STORIES OF NOW: Nakai Theatre (Whitehorse)

Whistle Bend (Photo: Erik Pinkerton)

VignetteNakai Theatre, Whitehorse, Yukon

 “STORIES OF NOW” is part of a project ArtBridges is working on with Judith Marcuse Projects’ ASCN (Arts for Social Change Network) and ICASC. It is about gathering and sharing stories emanating from the field now and about what issues and areas of focus matter. 

In conversation with: Jacob Zimmer, Artistic Director – Nakai Theatre, on November 29th, 2021. 

If you could tell a story about your community-engaged arts initiative now, this year, what would the story be about? What are the main themes?

JZ:   It’s about how we can contribute delightful surprises in a period of time covered by deeply non-delightful surprises. There are some other things we’re working on, but this is the main question: how to help artists working and engaging in joyful and delightful ways? We live in a time in which artists are mining personal tragedies and putting this into their work. We are supporting artists and supporting them in doing silly and delightful things. It’s not escapism, it’s not about denying the fact that the work is a tire fire – don’t throw more gasoline on it!  We need heat and light, but that doesn’t mean throwing our tires on the fire. Look around, find other points of light, head over near a campfire, sit around and have a conversation. What else can we do? There are lots of policies, systems, and communities we can work more closely with, but are not possible to at the moment.

What is possible for an arts organization, what is capacity for us? There is a funding incentive to think big. We do processions with puppets around Long Term Care (LTC) homes.  What is this doing? It’s bringing 15 minutes of delight into the residence for the residents. It’s important and it’s hard to track metrics on that. So when we don’t have the capacity to do indoor theater, what is successful is – we had relationships before (pandemic) with puppet makers and musicians. We pay the musicians. The artists parade around the LTC home at a social distance from residents. This puppet work was the most successful social change thing we’ve done. Another story is about participating in larger networks – this has been different then giant puppets. Being an advocate for these things in theatre – in crisis around COVID. We’re advocating for delight!

What are the main issues your community-engaged arts initiative faces? (e.g., social justice, environmental justice, pandemic-related, operational, financial, HR)

JZ:   Disconnection, social issues, social disconnection, depression, social cohesion. Gone to horrific levels, because of the pandemic. Things were already challenging in the North before. There are higher alienation rates, suicide, drop out rates.. It’s been multiplied in the pandemic. These puppets are trying to address that angst. So it’s less direct, less “on issue like policing and racist policies.

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

JZ:   We’re creating opportunities with ‘at a distance’ projects.  Artists come together to create weird and delightful puppets for their hub, or their pod, and then take the puppets out into the world – at a distance. The puppets are backpack-rigged puppets… we go to farmers markets and parks. They’re bringing delight. It’s not about selling anything – it’s a non-commercial delight. We’ve also gone into three Long Term Care homes in the area for a day of parading around outside of the buildings. These events work on the social cohesion and alienation question. It’s for the staff at these buildings too, we make sure they know we’re coming. They have hard jobs. This is what we can do – give a delightful surprise. We call, make arrangements with staff, it’s free and less bureaucratic. 

During March Break last year, we were in COVID mode, we told the youth participants “if you come every day we’ll pay you $750.” We were connecting arts with the document Together Today for Children Tomorrow. We were looking at that manifesto from the Yukon that led to the self-governance agreements. The document is approaching its 50th anniversary of leaders going to Ottawa to present to Trudeau senior. How can we connect art making with that visit? We did a March Break camp and connected artists and an elder with participants. We’re building on that project, that document. We’re using the network support to do this. We’re looking at working with the manifesto and what is also 50 years in the future? The kids are looking at it. What would the world, the Yukon be looking like in 2073?  What if we created an art project as a way to get out of a tire fire. We can’t put the fire out by ourselves, but we can dream a bigger world and help to dream about the future. Supporting artists up here – to work up here. We’re supporting Christine Genier on her work on Indigenous futurism and imagining a different world in science fiction. How do we imagine? This is what art can do for the social change.

Cooperidge (Photo: Erik Pinkerton)

How has the community of participants that your initiative engages with evolved in the past year (if at all)?

JZ:   For the puppets project, a different group showed up. Volunteers shifted because of COVID protocols this summer. It ruined youth getting together to make puppets. We’re entering into the 3rd year with the puppets. Can we make this part of what we do? This was an emergency response project. Previously we were developing theatre at the scale of the landscape –things seen at a distance. Now we’re looking at involving big puppetry work that traditionally, we were not actively doing. This has all been new. Before the pandemic it was the landscape question based on practice-based research, now more community-engaged art. We can’t bring academics together, don’t want to talk on zoom about working outside/landscapes, about what we can or cannot do. How can we help to work on some ideas now? We are further along in the landscape work. It’s different now going to LTC homes. We’re aware of the alienation at the LTC homes.

Community-engaged art accelerated compared with before the pandemic. All these things that were hard to explain to people before now became very obvious. ‘10 minutes of delight’ now means something. Visceral now – we see how important it is. There’s a scarcity of 10 minutes of delight. The giant parades – a parade of 15 people at the LTC home, works. It doesn’t push COVID barriers and doesn’t need corporate sponsorship. It’s more obvious why we chose to do this and we got funding to keep the artists going – to pay artists and commission them during CERB without going over their limits. We get together in a day to make a puppet. No one was asking about box office returns. People understood. We were doing things in a way others weren’t. It was the only thing we could do. The LTC homes are a clear, strong base. Now an outdoor event on Labour Day weekend – we partner with a music group, and do an installation. We’ve done 2 now. We’d like to keep this parade going. Labour Day is good. Not too cold, but it still gets dark before 10. A Low touch event, that includes a place to take instagram pictures. Light, puppets and joyful delights!  

How is your organization engaging with your community right now? (Logistics, pandemic public health and safety guidelines & policies, changes in the way we gather)

JZ:   We have a festival in the Yukon in January. A more traditional arts presenting framework.  We “pivot “ – that’s been stressful. We’re in a state of emergency now. From thinking we can sell 60 tickets and beer & wine tickets to 20 tickets and no beer and wine. How do we create events that people would like to go to? Bring joy? The anxiety of the disease is overruling joy & delight. People aren’t going out as much. We created a sunroom and turned on lights, we put in flowers. People can book the sunroom for 30 minutes. We’re trying. Every time COVID shifts we all stressfully deal with a bunch of things. It’s hard to do community building, change. All future planning is on hold. We all have to deal with adaptation. This is hard. It’s hard to interact with the school system and youth. What feels safe? Rapid shifts are tiring and challenging. HR is a problem. We don’t always have the people who can lead a project. As an organization leader, I can see need and opportunity. I’m a white dude from away. How best to support people who can lead? Nation building, people are on the Executive Council. They’d like to do it but they are doing nation building, they have busy and important family lives. Many have left and gone south. We can be in a situation where we have money but not always have capacity. I’ve been here for 4 years. Nakai is an organization – a professional company of 42 years. It takes time to rebuild relationships. We are a three-person organization. There’s less institutional memory. The next AD may have different ideas of theater through the territory – it’s community focused, professionally run. We had done so much work to not be ‘community arts’ – the idea of volunteering for Nakai, wasn’t such a thing. Nakai has jump started direct work with community. This has pushed that into being lived experience. No travel going on. 

What are one or two new projects your initiative implemented this year?

JZ:   Puppets parading at LTC homes. March break work with participants…all this began during this time.

March Break Camp

What is your initiative doing new–digitally–compared to pre-pandemic?

JZ:   The puppets are intentionally non-digital. We are more truthful about storytelling around it. The desire is to be doing 10 minutes of local delight that can be properly harvested for the digital – that’s been part of it. The March Break camp was on zoom. The thing that works is bringing communities together on zoom – from Dawson, to Beaver Creek and Whitehorse. We did a bunch of digital storytelling off the top. 99 stories and not about gold! Zoom was a holding space for people telling stories. 

We’re bringing participants into conversations around 3D digital AI spaces. We’re tracking this for other folks as much as for ourselves. We have the best set available and a huge space at Nakai to be used for performances that not a lot of people can get to. Can we create a 3D experience to share the content without flattening them?  We’ll track that work more heavily than before.

Is there a recent achievement, wonderful moment, or quote you’d like to share about your initiative or its impact?

JZ:   We have a one clip – of the puppets on Labour Day night. A person was looking over at the light labyrinth saying ‘life is f*cking grand’.  Just hearing that! We need more chances to say that. It’s a thing art can do. The LTC home moments. Doing the parades – very good for the soul. Dancing around doing jigs – what it’s all about. Not the spread-sheets, or writing grants. It’s a lot of work for 10 minutes of delight, but the parades are lovely moments. Seeing kids and participants untrained, brings delight!

In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges, sconnell[at]

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