Vignette – National Theatre School of Canada https://ent-nts.ca/en
“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: Maude Levasseur, Director of Arts Engagement & Erika Kierulf, Associate Director, Arts Engagement, National Theatre School of Canada (Montreal), December 6th, 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?
Erika: Our underlying theme is well-being and care. I don’t want to say that the pandemic is over but we need to approach the projects we’re doing in the schools, and with community with this in mind. We’ve been working on sharing table and events around “healthier theatre” and what it could look like.
Maude: Story of Now… we are in a sharing before healing phase. We are getting out of our homes, and we are telling people what happened. Well-being and care are really on our minds, we are now using a very “health/diagnosis” way of taking care of each other.
We hope sharing stories to eventually heal and diagnose where we are now. It’s a story of how to come back, how to redo things, redo the same? Do better? The wheel was broken, and things stopped turning. Now there’s a different way to move forward. Around arts in Montreal – this idea that things were perfect before the pandemic is a bit absurd. People are slowly coming back to theatre spaces, but audiences were a problem before covid. We need to learn how to take care of the public and audiences. Re-thinking on the relationship and mutual respect between the audience and artists is kind of new. Why would I pay to sit in a dark room to listen to you? Why are you telling me this story now? And how do you prepare me before the experience and after? This conversation is happening more and more, and I can’t wait to see what will come out of this.
On the other side of things, techs and artists have been told they weren’t essential and will have a long-lasting effect that we need to address. Also, as the rules and regulations changed, artists and tech workers are so needed – they feel guilty if they turn someone down and our worry is that they will burnout. This is a part of the arts that people don’t talk about and share as much, the part where it’s not just art, it’s humans, it’s work, it’s healthy and unhealthy practices.
What are the main issues your community-engaged arts initiative faces? (e.g., social justice, environmental justice, pandemic-related, operational, financial, HR)
Erika: Since the pandemic, our department has been trying to find ways to pivot from in- person to online. How can we connect or create a sense of connectedness during these disconnected times, when we are all craving to be together?
Maude: Social justice in a very large sense – everything from the gap between rich and poor, White and IBPOC people, straight and LGBTQ+, youth and adult, able and disabled … It was always on our minds, but with covid, it’s even more acute. Switching online is about ableism too. Some communities are able to see more content, everything is suddenly free, art is for everyone- in your home, at your own pace. This is a major game changer.
On the other hand, there is a big part of our community – youth, that is tired of being online, in a way that they are not normally. Our generation is less connected to the internet than the kids (they have school online all day, friends online after school). We can see how the fatigue is about connecting online and not interacting, disrupting, moving. They are on the receiving end all day and that can be hard – at an age of speaking and sharing truth with friends, being in front of a “void” with no one to pass a paper, pen, secret written message to. Kids are starved of contact even though they have online capacity.
How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?
Erika: Art Apart was a micro grant program launched 2.5 weeks into the pandemic. NTS found ways to give contracts to artists – to create a work and present it online, in any shape or form. We supported them through producing and presenting. It was our way of giving mentorship to emerging artists, but also keep “art” and “making” alive in their life. We did that right away. We now have a new pool/network of emerging artists that this granting program created – a community of young artists that we will continue to work with.
Following – in the fall- with an ambitious project for the DramaFest: to take the festivals from in-person to online, trying to solve the problem of how to gather at a distance. We created a platform for them to share, learn and connect. An online space for students and teachers to upload work, receive comments from artists and interact. We ran panels for four days and gave access to a dozen workshops.
Maude: We created the platform for students to share their work and learn online in a non- competitive space – having a festival that is non-competitive and that could gather youth from across Canada is our dream. We had an awesome group of artist educators. We created a set of workshops that could not happen in real life – about 12 workshops, led by artists who teach to our professional students at NTS. Kids at the festival could do the workshops at their own pace and then we had a Q & A for the students who wanted more. We really thought it through. It was a good chance to practice a better way, a dream way of designing art pedagogy. Now we can build from there and have a complementary tool to the “in-person” festival.
Accessibility- knowing some districts have capacity and some don’t, they will be able to share their network with other districts; it’s not just one district that can benefit from the network. Not just their community, their school – people access the platform and can see the work. They can also look at the work other schools did. We also made this it free this year, more accessible.
We also created fun projects for families to do at home, together, like a recipe book.
At NTS, teachers did bike runs to say hi to the students. It’s beautiful to see and it brought people together in new ways.
How has the community of participants that your initiative engages with evolved in the past year (if at all)?
Maude: For the teachers of the festival – they evolved so much. We were with the teachers on a regular basis, teaching teachers how to use the platform. Their ability to trust their students has really improved. Covid had the effect of breaking the hierarchy between teachers and students – youth are better at online than the teachers! This was a big learning curve for us. We saw more student written work with the prerogative of presenting work online. Mainly because teachers could not pay royalties, but also because we put a real emphasis on work in progress. The idea of not being perfect, not being an outstanding project, just show up – take a risk and see how it can be the beginning of something.
Erika: I echo that – things not being perfect, this links to our main theme this year: care, give yourself a little slack. This is for the community and instructors, as well. Things don’t have to be perfect. It will be what it will be. We also learned a lot about each other, the teachers and us. We are Maude and Erika, real humans, not just representative of an institution, but real people who want to help. Now the way we talk together changed. We did this big thing, we got through it together. This year they got the message. Now they understand how they can be the teacher and the student. Maude and I hosted the online event for four days, that also gave us the chance to be really honest with the students. At the end of the four days, they could see we were beyond tired but keeping it together for them, good humor and a community feeling was so needed.
How is your organization engaging with your community right now? (Logistics, pandemic public health and safety guidelines & policies, changes in the way we gather)
Erika: Our return to in-person programming in the Fall of 2021 began with an event that explored the relationship between grand-parents and their grand-kids, before NTS’ student shows were ready for the public. It coincided as a way for the school to adapt to health regulations in the province: Quebec had the vaccine passport, people had to wear masks, there were limited places to attend art installations. The school was more careful than public health, it was a safe space for students. We took it really, really seriously.
Maude: Through this intergenerational conversation program, we found the feeling of “meeting in person” back. We had a video and sound installation based on their conversations and it was open to families and the public to see. It helps that we are a school and not a theater, we are not presenters, so we have different health rules.
Now we are allowed to go full capacity, with masks. It’s still scary. There is different level of comfort among people, and it is something to negotiate. I don’t think this wellbeing/level of comfort will resolved soon, it will be a conversation to have for a while and it’s good. It’s a lesson on consent and empathy and that’s always a good thing.
What are one or two new projects your initiative implemented this year?
Art apart was a micro-granting program- to showcase artists’ works online.
DramaFest Salon – an online drama festival with panels and online workshops.
Ties, an intergenerational conversation project
Art is in the house! Online activities for families by artists and theatre makers
What is your initiative doing new–digitally–compared to pre-pandemic?
Erika: Everything! We were not doing a lot of new media before. In our department, not at all. What the pandemic has done to the school, the community programs and the shows is a lesson on how to pivot to “online everything.” It broadened some ideas and brought accessibility for our programming. Theaters streaming shows has created possibilities to enlarging audiences for those who many have mobility issues or who are rurally based. It also had the downside of reducing our place-based program, which we are still grieving.
Maude: We switched to online fast – Erika is a good tech person and that’s lucky for us. The year prior to the pandemic, the Ontario teachers were on strike, so we had to cancel the DramaFest season. The following year was the pandemic. We pivoted very quickly because we didn’t want to cancel two years in a row. It would have been terrible on the students’ moral. The other departments in the school were very surprised at how effective and meaningful an online program could work. The school now knows it is possible to reach far, to switch the delivery of pedagogical content without diminishing pedagogical content. Teachers learned to teach online. We sometimes feel like we switched from the community programs to open source, digital content programs. Sometimes people think that we can do anything because of how quickly we all pivoted, but we need to remind everyone, that we are also a bit burnt out by this speed.
Erika: We are only three in our team and our dedication to help more and more communities is the reason we work that much. Maude founded this department so it’s even more heartbreaking for her when we can’t do it all, but at some point, we have to take things slow, so that we do it with care and intention.
Is there a recent achievement, wonderful moment, or quote you’d like to share about your initiative or its impact?
Maude: A recent achievement was to switch Erika to the Associate Director position! We are very happy about this.
Erika: A recent achievement – was the wonderful feedback we received for work with the platform. We pivoted quickly, created something completely new for the kids and teachers. Our next project – next September – a big ambition – is a research centre at the Monument-National.
In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges, sconnell[at]artbridges.ca
photo credits: National Theatre School of Canada