Written by Denyse Terry
Photography by Rhonda Cline
The Hamilton Fringe recently hosted, with the support of the Player’s Guild, Hamilton Arts Council, Theatre Aquarius and Cobalt Connects, an Open Space meeting called Stage Directions: Imagining the next steps for theatre in Hamilton. The Book of Proceedings is available by request at firstname.lastname@example.org We heard from a lot of folks that missed this. We hope to see you for the next one.
Behind the big red door that fronts Player’s Guild Theatre on Queen Street were a lot of people. Of that I was sure. For weeks the folks behind the Fringe had excitedly planned the first ever ‘Open Space’ meeting in Hamilton and within two days we were full.
Stakeholders from professional, semi-professional and community theatre, reps from Hamilton, Toronto and Buffalo, all together, in one room, tasked with raising the bar on theatre in Hamilton. What could go wrong? Right?
Open Space meetings, in various iterations, have been around for about 20 years. Developed by Harrison Owen they are designed with specialists in mind: a central theme brings seemingly disparate experts together and fully respects their ability to govern themselves; to pick agenda topics, hammer out the highlights, democratically choose future steps, and pinpoint available resources.
Yeah, I was nervous.
I had bugged Claire about our facilitator for weeks, “This guy knows what he is walking into? Right? We aren’t cold-cocking him?”
“No worries.” I was assured. “We have a great guy from Ancaster. He trained under Michelle Cooper of the Courage Group” And sure enough, when I met Brian Ross I was impressed. His explanation of the day’s proceedings so embraced and embodied the philosophy behind the technique, I imagined the backs of his eyeballs tattooed with, “Ommmmm.” There is something to be said for process.
Back at that big red door, while working my way through the throng, I tried to pick up on the energy in the house. Because it felt, well…weird. Not what I expected. Everybody seemed so….chill. But there they were. Over 50 folks gathered around for the morning circle to hear about the process and the guiding principles.
This seems to be the year of 11’s. 11 topics were chosen. For the Fringe’s 11th Anniversary – the traditional gift is STEEL btw, if you are in a buying mood – from July 17 – 27th, you have 11 days to pick something out.
The 11 topics were ambitious and specific. Here’s a sampling:
- What does a stronger, better theatre community look like?
- Coordination and Amalgamation of Community Groups
- Local Training – What is Missing? What is the need?
- How does Hamilton theatre fit into the broader Canadian and International contexts?
- Is there a place in the Hamilton theatre scene for challenging, innovative, professional (ie government funded) theatre?
The ‘breakout rooms’ were set up throughout the Guild. Always a circle. Always amazing conversations. While the topics differed, there were a few words that were heard again and again, words of inclusion, and transition, “Us…We…Let’s…Yes…I smell pizza.”
(pizza lunch was served!)
Reports came in from the morning sessions. Pooled and printed they were plastered on a ‘Newsroom Wall’ for all to see. Already the elephants in the room had been addressed. First up: Toronto or Toronto-phobia. It is a thing. I was awe-struck by how easily this topic came up, and the wise people who addressed it. There is no doubt that more and more people are leaving Toronto. That Torontonian’s frequent destination of choice is Hamilton – is not always experienced here as flattery. To some it even feels threatening.
What is apparent is that we all want to contribute to Hamilton’s theatrical growth in our own individual voices. And, as Hamilton grows, by logical extension, so too does the available audience. There was palpable enthusiasm to tell Ham-centric stories. And why not? We are all here now. And we are pretty interesting, after all.
The idea that environment shapes the message was a recurring theme, along with the idea to present the Classics (Greek to 1850’s) in a new way along a Buffalo-Hamilton corridor, and make use of the unused industrial space between the two communities. Hamilton’s visual artists’ work is remarkable for capturing elements of its nascent environment. Might new theatre here evolve in much the same way?
And what about the venues? Finding space sounds simple enough but there are multiple factors to consider: straight rent vs. profit share, using house techs, insurance issues. Our community theatres are struggling as it is. How can we support them? Maybe a database for all theatres and availability? Some folks are on that. More training for our artists here, giving youths a reason to come back? Folks are on that too.
But let’s take it further, as another group did. How do we coordinate and amalgamate all the community groups we have? Highlighting the discrepancy between established community theatres (Guild, HTI, DLT, etc.) and new theatre groups THAT NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE HAVE HEARD OF, another idea was born: match community theatre companies to venues, enabling those companies to take on emerging groups, and build alliances with resource groups like HAC and Cobalt Connects.
Transitions, change. It ain’t easy folks. But there is something you can do. It’s called ArtsVote (here’s a primer). It is about finding out how our local politicians support the arts. And voting accordingly. Considering that right now the city is in the process of analyzing the findings of a task force on funding the arts in Hamilton (and an upcoming election!) timing is perfect. If you want to get involved, and of course you do, email email@example.com, putting ArtsVote in the subject line. We will get it to the right people.
It’s tempting, sometimes, to put up blinders and carry on with your own thing. Thing is, if we are committed to growing arts in Hamilton we have to come together. More than once. What was so clear this day was our deep need to connect with each other. And respectfully recognize our interdependence. We came, we talked, we broke bread together. We said, “Let’s do this again.” We will.