Open your mind at Open Ears

Tim Grier and I caught up with Gregory Oh – the artistic director from Open Ears. We had a wee chat with him about the upcoming festival.  Here’s a bit of a video. As for the written content of this blog post, I do think Oh describes the experience of the festival best in his own words.

“I think we walk around on any given day and we’re not even aware of the sounds we hear. We hear sounds of construction and cars and we learn to tune things out …we learn to almost stop listening, because there’s so much happening in the world, and if you try to listen to everything you become oversaturated.

“But the danger there is that you close off your world to some very beautiful things, like church bells, or the sound of nature… I gotta say I love the sound of traffic and of people bustling around and of random conversations in the street.

“I think Open Ears is about always keeping yourself open to new experiences, always learning, always creating and …the world is an amazing place and you can just find things if you’ll just open up your ears….”

Cultures clash between mother and son in comedy Brimful of Asha

Brimful of Asha

Image from

Brimful of Asha by Why Not Theatre comes recommended by several sources – with high ratings from national and international critics. Within the first minutes of curtain it’s easy to see why.

We are welcomed into the Studio at Centre in the Square by friendly ushers who inform us that we should make sure we are ready to sit for 80 minutes without an intermission – those who leave will not be able to re-enter the theatre. This becomes important. In this production, not a single line, quip, or anecdote is extraneous, and the production itself is deeply immersive. They all weave together in a tapestry to create a big-picture story about an Indian son and his mother.

Asha (the mother) was born in India. She moved to Canada to be with her husband in the context of an arranged marriage. (Important – In Jainism, parents arrange marriages based on data about the individuals and their families… but the marriage does not happen unless both of the people to marry agree.) Her two sons are born in Canada, and the story unfolds to show not only how cultures cross with differences between Canadian and Indian expectations around marriage, but also how the characters are also prone to generational expectations in rapidly changing times.

Asha is not an actor (she tells us), but her son – theatre creator Ravi most definitely is. As he tells a story, he welcomes his mother to contribute her angle on the circumstance of marriage, and when she and Ravi’s father attempted to arrange a marriage for Ravi. Asha is not shy. Throughout the storytelling, she interjects and clarifies details according to her perspective and reckoning.

The set is minimal. An iridescent curtain of lush Indian fabric drapes the back drop, a digital display which serves the purpose of display of information hangs mid-way down the curtain. And finally, a table decorated with a cloth, set with tea and samosas complete the set. Upon entering, you are greeted by Ravi and Asha, offered a homemade samosa, and then welcomed to sit. This simple act has the effect of transporting the audience away from a theatre, and into Asha’s kitchen.

As the story is told, the display takes the form of a laptop: Showing bio-data for match-making of potential marriage partners, Facebook profiles, videos and photomontage of the family. The effect is clever and suits the immersive quality of the show. The fourth wall is non-existent.

Brimful of Asha is co-presented by the MT Space – a local theatre company that focuses on multiculturalism. One of most interesting aspects of this piece is how plural identities collide within a single Indian-Canadian family. Both characters find themselves clashing with their own identities as much as with each other. When it isn’t geographical, religious, traditional culture related, it’s generational.

The layers of depth beneath the light-hearted comedy left this audience member thinking deeply about the implications of assimilation, identity, progress, the things we have gained, and what we have lost – and how much we are willing to compromise.

The show runs at Centre in the Square until Saturday the 3rd of May, 2014.

Waterloo Region, It Should Always Be This Way

Brandon Vickerd satelliteIn 2009, I stumbled upon a satellite that had tumbled out of the sky, tracing a dirt patch across the grass in the middle of Victoria Park. What conspired to have this man-made celestial body land in the middle Kitchener of all places? And more importantly, how come no news source was warning people about this object? Where were the RCMP or the FBI or whatever government body in charge of marshalling such instances? The situation seemed perfectly and completely out of control through the calmness surrounding what should be a big event. Turns out that the satellite was an installed sculpture by Brandon Vickerd called Satellite. No panic necessary.

CAFKA transforms the city into a landscape where art happens. Or… where one happens upon art. From a perfect replica of a shopping cart calmly floating about in Victoria Park lake (what shopping cart floats?) to ephemeral projected graffiti on the side of Kitchener City Hall, the streets, alleys, parks, public buildings shift away from the mundanity of everyday and turn into a journey through the unusual in our own backyard.

This year, CAFKA’s theme is “It Should Always Be This Way”. This theme absolutely endorses this artist run festival in its position as a beloved cultural event that has profoundly affected the community. The calibre of the art, the surreal presentation in the element of surprise in seeing a usual landscape made unusual, and the innovative offerings that encourage the mind to meander provides great escape, even if only over a lunch break from work.

This year, CAFKA is joining forces with Open Ears and a new festival of architecture called Building Waterloo Region. The three are joining forces to create a culmination of activity through May and June. This collaboration is pushing new boundaries in the unification of exhibit-based events combined with the performative nature of sound and music.

Open Ears has collaborated in the past with CAFKA with installation based sound events. The building of musical and sound experience through the drawing of talent from all over the world marries perfectly with the installations placed by CAFKA. In the period of a few days, Open Ears will open our minds and palates within the possibilities of sound. The sense of hearing – the one that alerts us to danger, coos us into love affairs, and provides soundtrack to our lives is profoundly transformed in a space of exploration and experimentation. Sound is one of the few senses that can never be turned off. Even when we try to remove sound, it can still be felt through the vibrations it creates. Open Ears plays in this space by building moments in which we can indulge in being present, alert, and in tune with this most captive, and taken for granted sense.

Building Waterloo Region is a naturally positioned festival celebrating development and innovation in the ever evolving liveable cities that are part of the Region. This festival will be located at several institutions and in surprising locations throughout the Region. More details will be released soon, and I can’t wait to explore the schedule being presented by this new endeavour in culture.

You can support CAFKA this in its pursuit of bringing excellent art to the Region of Waterloo in an Indiegogo campaign.

Staging Sustainability – my likely schedule

This isn’t an absolute but a projection of what I am going to attend during Staging Sustainability. It’s safe to assume that I will be at keynotes and plenary events, but here’s my breakout schedule.

Monday, 10:15
How do arts organization integrate and balance sustainability as a core value?

The afternoon breakouts I am attending will be the Sustainability and Production stream.

Monday, 1:15
How is sustainable thinking changing the way we make and tech shows?
Monday, 3:00
How do managers and production staff integrate sustainable practice into performance and events?

Tuesday, 10:00
How are the social aspects of sustainability being considered in new work and the communities in which it is being made?
Tuesday, 1:00
How do you integrate sustainability into the audience experience? How do we communicate with them about what you are doing?

I am also always looking to make new friends and connections. Aside from in person at the conference, you can find me on Twitter.

Breaking the barrier: 10 things learned in going from amateur to professional in the arts

It isn't about the great outfits. It's about having grit.

It isn’t about the great outfits. It’s about having grit.

In pushing past the line of amateur into becoming a professional in the arts, there are several things to consider. Here’s a list of 10. The list isn’t definitive. It’s a start.

  1. Be stubborn. 
    From parents to gatekeepers – there is a world of people who will pressure you to not move from the weekend warrior hobbyist position in the arts. Some of the reasons are valid – money is tight, time becomes scant and the world will treat you like an ignorant special snowflake. To get through the gate, you have to find the latch. In the tangled world of art, it takes time and perseverance. Buckle down. Become as permanent as the installations you wish to build.
  2. Live and breathe art. 
    Let your practice become your life. Go to galleries. Go to openings. Go to shows. Let most of your thoughts be about art. Talk about art with you arts colleagues. Go to conferences and talks about art. Talk to community leaders about art. Make it not only your practice, but part of your service back to the community. Immerse yourself in ideas.
  3. Build a community around your practice to increase sustainability. 
    Practice art in the community. Talk about what you are building, and form a community around your practice. Get on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and talk about your work. Talk to others about their work. Support your colleagues by attending their opening nights and shows. Your community will push you to that next level with their support. They will also support you when things become difficult. Make your community diverse and as geographically large as you can.
  4. Never give in to laziness. 
    Art is iterative. The reliance on process: on doing something over and over again until it’s mastered – the repetition, the rehearsal. The act of mastering anything can never be lazy. Be tireless. In your process there are no shortcuts, there are only ways to hone and fine-tune through hard work. Don’t sidestep in the pursuit of excellence, and your goal in being an artist has to be reaching beyond the mediocre, even if your work is to illustrate the mediocre.
  5. Have no exit strategy. 
    If you are entering the life of an artist, it must be the only acceptable life. There is no space for a Plan B. Times will get tough, and your eye must always be on your practice, your process and your outcomes.
  6. You can die from exposure.

    You can die from exposure. Don’t create your own droughts.

    Find a way to survive. 
    As an artist, you may need other sources of income – especially in the beginning. Teach art lessons. Be an acting coach. Write freelance. Or find a skill that you can apply to earning money. Learn how to make a good espresso and work in a cafe. Do something that doesn’t destroy your creativity, and is flexible enough to allow you to dive completely into your practice when you need to. Seasonal work can be particularly good for this. As are contracts.

  7. Cut the fat out of your budget.
    An artist income is below the national average. Learn to live with less. Waste less. Buy less. It can feel like an ascetic life sometimes, but it is a good and fulfilling life – and unlike monks and anchorites, you don’t have to give up sex. Know what you are willing to give up financially, and do so. You may no longer be on the bleeding edge of current fashion, but as an artist, you set the trends.
  8. Share resources. 
    Share a studio. Share an apartment. Share your internet connection. Organise group buying. And if you have a valuable resource, share it with other artists. Don’t be afraid to approach others in your community to ask them to share as well. This is another way that a sustainable community is built.
  9. Take risks and always be ready to try something different. 
    Write that grant. And if it fails, change it and write it again. Be ready to gamble and pivot. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Fall in love with your ideas, but be willing to express them differently if need be.
  10. You can die from exposure. 
    Do not work for free for institutions. They are supposed to support the arts community, not exploit it. Choose very carefully where you will put your free labour. As an artist, there can be a trade-off between being known and getting paid. Just make sure you do not become the artist who is known for not getting paid. Instead support organisations that support building up the arts (Arts Build Ontario, arts councils or arts funds –Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, organisations like Artscape).

And a couple bonuses:

  • Take idle days. 
    Stop every now and then. Waste that extra $20 on a half litre of wine and play with your friends. Remember that your brain needs time to recover so you don’t burn out. You need to push, but you also need time for the mind to rest to come up with new and brilliant ideas.
  • If you get a grant, don’t call it “winning”. 
    You worked hard for that. You did your research and you wrote an excellent application. Your idea is novel, meritorious and good enough to be considered for funding by a jury of your peers. That is not like a lottery ticket, or a door prize. Our own words set up expectations. If we “win” – it seems like chance. With grants, there is very little left to chance. Make sure you recognise that with your words, so others view your work as valid as well. You EARNED a grant.

What is a sustainable arts organization?

Sustainability is such a big word. When speaking of sustainability when it comes to arts practices, this word explodes to mean many things.

Google defines “sustainable” as such:

  1. able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
  2. able to be upheld or defended.


Certainly with regards to the organizations I have worked with, and with respect to my own practice, “sustainability” has primarily meant maintaining a level of funding to keep the practice alive and performing at a standard set by the integrity of the practice. The communities that support the arts come to rely on this integrity, and also work towards making their beloved organizations sustainable.

But what if sustainability is a concept that goes further than this?

Fundraising and keeping an organization or practice alive is critical to the practice, but does this go far enough for the community that supports it? Or even more so, the total community this organization can serve?

Sustainability is also about growth. The creativity that sparked the genesis of our organizations and practices was never meant to be kept in a nutshell, and even if the organization is in a fixed building – bound by bricks and mortar – the notion of growth must be seen in every aspect of keeping our arts culture alive. It’s about reaching new audiences, generating new ideas, exploring concepts that challenge, and presenting it to a community. It’s about stretching past the bricks and mortar, the reach of our cultural groups, and pulling new people into new ideas. Diversity is key to innovation.

Sustainability is also about responsibility – the making defensible and upholdable. Arts organizations are at the vanguard of new ideas and problematizing the old and in this role they must also be stewards setting examples for the communities they serve. Arts organizations require resources given to them by communities, and must be responsible to those community resources. From consumption to getting the message out about change and new ideas, arts organizations must work within their mandate to communicate. Part of this communication, whether implicit in their practices, or explicit within their messages, must be about the broader world and community.

I am not stating that artists must be on the forefront of the political. Neil Young and others have chosen to add their voices to the indigenous communities about respecting treaties around oil sands and pipelines. Not all artists need to be spokespersons about issues. Indeed for some, it may be damaging to their careers. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do as a broad artistic community to further meaningful change (or preservation!).

Sustainability is also about how we behave within our practices. Can we reduce our own footprints? Certainly small organization and practices are thrifty, frugal and reuse as much as they can – dictated by their budgets. Larger organizations who have bigger budgets are also bound by their bottoms lines with regards to consumption, and therefore, waste. But there is more we can do than just consider our own place in the cycle of consumption.

Do I have the answers to any of this? Not at all. In fact, these are questions and problems that have troubled me. How can I build more, grow more, and be a responsible citizen within the creative economy?

At the Staging Sustainability conference – in Toronto Feb 2-5 – these questions, and many more will be addressed.

We make work, but we want to reach new audiences. Tours are expensive, and require some of the most taxing resources. How do we shift an entire cast, some crew, and everything that makes a show in the least harmful ways? From New York, Broadway Green Alliance is an organization that works to educate and motivate environmentally conscious practices in all aspects of theatre. Working on Broadway, their influence stretches from the most famous theatre district in the world, across to several allies all over the planet. Their co-chair, Charlie Deull, will be presenting in a session on how to move and tour work more sustainably – on February 4th.

Another speaker that has me excited is Marie Zimmerman – the artistic director of Hillside Festival. For locals, I don’t need to say much here. Hillside is known for its all-star lineup combined with heavy hitting new talent, and a deep commitment to maintaining high environmental standards in a large festival setting. She is presenting in two sessions: the first on the 3rd of February is about how programmers are thinking about sustainability, and on the 4th, she is talking about how to integrate sustainability into audience experience – how to communicate.

And to move away from ecological questions in arts, and dive into building arts ecosystems, Fractured Atlas‘s Tim Cynova is coming to us from New York. As a mission, Fractured Atlas indicates that “empowers artists, arts organizations, and other cultural sector stakeholders by eliminating practical barriers to artistic expression, so as to foster a more agile and resilient cultural ecosystem.” They state this as the “unsexy stuff” and yet, these are the foundational pieces of making a healthy arts cluster… and something that me and my Waterloo Region colleagues could likely use help with. Cynova will be speaking on how to integrate sustainability as a core value in artistic practice. Read a blog post of his here: 7 ways to build a sustainable art career this year

Theatre is resource heavy in the arts. It requires a community of people to create anything, and budgets to match. With the crystallizing of my career around creating theatre, this conference seems like a great way to broaden my practice into deeper consideration. Certainly, with presenters like these, I will be given plenty of food for thought on my own practice, and how to more deeply engage the broader community.

Networking for the arts – Yay or nay? Let me know!

Hey folks… a bit of a question.

So many industries have a once per month networking event. Some networking events are just open networking for folk who want to connect.

In the past, I have found networking events instrumental in building community, which in turn has been instrumental in building audience and support around my arts practice.

So a few questions… please either comment here, or send me an email –

Would you be interested in a once-per-month arts networking event?

If yes, how would you conceive this event:

  • For artists, creative workers and arts admin people mostly?
  • For artists, arts affiliated, and arts lovers?
  • Open networking – drinks hors d’oeuvres at a local pub with no agenda?
  • Event + open networking – a short talk by a local artist or arts worker and a networking session after?
  • A better idea?


Waterloo Region based arts org motivates national conversation

Staging Sustainability

Disclosure: I really don’t like conferences. From marketing conferences to tech conferences, where the questions of gender parity of speakers is abysmal, as are any other attempts at representation and accessibility, to the lack of relevance of speakers, topics and how they pertain to the markets they serve – the appeal to cult of personality over substance.

But then I found this conference. Staging Sustainability. Excellent representation of gender, topical panels and speakers, and a stunning offering of discussions and performance.

This conference presented by Arts Build Ontario, a Waterloo Region based organization, is creating a national dialog around two issues that are close to my heart: Art and sustainability.

So here we have it: the arts have the power to create massive cultural transformation. They can be used for propaganda. They can be used to deliver information. But even when they are deeply esoteric and not performing a political function, the arts are a powerful tool for communication.

Sustainability should be a consideration for Canadian artists. Certainly in my own practice the question of sustainability is implicitly addressed through scant resources. There is little possibility for waste and primary consumption (the act of buying things that enter into the waste cycle) is minimal. Reuse, and repurposing is default for most artists.

But is this enough?

Staging Sustainability is presenting an extraordinary line-up of speakers and performances that address this and many other questions with regards to sustainable practices in the culture industries.

Julie’s Bicycle hails from the UK. Sholeh Johnson (link opens to Twitter), manager of their Art Programme is one of the speakers who will be engaging in this national conversation. From their website:

“Julie’s Bicycle is a not for profit organization making sustainability intrinsic to the business, art and ethics of the creative industries.

“Founded by the music industry, with expertise from the arts and sustainability, Julie’s Bicycle bridges the gap between the creative industries and sustainability. Based on a foundation of peer-reviewed research, we sustain creativity, enabling the arts to create change.

“We work with over 1000 arts organizations across the UK and internationally, large and small to help them measure, manage and reduce their environmental impacts.”

This conference also promises to take the question of sustainability further.

Karen DiLossi, from Philadelphia PA, is on a panel that asks the question: How can we innovate in existing arts facilities to integrate sustainable technology and practices? Think of that – using the old and adapting it with the latest and greatest. DiLossi is coming to us from Partners in Sacred Places (with the tagline “at the intersection of heritage, faith and community”). I can’t wait to hear her point of view on that particular question.

And as a final point: what’s an arts conference without art? Worked into the schedule are several performances. The conference is also tied in with the Carbon 14: Climate is Culture exhibit at the ROM.

The schedule of events, panels, speakers, and shows are astounding. The conference  is grounded in the arts, is speaking about how to build our practices as socially and environmentally responsible, but also tickles with innovation is so completely up my alley. I really can’t wait to get there. Also, expect to hear more from me about this fantastic event and the Waterloo Region-based organization who is spearheading what very well may become a new movement in Canadian art.

There may be a place for the prime ministers’ statues – with a caveat

First – read this letter by Jim Armitage to the Record – Put prime ministers’ statues at Woodside.



Now here is an idea. I still don’t like the notion of the statues themselves, however Woodside – the childhood home of William Lyon Mackenzie King, is more appropriate than Victoria Park.

Economic capacity for multiple sectors

Say the statues do end up at Woodside. With a proper installation of them, there could be the opportunity to create arts and culture jobs and tie them into the tech sector. Consider this:

Each statue is turned into an augmented reality trigger. These augmentations could include the statue coming to life – actors portraying the people who they represent with narratives built by writers. There are jobs here for film makers, for tech, for actors, for designers, for make-up artists, for a director, for visual artists. Link the videos to other informations, and we just tied in History Departments at the Universities. 

You can take this idea further. There could be docents, a tablet rental for those who did not bring their own smart devices.


And this is an important one: This still needs a feasibility study. The “If you build it they will come” only works in Hollywood movies. Just building this new landscape does not mean the City of Kitchener or Woodside would secure more tourism. I remain dubious on this front – it requires research.

22 things I would rather have in Victoria Park

There is a project proposed to put 22 statues of the Canadian prime ministers around the Green in Victoria Park- Kitchener. I would like to propose 22 things that I would rather see.

  1. 22 rare Canadian flora introduced to the park
  2. 22 musicians, paid year round to serenade the park with the blues
  3. 22 stone cairns – designed by artists, chosen through a competition – to commemorate great Canadian accomplishments
  4. 22 dancers – they would compliment the physical activity in the Green
  5. 22 picnic blankets – free to use for those who want to stop for a bite
  6. 22 everlasting fires… take a hint from Parliament Hill
  7. 22 small hills – a neat wave pattern and fun for running
  8. 22 chairs in the shape of geese. At least they don’t poop
  9. 22 obstacles for dogs
  10. 22 bird houses
  11. 22 bird feeders
  12. 22 chess boards
  13. 22 picnic tables
  14. 22 new gardens scattered about the park
  15. 22 statues of dogs (from my son Alex)
  16. 22 trees (from my son Liam)
  17. 22 Canadian red cattle – the only breed of cattle that are Canadian – a bronze herd
  18. 22 commemorations of extinct Canadian species
  19. 22 installations of modern contemporary art – all around the park
  20. 22 typewriters to write messages to the future
  21. 22 theatrical performances throughout the year
  22. 22 fruit trees – a sharing of bounty at harvest

What would you rather see?