PCC HALIFAX

May 8- 11, 2008

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by tara thorne

DAY 1

MAY 9 2008

9:45a ferry

This will be the only day this weekend I can stand above decks on the ferry, one of my absolute favourite things to do in this town (my loathing of the waterfront nicely sets the love-hate tone of life I employ. It will likely prevail throughout these blogs). When people ask what I’m doing in Dartmouth – I rarely venture below Barrington, perhaps you’ve heard about our terrible public transit? Did you take a city bus from the airport? Didn’t think so — I’ve been telling them that I’m “professionally observing” the PCC conference. It’s not a phrase anyone from PCC has said to me, but it’s essentially what I’m doing and it works because I am a journalist as well as someone who’s been able to utilize local media to help creative projects fit their necessary molds – the need to see cooler writers on the local scene sparked me to co-create a reading series; a life-eating two-year infatuation became my first two short films; a late-run Law & Order: SVU obsession led to the creation of a musical homage in last year’s Fringe.

People generally do not understand any of that sentence — “I am professionally observing the PCC conference” — even when I use finger quotes. “You are involved in so many things I’ve never heard of,” says a friend via Facebook chat. If were at a film festival I would just say I was blogging it, but this feels different, because it’s less about my experience as a participant – which I am in the most general sense, but not really; I don’t have a badge, but walk around like I do – and more about reflecting the experience to people like my friend who have no idea what Performance Creation Canada is. Lots of people know what the Toronto International Film Festival is and the A-list stars that flood the city make those 10 days inherently accessible, whether you’re in Halifax or Kelowna or even Mississaugua.

But this, this is in Dartmouth, and it’s very specialized, and it’s a different level of specialized than I am used to. Every city’s arts scene has its own stars, the people known for doing innovative, fresh work – or the people who do shitty LCD work that succeeds to the chagrin of most; let’s forget about them for now – and the people who in their own circles do not need introductions. The second you step out of your own town, however, all of that falls away. And you’re just another schmo trying to get people out to your event, trying to get press from people who don’t know you by your first name the way they know your Montreal equivalent, trying to pack up all that good will and credibility and affection you’ve received at home and transport it to this new place where nobody gives a fuck.

This event is where all of those people gather together – a country’s worth of unknown stars, all here for the next few days — and the best part? Everybody gives a fuck.

There are a bunch of kids with dyed hair and – in 2008! – Misfits hoodies on their first ferry ride, headed over to Alderney Landing to see a show at the Supernova festival, so I keep my headphones on even though this wind is really great for my still-damp hair. In the middle of the harbour I check my phone to see I’ve missed a call from the local ACTRA rep – in between these sessions I am shooting my third short, and I need to clear a couple actors because my entire budget is $100 and there’s no room for the ACTRA day rate. PS We start shooting in less than three hours. This feels like a prescient moment – I’m spending half my weekend watching people I mostly don’t know talk about art, the forces affecting it and how it gets made and shown and loved, and the other half doing it myself.

***

10:15a

MacAskill’s

Out across the restaurant’s pigeon spikes the day is, so far, gray. The ferry drops off a last-minute load of teens for the play. I can see people have been here – there are markers on every table, for instance – but I am the only one in the dining room at the moment.

Dustin Harvey enters with his customarily friendly hello as I’m on the phone with my director trying to explain the ACTRA deal. Dustin and I go way back – as an Acadia student he started a theatre company in our mutual county, East Hants, when I was in high school in 1996, and because of him I had two plays produced and directed two more. Last year he brought me onto his Cowboy Show, a shape-shifting multimedia extravaganza, and he expertly lit and teched a one-night revival of my musical in November.

As his co-conspirator Christian Barry of 2b theatre (fun fact: When 2b was still Bunnies in the Headlights, Christian and Anthony Black were my first-ever interview for The Coast, the paper I would go on to spend seven years at, in 2000) heads to the Alderney Landing lobby to pick up today’s participants, Dustin wrote questions for the morning’s speed discussions on an easel.

“This one will be controversial,” he notes, more to himself than me.

Mary Vingoe enters. She was the artistic director of Eastern Front Theatre when I started at The Coast, has helmed a handful of great productions, was one of the most eloquent and resilient fighters against the provincial government when the Nova Scotia Arts Council went down swinging, and someone I admire very much. I think it’s a good sign she’s the first one here. (She, on the other hand, is kind of mortified.)

Soon Christian shows up with a couple dozen chipper practioners in a dutiful line behind him.

This event is called Connecting Points: Speed Discussions and its purpose is to match people up randomly to discuss, for 15 minutes each, three questions.

They are (you’ll sense a theme):

How does community play a role in your work?

Why does your work merit leaving the community?

What is community for?

For round one, Jacob Zimmer of Small Wooden Shoe, which began in Halifax but is now based in Toronto, waves me over. Also at the table are Garry Williams and Eric Benson of Halifax company DaPoPo and Michelle Sereda of Curtain Razors in Regina. I am captivated by her purple glasses – I think they say “Dare” on the side, but I don’t want to look like I’m staring.

I head to the opposite end of the room for round two, where I find myself with people who are either local (Vingoe, Andrea Ritchie of Irondale Ensemble, Alexis Milligan of Mermaid Theatre) or from Calgary (Kari McQueen from Underground and Michael Green of One Yellow Rabbit, who I’m pretty sure I saw naked during a Leonard Cohen show OYR did at On the Waterfront years back. Disconcerting!).

The assembled interpret the question in a surprising way. As a Haligonian with an inferiority complex, I choose to look at the query — Why does your work merit leaving the community? – as accusatory. To me it’s asking why you, local artist, left for bigger cities and more opportunity, something a lot of musicians in this town get a lot of shit for, although even I don’t care about the old Toronto-Montreal “sellout” very much anymore.

These people take it in a different direction, turning it into a conversation about touring. How they do it (funding, connections), why (to reach out to other audiences, obvs) and if it’s worth it (generally). Talk turns to festivals and whether there are too many these days, and what they’re worth if there are a handful of shows hitting every festival across the country. Again this applies to music – take a look at this summer’s overcrowded weekend festival schedule and you’ll find the same headliners over and over.

Round three results in the most interesting conversation almost by accident. I cross on a diagonal and pull a chair up. Dustin announces the final question: What is community for? Franco Boni, the artistic director of The Theatre Centre in Toronto, lets out an exasperated sigh, sick of the community theme. It passes for the moment as everyone gets acquainted – there’s Franco’s colleague Laura Nanni, and inter-disciplinary artist in Toronto, repping The Harbourfront Centre at PCC; Miriam Ginestier of Studio 303 in Montreal and Nicole Mion of Springboard Dance and a whack of other artistic endeavours in Calgary.

What soon becomes evident to Nicole and myself – am I supposed to be the silent, unbiased documentarian? I’m not sure, and it doesn’t work out in this instance – is that those people sitting here from major centres have little idea how important community is in a place like this and any place that’s not Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. And it’s not their fault – everyone comes to them, so they don’t even notice because they don’t have to. But anywhere else, the arts community is small and insular and like a key party, swapping members back and forth with focused abandon, if there is such a thing.

For the first time, it’s clear to me that the Toronto thing so many of us scoff at, the whole Centre of the Universe-ness, is not rooted in arrogance, as we really want to believe – it’s the way of life. There are dozens of splinter arts communities in Toronto, most of them bigger than the bulk of any other town’s, and they might not even know the other exists because they can succeed without each other. (Surely there’s help and generosity within those splinters.) But the way of life in Halifax, where a team worked for over a year putting this event together, is all for one, almost everything in-kind, and if you trash talk you best do it in code because it will bite your ass down the road. Nobody’s succeeding financially, so the only way to gauge success is creatively, through peer support and community interaction.

On the ride home the sun has come out and I’ve nailed down my actors. I go get support from my peers and interact with my community for five hours on a north end street, camera running the whole time. I get a sunburn.

***

Alderney Landing Theatre

6p

The seats have been pulled up to make way for big round tables with sharp white tablecloths. A modest crowd gathers to hear Jacob Zimmer’s inspiring keynote address, entitled Minding the Gap. It’s accompanied by an insanely intricate behemoth of a map that he can barely keep up with via MacBook and a powerpoint-like display. He speaks quickly, matter-of-factly, so that the jokes fall deadpan and take a second before they spark laughter, and they always do.

Though this talk is ostensibly about performance creation, as it should be, Zimmer cracks off a lot of great one-liners that could apply to life in general. It’s clear he didn’t just scratch this out on the plane down here – it’s deeply thought, painstakingly organized and passionately delivered. It’s not surprising when he reveals that as a teen he wanted to be a poet, but ended up in theatre so he wouldn’t be alone.

Here are some of my notes:

The thing that matters most – meeting

— potential (for change, to be different, how)

— too many or too rigid ulterior motives can collapse potential

MEETING = POTENTIAL

We meet people in the most unexpected ways and they return to us in the most unexpected ways. We need to leave space for that.

Good: Gaps, Bridges

Bad: Isolation

Scarcity creates isolation because we stockpile

(Re: Living in Toronto) No matter how long I’m there, I’m from here. (Nova Scotia) What happens here affects me and I want to influence it.

Anxiety of influence — fear losing myself, I fear losing my place.

My ability to connect is the only thing I have — we are not independent artists, we are inter-dependent artists

If gaps are good and bridges are all there are, there will always be movement.

A group is stronger than a single leader.

We need to want to see our own shows.

Honesty keeps us from preciousness.

Four proposals for the weekend:

1. Be open, daring and rigourous in communication

Take the risk of speaking/reflection/listening

2. Let’s talk about what we can change

3. Let’s talk about art

— less about biography, more about art and ideas

— choices and why we make them

4. Let’s talk about the world we want

— to speak of the art that I want is to speak of the world I want to make

The speech is part motivation, part reflection, part innovation and part challenge. I think about it on the boat ride home and hope it will carry me through the weekend.

DAY 2 MAY 10 2008

9:45a

ferry

There’s a brisk wind today, the sky obscured by threatening black cloud. It’s this kind of weather that inspires sea shanties, I’m sure of it. I’d write one myself if I could hear anything over the roar of the ferry’s engine.

I pulled an 18-hour day yesterday. I haven’t been gainfully employed since September 07, so even an eight-hour day would be hard at this point. But I believe that is nothing compared to the hours the participants have been piling up here at PCC – last night’s cabaret started at a typically Haligonian 10pm, and there was a booze-up after that. (Plus this event started on Wednesday for some people.)

10:25a

Alderney Landing Rotunda

These are people who need fishcakes. I’m pretty sure I see even the vegetarians eyeing the sausage.

My girl Jackie Torrens (disclosure: we are two of the five organizers of a local reading/performance series) leads the brunch discussion today – called “Fiddles, Lighthouses and The Pogie” — by kicking off with a list of typical Maritime plots, including coming home from Toronto and learning something, women who stare mournfully out kitchen windows, fishing/farming/mining, incest and so on. (She eventually points out that Daniel MacIvor wrote a play that encompasses many of these things, and that terrific play became a lovely film in Marion Bridge, but he, as usual, is an exception to the rule.)

I follow her with my little microphone – I am also trying to get a decent audio documentation of the event – as the discussion moves around the room, through coffee, over melon, bouncing off now-empty quiche houses. It’s probably the best-attended thing I’ve been to out of the three events I’ve witnessed, or else I just know a lot more people in the room. There are Dustin and Christian of course, dancer Cory Bowles, Sue Leblanc-Crawford and Alex MacLean from my favourite local company Zuppa Circus, musician Paul Cram, writer-actor-director Carol Sinclair, Louisa Adamson, Emmy Alcorn from Mulgrave Road, Andrea Ritchie of Irondale Ensemble, dance curator Paul Caskey (and his adorable daughter) and more. The locals are almost evenly matched, I would guess, by visitors, which makes for an interesting discussion, especially for the people who are maybe tired of talking about what it’s like making art in a small place.

Some people challenge Jackie on the relevance of this discussion – what are our stories? What’s the canon? Do we have a responsibility to carry the stereotypical ones forward? – but she is a pro and handles it well, managing to turn it around and wrangle a few stereotypes from other artists in the room (ie you couldn’t do a play in Calgary without putting a cowboy on stage).

A lot of it comes down to perception – those stereotypes are what the rest of the world sees, and so the rest of the world’s funding agents/festival organizers/curators want the artists from those places to “represent” their provenance accordingly. Jackie tells an anecdote about when she was in Birdy Num Num and out of 150 sketches, two were about being in/from the Maritimes, and it was those two the troupe was forced to perform in an out-of-province festival. Jacob Zimmer admits to writing a coal mining play, though despite being from Cape Breton he doesn’t know anything about it. Cory shares that as a black artist he’s expected to have gospel choirs in his work.

In the end, there are no bouts of supportive applause as I expected at something like this – there are more than a few speeches, so this is surprising – and nothing is solved, exactly, but that was never the point (and never could be). It’s also the kind of discussion that, with this many people in the room, could go on all day. Someone has long made the point that what we’re talking about is cyclical. But we’ve all got a ferry to catch. I stuff bacon in my coat pocket and grab the 12:30 boat.

Down below – so cold! – the rain still hasn’t come, so I call my director and we decide to go forward with our outdoor shoot today.

By the time I land on the other side, headed for the Khyber, rain has started to drop.

1:30p

Khyber Ballroom

In one of my favourite, most doomed buildings in Halifax, we sit on an overheated second floor amongst an installation called SAGSRI, which is (apparently) a space mission. Flags hang in a circle from the ceiling. There’s a “transmission” on the wall called “Voyager 1,” which includes a line I find really poignant: If you see God, tell him we miss him. (I must be exhausted.)

This event is like an indie field trip, part-education and part-fun. Most of the brunchers find their way over from Dartmouth, a few dozen strong. I park myself behind a podium spray-painted silver as part of the exhibition. Before things get going my phone buzzes – apparently it’s now pissing rain outside, so my director has called the shoot off. Nuts.

The first half-hour is kind of a drag, reminding of a high school English class, as Jacob and Ame Henderson of Small Wooden Shoe lead the room through the rules of debating, narrow down the list of questions to be debated from nine to three, and split the room up into groups and then teams of affirmative and negative.

Everyone gets some time to work out their arguments for the questions including (Be it resolved that…) …musical theatre should be abolished (Never! I think) and …to be popular is to be relevant (obviously not, look at Nickelback).

What is said in the debates is not important – you should be able to hear it soon anyway – because for the first time the “performance” part of PCC comes roaring to life in front of me. (Well, in front of my podium.) The bulk of these people are actors, and each of the 12 chosen debaters affects a character, an over-the-top, flag-chewing blowhard who takes lots of good-natured swings at her or his opponent, who fights right back, to the delight of the chortling crowd. There’s singing and shrugging and hand-waving, and I think if some of these people hadn’t turned to the arts they would have done well in politics, seizing on misspeaking and ripping open argumental holes and very quickly re-shaping those errors to their own advantage.

After the morning’s discussion, which was enjoyable in an academic, tight-lipped way — like when you’re at a wedding of a good friend whose partner you don’t approve of — this is boisterous and creative and balls-out fun, and I get the feeling those involved are happy and relieved that their afternoon assignment turned into guerilla vaudeville.

Outside the rain is cold and horizontal. I get a bus home, eat a burrito and head to our single interior location for five hours, another 18-hour day under my belt. (LAME!)

DAY 3 MAY 11 2008

2:15p

BusStop Theatre

These participants still have a remarkable amount of fight in them for spending three straight days parsing, dissecting, deconstructing and – most damagingly – boozing. The mood is initially solemn for this final official event, the General Assembly, in which the floor is open to everyone involved to talk about the overall event and what did and didn’t work. People clutch lifeline coffees and keep their coats on as they settle into the BusStop’s metal chairs. (A couple luckies, including myself, snag a chair with padding. PAAAAADDDDING.)

While I understand where the local organizers have been coming from this whole time in their themes of community – this is something we think about all the time here, because we have to – I’ve also sensed the frustration of some come-from-aways who didn’t want to focus so much on breaking stereotype and how important their peers are to their work, so I expect that to come up this afternoon when Christian opens the floor.

But it doesn’t. There’s a bigger problem at hand, one that is symptomatic of all fine arts across the country no matter where you are – some consider this year’s PCC to be under-attended by practioners. Discussions are had about how to engage dancers in particular – Michael Green points out (with an offer to crucify him) that dancers dance because they express themselves with their bodies so they’re not big talkers like most of the people in this room, who come from the theatre. The lack of diversity in disciplines – there are a couple performance and visual artists, but they are mostly inter-disciplinary – is echoed by the lack of diversity in humans. People are frustrated that more artists, even locally, did not attend the conference – it’s hard enough to get audiences, we should at least support each other. It’s a call that falls on missing ears.

I said it at the beginning and it’s clear to me at the end – this is a specialized event. Because performance is special – it’s particular, it’s individual, it’s out of the ordinary. (OK I got those from my Word thesaurus.) But on the serious, everyone here has chosen a path that is hopefully artistically fulfilling but will always be underscored by this frustration – where are the people, the ones who will buy tickets and watch and write about it and get inspired and write their own thing and continue the cycle? They’re already in it, mostly. The rest are at the movies or on Facebook or renting box sets or getting drunk. That’s the way life goes – the lowest common denominator is also the lowest common dominator. As Jacob said in his keynote, “Performance is not going to win the numbers game.”

And so talk moves past that, because it must, into a half-hour discussion of where the next one will be. I am bored at the time but realize after that it’s a great example of how even in this teleconferencing-IM world, people from across the country can still get in a room and make plans together. (Teleconference to come later.) Artists offer up their contacts, debate why proposed dates are or are not good – Toronto is a hard town to find a free weekend on, apparently – and eventually a schedule is tentatively hammered out for the next three PCCs through 2010.

To me, the success of PCC Halifax-Dartmouth has been getting people together. It’s not what was discussed, it was that the discussion took place at all. Because everybody from their own scene – yes even those big-city scenes that are quite functional and don’t have to think about their geographical identity – and all those unknown stars, they now know each other. Together they’ve extended the network from one coast to the other, spreading out like Jacob’s map, endlessly branching and cross-posting and connecting in a circle, where things begin but never end.

MEETING = POTENTIAL

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