Focus Issue: Engaging Audiences and/or Building Communities
From a commitment to developing deeper relationships with underserved communities such as francophone youth, Spanish-speakers, newcomers, Indigenous people, and people with visible and invisible disabilities, to a dream of taking an underutilized space and transforming it into a vibrant cultural hub, five new projects are being launched for our 2017 Learning Network.
Click on each company’s logo to read about their initiatives.
Aluna Theatre develops, produces, and presents innovative and culturally diverse performance work with a focus on Latin Canadian and women artists. By uniting emerging and professionals, Aluna encourages new hybrids of theatre that evolve from a rich collaboration of experiences and performance traditions.
In recognition of the unique barriers, needs, and potential of the Latin Canadian community of artists and audiences, Aluna Theatre will develop three new artistic outreach ‘channels’ designed to engage its communities and grow its audience base in person, online, and on the radio.
Year One Reflections
In recognition of the unique barriers, needs and potential of the Latin Canadian community of artists and audiences, Aluna Theatre is developing three new artistic outreach ‘channels’ designed to engage Latin Canadian communities and grow our audience base: in person, on the radio, and online. Beyond-the-black-box initiatives include Radio Plays, a new website, written publications and new outreach activities that help to build capacity among newcomer communities from the Pan-American diaspora. We are working with artists and non-artists to carry out this initiative, creating content in both English and Spanish.
We want to build an audience from the Latin American Diaspora. We recognize that there are many barriers to cultural participation facing these communities: language barriers, economic barriers, educational barriers, and accessibility barriers. We are motivated to share the Latin Canadian experience through our work. In particular, we want to share what it means to be a newcomer in Canada, living far from your place of origin. We want to go where newcomers are. We want to reach them through channels that are easily available so we can be a lifeline for them as they navigate the Canadian system, including its diverse culture. We can listen and respond. We can be a vital link.
We have successfully recorded two plays from the Latin Canadian theatre canon in both English and Spanish, engaging bilingual actors who performed in both languages. While our initial intent was to create ‘Radio Plays’, we’ve come to understand that “Radio Plays” are an artistic discipline unto themselves. In fact, what we have created are readings of plays for radio. That distinction has been key to what we are doing. It has allowed us to ground our initiative in our live-theatre-based identity and experience as a company.
The initiative is bigger and more ambitious than we thought. It takes more time to execute than we thought. But more importantly, we have more to learn about the community we wish to serve than we thought. Our assumptions are being challenged. One key insight is that the plays we proposed were not always of interest to the Latin Canadian community because they referenced things they already knew a lot about. What was of interest was a more contemporary reflection of their current experience as newcomers in Canada. What does it mean to be a Latin Canadian immigrant?
And, we’ve learned that community members want to participate in the creation of work. We used to engage our professional actors to read new plays. Now we engage community participants in playing the roles, engaging them in the rehearsal process, and giving them a voice in the creation of the work. We pay them Equity rates even if they don’t consider themselves professional actors.
First, seek help from your peers! We learned a lot from speaking with colleagues in the Learning Network who were in a process of pursuing something they had never done before. It offered us perspective on our own specific approach to innovation.
Second, seek help from the communities you wish to serve. Test your assumptions and engage community participants along the way. Shape and reshape your vision in collaboration.
Finally, don’t lose who you are. Enhance your best work in order to expand into new directions. For us, this meant leveraging our theatre perspective, applied in new channels.
How do we define community? Who is “our” community? Does the concept of a cultural community create targeted opportunities or ghettoize ethnicity?
Canadian Opera Company
The Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the foremost opera companies in North America.
The COC will focus on animating their currently underused space, located at 227 Front Street East. In addition to becoming the home of an expanded Academy, this new cultural hub will showcase activity beyond the COC’s mainstage and allow the COC to leverage its infrastructure to empower emerging artists and organizations and to connect with new audiences. Specific projects to be explored include expanding the COC’s company-in-residence program and delivering a more varied and robust calendar of events, culminating in an Opera Music Festival.
Year One Reflections
Our initiative is to establish a Culture Hub at our administrative home at 227 Front St. E. that showcases and supports COC activity (especially our COC Academy programs), responds to our community, and lifts up emerging artists and organizations to create meaningful change in how the COC interacts with our world and our art form.
We pursued this project because our city is changing. Over the last decade, Toronto’s St. Lawrence neighbourhood – where our administrative and rehearsal spaces are located at 227 Front St. E. – has undergone substantial population growth, welcomed younger and increasingly diverse demographics, and witnessed extensive multi-use real estate development. In this context, we saw an opportunity to better serve our evolving neighbourhood community by animating our building as a Culture Hub. We see this moment as an opportunity to transform our organizational behaviour by leveraging our physical infrastructure to support new avenues of artistic expression, extend our commitment to relationship-building in the community, and find cross-organizational benefits to the arts sector more broadly.
Over the course of our first year in CrSI we’ve experimented with an array of events and experiences at our Culture Hub. Our anchoring accomplishment is the delivery of an Opera for Young Audiences (OYA) program – a high-quality live opera production designed specifically for young people and their families. Exit surveys showed that 70% of the children attending the production were experiencing opera for the first time. This outcome aligned with our goal for the Culture Hub – “new audiences experiencing art at our transformed site”.
Our experience thus far has reinforced the need for our long-term commitment to building relationships in the local community. Investing in relationships that are reciprocal and active is essential. We need to involve stakeholders in programming at 227 Front Street East in a way that’s more than just an invitation and a hope for a moment of buy-in.
Thoughtful relationship-building takes time and requires a shift in organizational processes around program planning, development, and execution. This learning has already begun to reshape the way we staff administratively, the way we work with artists, and the way we interact with our communities.
1. Test your assumptions!
2. Listen deeply.
3. Determine what success looks like.
4. Systemically track relevant outcomes.
A key question that has emerged for us is: how can we navigate the territory between what we perceive to be our core product and the needs of our communities? We need to interrogate the essence of what it is that we do and how those mission-set boundaries – as elastic as they are – can embrace the needs and interests of our communities.
Le Théâtre français de Toronto
Established in 1967, Le Théâtre français de Toronto is a professional French-language theatre company that produces and presents classical and original plays to Toronto francophone and Francophile audiences.
The initiative focuses on meeting the needs of a younger and diversified new audience base and, in particular, ethnically diverse communities, new Canadians, and Francophiles of all generations.
Year One Reflections
In response to a new cosmopolitan reality specific to Toronto francophones — fed by a desire to deepen contacts with the GTA’s Francophiles — TfT is offering a new robust approach to deepening contacts through Theatre for Young Audience (TYA). Technologically savvy approaches to audience development help enrich theatrical experiences for young people and their allies. The initiative wishes to meet the needs of a younger and glowingly diversified new audience base and in particular ethnically diverse communities, new Canadians, and Francophiles of all generations.
Toronto’s fast changing and growing francophone community was underserved by TfT. Traditionally, the company has focused more on producing adult shows rather than offering theatre experiences designed specifically for children, teenagers and their families. Francophile schools, be they immersion or core French, were particularly not well-served. Contemporary cultural mediation strategies present elsewhere in the French speaking world were, until recently, absent at TfT.
We have succeeded in building contacts within new francophone and Francophile schools through an updated and almost exclusively technologically based communication strategy. We created an email database that is systematically updated each summer. We also created outreach tools, including a student programming brochure, workshops in the schools, and videos posted on our website.
There is a non-negligible presence of students practicing faiths other than Catholicism in Franco-Ontarian Catholic schools. Consequently, the rapport between teachers and parents in this system strikes us as a “perpetual work in progress” since, at times, learning objectives for students strike us as a moving target.
Understanding the complexities of Toronto and Ontario school systems is key to building long-term relationships with teachers and school administrators. You cannot hope to build lasting associations with each system unless you clearly understand their similarities and differences. This can include how school boards determine school demographics through the design of catchment areas for specific schools, all the way to varying pedagogical objectives specific to individual school boards.
Loyalty is a two-way street: which services and strategies best build enduring long-term relationships with schools and allow TfT to adapt to new realities specific to individual schools?
The Toronto Fringe produces two important festivals every year: the Toronto Fringe Festival and Next Stage Theatre Festival. Since 1989, the Toronto Fringe has grown into Ontario’s largest theatre festival, welcoming over 105,000 patrons and giving voice to over 1,200 artists annually.
Building on their work to provide better access for deaf and disabled artists, the festival will continue to explore ways to include people living with both visible and invisible disabilities. Their initiatives will include producing signed videos, large print program guides, Braille, access to scripts, and signed, audio described, and relaxed performances.
Year One Reflections
The Toronto Fringe is embarking on a three-year accessibility action plan to holistically produce an accessible and welcoming organization with two annual theatre festivals: the Fringe Festival and the Next Stage Theatre Festival. We are striving to live up to our core values: to be inclusive and accessible to all. We are systematically assessing and re-approaching all areas of our organization through a rigorous lens of accessibility: our knowledge, our participants’ opportunities, our audiences’ experiences, our festival venues, our staff and volunteers’ training, and our own infrastructure and operations. Our initiative with Metcalf focuses on accessibility as it relates to Fringe Festival audiences, participants, staff and volunteers. Accessibility is more than barrier-free physical access; it addresses the needs of those living with non-visible disabilities, including vision loss, hearing loss, neurological diversity, and mental health conditions.
Since first undergoing AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act, 2005) training, we have evolved our accessibility approach across all areas of our organization. We started with festival access for artists, creating an accessible lottery to encourage participation in the Fringe Festival by people living with disabilities. In the first year, we were able to support the artists that applied but we realized we had more to do to support all kinds of disabilities and to make our venues more accessible across the board. We also needed to start thinking about bringing a more diverse audience to the Festival and recognized that we weren’t offering accessible measures in a very big way, i.e. no ASL shows, relaxed performances etc. We started to have direct conversations with people in communities with access requirements, and we are continuing those in order to drive our work going forward.
Our initial goals were to:
1. Foster a Fringe Festival with 100% physically accessible venues. Using accessible venues was the clearest way to communicate to all our stakeholders just how much of a priority accessibility is to us.
2. To significantly increase the offering of adapted performances and performances with assisted measures such as Audio Described, ASL Interpreted, or Relaxed Performances.
Improving physical accessibility was no small feat and in our first year, we did not achieve a perfect record. In particular, the site-specific genre and its unique parameters was especially challenging to address.
Our greatest accomplishment was successfully supporting 46 individual assisted performances (ASL, AD, Relaxed) by 19 companies. By comparison, only one company offered assisted performances in the previous year. Initially over 60 companies expressed interest in offering adapted performances or increased assisted measures (Audio Described, ASL Interpreted, Relaxed) this year and we’re ready to help make more companies follow-through during the next Fringe.
Direct communication with the individuals and communities that we are aiming to serve is essential. The most impactful insights came from consulting with individuals who live with all varieties of disabilities. The insights are paramount to our evolving accessibility strategy. We’ve learned that putting independence and dignity at the core of each of our initiatives is key. We’ve also learned that it’s important to be clear and as specific as possible about accessible offerings so that potential audience members are empowered to make informed choices. It’s ok if we don’t have every accessible measure all at once but it’s vital to let people know what we do and don’t have. Accessibility is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation. We are working on finding clarity in our approach to working with artists, patrons and staff/volunteers with accessibility needs.
Despite passion and resolve, change is not accomplished all at once.
We recommend creating a detailed work plan. In addition, importantly, refer to it often. The plan is your road map, and it will keep you on track! We found ourselves sometimes straying away from the plan because we got so busy when we were in Festival mode. At the same time, unforeseen things come up and plans must be flexible, so scheduling regular check-ins are important so that the work plan can be changed if need be and so that everyone is aware. We need to have a more holistic approach and build in the time to react as and when situations arise, as we certainly do not know everything yet!
We also recommend beginning with plenty of lead-time and working with communities/community consultants in the initial stages. Tailoring marketing and sending out media messages in ways that are accessible to diverse audiences is important too. We believe this is how true inclusion is achieved.
What’s next?! We have cast our net wide and now we need to figure out where we want to go deeper. What do we need to develop? We intend to articulate our intentions in a manifesto that outlines what we have undertaken so far and where we want to go next. It will provide clarity for our stakeholders and for us.
Young People's Theatre
The oldest professional theatre company in Toronto, Young People’s Theatre (YPT) has been a national producer and presenter of theatre for young audiences, often partnering with other Canadian and international arts organizations.
YPT’s initiative focuses on the research, design, and implementation of a program of community engagement with newcomers and Indigenous people, through a lens of cultural exchange and reconciliation.
Year One Reflections
Young Peoples’ Theatre (YPT) is interested in blending past learning about newcomer audiences with new learning about Indigenous culture and history. In other words, we want to apply a lens of Indigenous knowledge to our relationship-building work with newcomers.
We experienced truly transformative workshops in the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinabek organized for all of YPT's staff. Each workshop included an Indigenous art form and an Elder to give us insight into the seven teachings of Respect, Bravery, Love, Humility, Honesty, Wisdom, and Truth. The final workshop in Truth generated a compelling “to do” list that was based on things we wanted to achieve as a result of these powerful workshops. An example is “take this learning to the Board members of YPT and to their organizations.”
There is no point at which one can say, "aha, now I know Indigenous culture" The learning, the encounter, the exchange, and the understanding are ongoing.
You are entering into work that will profoundly confront your knowledge of, and relationship to, colonization and its hold on Western culture and practices. An example is confronting how we tend to run all meetings with a “chair” and a sort of top-down structure. We are starting to hold staff meetings now in a circle with a rotating chair (not senior management) running the meeting. And we are trying to eliminate that colonialist possessive language/mindset where we refer to our audience, our community, or our staff.
How will we know our work with newcomers is being influenced by Indigeneity?