STORIES OF NOW: The River Clyde Pageant (PEI)

Vignette – The River Clyde Pageant (PEI)

“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: Megan Stewart, Artistic Director & Producer, The River Clyde Pageant, October 22nd, 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?

MS: Within the arts and theatre communities on PEI, the pandemic reoriented a lot of priorities about what kinds of stories are told, whom our work is for, and where it happens. Covid-19 forced the closure of indoor theatre and prevented audiences coming from out of province to consume culture. On PEI, I witnessed a lot of companies reorienting their work towards who is actually here on the Island, instead of catering to tourists, and exploring different models, especially when it came to using outdoor and unconventional spaces/venues to share art and theatre. There was a collective realization, without the tourists around, that telling stories that are relevant for local communities is incredibly important.

The River Clyde Pageant had been working with these values already – our productions happen outside, and our audiences and ensembles are made up primarily of Islanders. The stories we tell are inspired by the land and the people who call the rural and urban communities around the River Clyde home. Other companies and organizations started looking to us, and there has been a wealth of partnership opportunities that have emerged since then. Our 2020 production still had to be cancelled, but many new projects sprang up within the space of that cancellation. We had the chance to work with new organizations and support artists in different ways. It expanded our offerings into the ‘shoulder season’, so now, we present programming from early summer through the winter.

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

MS: Right now: operational issues. We’ve had an explosion of growth, lots of funding and new partnerships, but we’re struggling to get secure and stable multi-year operational support. We now have a small team who are employed consistently through the year, and we need to ensure that can be sustainable long term. Strengthening the operations of the organization is a main goal this year.

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

MS: We’re working hard on them! Our Board is helping, as are my core collaborators and my peers who lead arts orgs on PEI. Funding is coming through, so we’re working on operations budgets.

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

MS: We’ve talked about this theme a lot this year. In summer 2021, we were able to present a full-scale production of The River Clyde Pageant, after the cancellation of 2020. We noticed that among our community, folks have returned and have grown into active change-makers and creative agents within the process. Their enthusiasm lifts up the production, and helps draw in new people who feed off that energy and enthusiasm.  Our show structure and narrative this year was highly ambitious, but our ensemble rallied and jumped into it. Engagement was really high, and the production was so compelling – probably the best Pageant we’ve made so far. There was real strength in the community. There was a hunger in participants and the audience this year. Our tickets are admission by donation, and only sold online. In 2019 – we sold 500 tickets in 33 hours, in 2021: 500 tickets in 2.5 hours!

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

MS: We now offer more Pageant programming through the year, spreading the magic of the Pageant into the shoulder seasons of Fall and Winter. Generally we can gather in person without many covid-related restrictions – we’ve been lucky on PEI – our COVID cases are low, we’ve only had a few brief lockdowns. Our work takes place outdoors already, which puts us in a good position for planning and delivering events. The next event is a Solstice lantern walk. We migrated Solstice programming onto zoom during the lockdown last December and built lanterns over zoom. We developed a hybrid digital/in-person model, which we’re building upon for this year’s Solstice Walk, because it allowed us to engage more people.

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

MS: We were approached by the PEI Watershed Alliance to collaborate on a major project they were undertaking to do shoreline restoration work at several sites across the Island. We launched or helped launch three new arts projects connected to this initiative – 1) RIVERWORKS, which saw three artists create installations and performance art at three living shoreline sites 2) seed funding for a Mi’kmaq filmmaker to create a TV series about Indigenous traditional and contemporary use of Island waterways and 3) an upcoming pageant style outdoor performance on Lennox Island. We planted our first garden on the site where we work, which fed the Pageant creative team and our audiences at our post-show meals. In October, we had a by-donation farm stand and all proceeds went to the local food bank in North Rustico.

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

MS:  We launched a series of zoom and youtube lantern building tutorials last December for our Solstice Walk. The pandemic forced us to go in that direction. We were resistant, so tired of digital, but forced by a lockdown to implement it, and we were really pleased to see how well it worked. Most of our work can still take place in person. We are so fortunate, being in PEI, where most arts and culture events and public gatherings can still happen.

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

MS: Impact – there’s so much in the Pageant! …There are a few anchor families, whose kids return every year, and the parents are involved too. There are so many stories! What jumps to mind immediately:  two teens first got involved in the Pageant at age 10 or 11 and are now 16 and 17. Both have had struggles with anxiety and health. In different ways, they both asked: ‘Is there still a place for me in the River Clyde Pageant?’ Both teens returned this year and took on bigger roles, as mentors and mentees, helping out with younger actors and with building scenic elements. They became leaders, choosing to dive deeper and get more involved.

In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges

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