While the arts take a predominant role in the St. Catharines downtown community, this past year we have seen a real commitment from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre [PAC] to expand not only what types of production are happening on stage, but who the audience is and what types of discussions are they taking away. Connecting with Sarah Fraser, the Program and Audience Coordinator and coordinator of the ImPACt Education Program, she shares her experiences and vision for the evolution of programming and partnerships fostering access to the arts in Niagara.
Fraser recalled her first experience as an audience member.
“[It was] the Potato People production, where the actors wear paper mache masks, with my primary school. I was captivated by how they communicate through physical expression and no words.”
This experience lead her down a path of studying theatre from a range of perspectives and hoping to help foster these experiences for people of all ages and interests going forward.
With this goal in mind, Fraser explained the process of establishing the annual line up of concert, productions, and films.
“The programming team work to find a balance of popular programs, introducing new surprising cultural experiences, and collaborating with our local professional not-for-profit theatre companies.”
One example she highlighted was while “it would not be Christmas in St. Catharines without the ever popular John McDermott”, however, this past holiday season also brought in “the Norwegian choreographer Sølvi Edvardsen who brought the show MAN which amazed the most seasoned local dance enthusiasts and introduced new audiences to the appreciation of world class choreography”.
Dance performances have offered an incredible expansion of which communities are engaging in the downtown, and Fraser summarized this aim as “hoping to help connect with people who are interested in dance but also those who don’t know they are interested in dance to come and see these productions”.
Developing deeper community connections both in audiences and performers acts as a cornerstone for the PAC’s expanding programming. A clear example Fraser highlighted was the work the PAC has been doing with the Kakekalanicks Indigenous Consulting Company, who are vital to the development of the programming for the annual Celebration of Nations, Hot Tickets Season, and the Film House. Through year-round Celebration of Nations programming, the PAC showcased Cottagers and Indians produced by Tarragon Theatre and written by award-winning Indigenous playwright Drew Hayden Taylor. Fraser summarized this play in using “humour to create a very relatable microcosm of reconciliation”.
Fraser has noticed the ongoing impact of this event with the dialogue from the Q&A have continued far beyond run of the show, highlighting how we as a community can politically engage in the arts as a necessary tool in diving deeper into the how we are all participants and have perspectives on these political issues.
Another piece that was able to offer a multitude of approaches for engaging in community dialogue was This is the Point by Ahuri Theatre, a piece focused on about love, sex and disability. In addition to the performances, the PAC hosted a workshop with Niagara Centre for Independent Living lead by Ahuri Theatre that playfully subverted misconceptions about people with disabilities. This was in addition to a pre-show concert by The Basement Rockers, a band is coordinated by Major Progressions Music Therapy and TASC/Therapy Alternatives for Special Children Niagara.
With a wide range of participants both on stage and in the audience, this work highlights the ways thoughtful and multi-disciplinary programming that engages a wide range of audiences creates integral community connection. This production was also the first to host both Audio Description and ASL translation, which Fraser notes as one necessary tool moving forward, explaining that she is passionate about accessibility and would love to expand upon this initiative in the coming years.
This month, The Team, produced by Essential Collective Theatre and written by Michael Kras will examine the intersections of young people wrestling with locker room culture, cyberbullying and the effects of homophobia. Fraser shared the role this play will have in ensuring a community discussion on these subjects as “there will be post-show talkbacks, following the 8pm March 21 and 2pm March 23 performances, that will feature the cast and representatives from community partners Canadian Mental Health Association and Pride Niagara”. Being able to discuss the production, but also then take those reflections back and engage in community resources provides a necessary tie between art and reality.
The Film House has taken a similar approach to expanding the dialogue of their programming. In partnership with the Niagara Artists Centre [NAC], the Brock University Film Society [BUFS] as well as the a wide range of community partners films such as The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris, and Beautiful Boy have all offered opportunities to engage with audience beyond the duration of the film. Upcoming, Fraser encourages folks to watch out the collaborations with the Niagara Society of Architects curating a set of documentary films for the Architecture+Design Film Series, as well as the Rhododendron Society of Canada, screening a film that will enthrall avid gardeners and keen horticulturalists.
Opportunities to connect with and engage in the PAC are ever expanding. With the success of the imPACt Education Program, more and more educators and students are accessing necessary tools to expand their curriculum. Through the eyeGo program, high school students $5 tickets to the Hot Tickets and Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Acquiring a Film House membership means that on a regular basis you and your friends have an activity to bring you together. If you work in an organization that would be interested in suggesting or partnering, please contact the PAC, so that the programming continues to reach broader audiences and foster great discussion across our region.
Fraser summarized the continued expansion of her work and the communities it brings in as “exciting to be part of a venue that is still ever evolving! Our team at the PAC is getting to know this wonderful new venue and all the creative possibilities to animate it”.
Visit firstontariopac.ca for more information about their programming.