-run festival, staff turnover is inevitable, and when I ask Darwin about it, she tells me that on-boarding and succession planning constitute some of the festival’s biggest challenges. The age cap for staff is something “we’re still learning about.” Like many non-profits, staff burn-out is also something they struggle with, and continue to work on. "The staff is amazing," she says. "They are across the board so talented and give so much."

“The skills I’ve learned in this position...I would have had to get a Masters,” Darwin tells me. “The biggest win,” she shares, was watching the shows last year. “And seeing that they were good shows, bar-none.” As someone who attended the 2016 festival, I can attest to the high calibre and creativity of the work; I was truly blown away. Ultimately, “the success is seeing so many people come through and already be leaders,” she says. Paprika’s role, as she sees it, is often simply being able to connect these young artists with others who have experience.

I ask Darwin about where her role as Artistic Producer fits into her own creative life. We talk about having a personal mandate that you stay true to and making decisions according to your values: “in my art I think about...what am I putting out into the world, is this something that represents a politic that I support, a message that I think is important.” She also advocates for creating space to re-evaluate what is important to you, as a person and as an artist. 

“I really support where Paprika is going,” Darwin says, “and I’m really excited about the possibilities of making it a space for what the whole Toronto scene could hopefully look like. That’s something that I could totally get behind.” So could I. 


The 16th Annual Paprika Festival will run in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts at the Aki Studio in Regent Park, May 22-28, 2017. 

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