By Chris Illich
Where did the decision come from to start In the Soil?
Well, it was really just an idea like anything else. Joe Lapinski and I were up at a show together at Brock’s Centre for the Arts and we started talking with Sara Palmieri about doing a showcase type thing at the Sean O Sullivan theatre, like Mark Clifford used to do with Niagara Weave. But for all art forms. By the end of the night we had booked a date in the theatre with Sara and Debbie Slade and planned to meet up and chat. A few nights later, Joe, Sara and I gathered at the Merchant Ale House and we invited Jordy Yack (who was editor of Pulse at the time), Deanna Jones (Suitcase in Point’s Artistic Director) and Natasha Pedros (Suitcase in Point/Niagara Artists Centre) to brainstorm possibilities. It was very clear to me from that first conversation that we shared a similar vision and a pretty awesome pool of talents.
It’s hard to believe that memory is now nine years years old. Things were different for St. Catharines downtown at that time. This is pre-Performing Arts Centre feasibility study, pre-Meridian Centre. Politicians were just starting to talk about downtown revitalization. We all saw a vibrant and culturally distinct arts scene and wanted to put a spotlight on it.
What were some struggles early on with the Festival, and what are some of the struggles that you deal with now?
Of course we had early struggles as is the case with bringing any new idea to fruition. Websites and promo and learning about artist relations, programming, production, tourism marketing (gulp!), grants, sponsorship, volunteers, partnership building and on and on. For the first few years there was a relatively small enterprise of festival co-founders and close pals like longtime festival collaborator Mike Palmieri that helped pull the production together.
This festival just seems to keep growing and growing. And we deal with some of the same struggles now as our needs increase in terms of resources to run this beautiful thing. We’ve learnt about street closures, permits and on and on. Deanna has become an expert at tent rental options for the region. What’s been pretty awesome is to see how we can both dream it up and then make it happen.
That being said, how have you seen it change in the past eight years?
All sorts of things have changed. Our first festival was 13 days, one event per night and heavy on the music as we didn’t really have the venues or capacity to support other art forms as fully. In Year Four, Suitcase in Point took the fest on as a part of our season. This was also an opportunity for the co-founders to sharpen our mandate and clarify our goals. And since then, we have really been focussing on presenting more art adventures, more interactive experiences, more new theatre and creating a very special one time audience experience. Each festival is something special, and something that will never happen again.
How does the work cycle operate for In the Soil? Do you start working on the next year’s pretty much as soon as the current one ends?
No joke we have our fist major grant application due for the 2017 festival on Monday right after the festival. Then a postmortem, thank you’s, reporting, planning, attending other festivals to scout work, releasing a call in September for the following year and on the cycle goes. We take a few months off over the summer to swim and dream up new ideas. Otherwise it’s all in.
On your website you state: “Over 1500 artists have been in the soil. How cool is that?” Well – how cool is that?
And to think that after this year’s festival the number will be well over 2000. It’s pretty cool!
What have been some of your favourite moments over the years: including stressed out ‘everything is working/not working how do we figure this out’ kind of moments, as well as favourite performers and artists?
I’ve loved so many moments of the years: In 2009, that magical Culture Reject set at an overstuffed Merchant Ale House made me see how much of a community will there already was for this fest. That beautiful sunny Sunday in Year Four when we were at the corner lot at St. Paul and James Streets and I remember coming in to see people dancing and enjoying themselves midday. Happy faces. The ferris wheel in 2014 was a crazy one. The Sadies lights out moment at the Mikado, blanket forts, poetry slams, massive band parades, Talk in Blue’s final epic show, finding out that we sold out a bunch of our theatre shows last year. I could go on and on and on. There are a lot of highlights!
There have been so many ‘how do we figure this out’ moments over the years but it’s the nature of a festival I think. And honestly being on the inside I can say there are many but it’s more fun to keep them close in hopes that it all comes off as intended.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Rhizomes was introduced just two years ago. How was the response from it and how has it added to the Festival as a whole?
We’ve started to joke that RHIZOMES is really a mini festival within our festival. The first year was at the Old Courthouse and second we took over the nooks and cavernous spaces of Corbloc. RHIZOMES was created to take audiences on adventures through buildings where artists transform a space with their work. It has been a big hit with audiences both years and provides for people who aren’t sure what to do at the festival with a chance to take chances. This year, RHIZOMES takes on the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts and will feature the work of 11 artistic teams. There are short theatre pieces, video installations, sound and light experimentation. As a Brock alumni of the Dramatic Arts program, I’m really looking forward to showing off this beautiful facility and our artists’ projects.
What is your favourite part of organizing the Festival?
I get really excited about reading all the artist proposals. For the past few years I’ve been on all the juries as a way to have one person helping to make sense of the landscape. Each year we have more applications and it seems to me that artists really get what we’re trying to do – they’re bringing new work, new ideas and taking risks with us to put together something extraordinary. I also really love that odd moment when we’re working away in the weeks leading up to the festival and I find myself taking stock of all the amazing people that are working away to pull this off. It really does take a village!
How do you see In The Soil in comparison to other Arts/Music Festivals happening in Ontario/Canada?
We definitely aspire to become a destination festival that continues to stay rooted in the work of our local artistic community and also shares some of the best stuff going on internationally. We don’t want to just have big headliners – though it certainly helps with profile and providing an access point for people. We want to create a happening, an inspiring moment to shake off the winter blues and fill our community up with inspiration and a really good time. We want people to come here to be a part of the festival with us. And you know, it’s starting to happen. A few people I really admire are flying in to take part this year. I was up in Toronto last weekend and everyone I saw either started or ended our conversation with ‘see you at In The Soil.’
Nearing your 10th anniversary of the Festival, what direction do you see it heading in the future?
We’ll see how it all keeps growing. We’ve got better infrastructure than ever in the downtown core to support our growth. Things are really starting to happen and we’re proud of our role in its development so far.
What do you expect from the Festival this year, and what can audiences expect?
Expect that there is definitely something, at least a handful of things, that each person attending the festival will love. I would highly recommend that people clear their calendars from 5pm Friday 29 April until about 10pm on Sunday 1 May and pick up a $40 festival pass. We can’t wait to share this one with you.