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In the Soil Arts Festival is celebrating 10 years this April 27 to 29. With a line-up of music, visual art, theatre, dance and more programmed for people of all ages, it will surprise, delight and open your eyes to the Niagara Region’s talented local artists, as well as some of downtown St. Catharines’ almost hidden spaces.
The passionate team behind In the Soil are a group of self-described downtown dreamers who, along with what is now hundreds of volunteers, transform St. Catharines into an “explosion of creativity”.
We were lucky enough to catch-up with In The Soil Co-founder/ Artistic Director, Deanna Jones, and Co-founder/ Artistic Producer, Annie Wilson, in their creative space at Suitcase in Point Theatre Company on James Street in downtown St. Catharines to find out what you can expect from ITS Festival 2018.
SCS: As a newcomer to the Niagara Region and someone who has never been to In The Soil Arts Festival before, tell me what it’s all about?
Deanna: It’s all about sharing and celebrating local artists of all disciplines while providing new artists from across the country to our local audiences, and providing new work in music, theatre, dance, film, media art, installation art, and complete mash-ups of inter-arts.
We have called it in the past, an explosion of creativity in downtown St. Catharines.
Annie: When people haven’t been to In The Soil Festival before, I tell them to rest assured that there will be several things you will be interested in because we program for all demographics. We hope the community really see themselves in the performances.
SCS: Is the entire festival set in downtown St. Catharines?
A: It is. This year we have 12 venues, including a free festival hub. We close down James Street between St. Paul and King Streets.
We will have a Vendor Bender Artisan Market that Sarah Jarvis from Craft Arts Market helps curate. There will be an interactive village with art workshops for families. Our Hub Stage will be programmed all weekend with music. There will be food trucks and libations, and events all through downtown.
Just to name a few venues, we have music at The Merchant Ale House; our theatre series will be at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, which is sponsored by FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. There will also be a yurt in the backyard of the Performing Arts Centre which will hold about 60 people and will be a warm little glowing heart with some special performances happening. Plus, Niagara Artist Centre; Warehouse; Silver Spire United Church; Mahtay; and Odd Fellows Hall here at 36 James Street.
D: Also, there will be an art exhibit at Rise Above. And Saturday the 28th, we start off with a Family Fun Day at the St. Catharines Library with workshops and programs for children.
SCS: That’s huge! So, you’ve been doing this for 10 years. How did this collaboration come about?
D: There are a lot of collaborators involved. Suitcase In Point Theatre Company is the producing company and we are in our 16th season, so we existed for six years prior to the festival.
Suitcase In Point was just a theatre company. We were doing fringe festivals and SummerWorks Festival and we were creating new plays, but we always had this multi-disciplinary nature to us. It’s a company built of writers, directors, performers, musicians, and visual artists, so it seemed like a natural fit.
The organizing committee includes Annie Wilson and me, Joe Lapinski (Producer at WOW! Recording Studio), Natasha Pedros (from the Niagara Artist Centre), Sara Palmieri (who is the Programming and Marketing Manager at the PAC), Anah Shabbar (Director of Greenbelt Arts), Jordy Yack (Communications Coordinator at the PAC), and multidisciplinary artist Brittany Brooks.
Annie: Joe and I went to see Alpha Yaya Diallo at Brock and we started talking with Sara at intermission about Niagara Weave (a former arts showcase held at the Centre for the Arts at Brock University), and by the end of the performance we had this idea and said, “Okay, let’s book this space for April 27 2009, let’s bring Niagara Weave back to the community in a new incarnation.” So the seed was planted in that conversation. A few days later, Deanna, Natasha, Jordy, Sara, Joe and myself were having a beer at The Merchant Ale House.
Looking around the table we realized we had an incredible amount of human resources between us. We pooled our energy and talents together and went for year one.
At the time Jordy was the Editor at Pulse Niagara, so we put out a call for artists through Pulse and thought, who knows what will come back. Well, we were blown away. It was huge!
D: It was a mail-in too, so people had to fill it out by hand and mail it.
A: We probably received over 200 applications for something we thought would be a small showcase. It was a clear indicator to us that the community was craving an opportunity to come together in this way and share through the arts.
D: We were sort of ahead of the curve with a lot of the advancements that happened in downtown St. Catharines, such as the creation of the Performing Arts Centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, which was the Canada Hair Cloth Building. We would work with Niagara Artists Centre to bring weird, funky things into that space before it was the School. The Meridian Centre was just a parking lot.
SCS: That touches on my next question. How have you seen downtown St. Catharines change over the last 10 years?
A: Exponentially! It has been a real source of pride. I am finding myself quite nostalgic as we are getting ready for year 10, because a lot of the transformation happening downtown was just a dream and an idea 10 years ago.
There were just whispers of Brock University and the City of St. Catharines coming together for this $101 million infrastructure project that has become the PAC and the School of Fine and Performing Arts. We started this festival before that was even happening.
We are downtown dreamers. We have been for many years, and we saw a lot of value in our downtown core and opportunity to bring people here.
So things have changed in massive ways over the last 10 years. We are super proud to have helped make that path and to have shown people just how powerful the arts can be at bringing us together.
SCS: The idea of putting together a festival sounds like fun, but obviously there is a lot of hard work that goes into it.
A: We are a small grassroots, independent, not-for-profit charity organization, and it is a heck of a lot of work.
We have never had the resources we need to do this festival, financial or human, but we have a lot of passion, a lot of ambition, a lot of loyality, and a lot of commitment to the work we are doing, so we continue to find ways to move mountains.
It really does feel like there is this absolutely huge number of people that congregate to bring the festival together each year. A lot of hard work and late nights.
SCS: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced bringing the In The Soil Arts Festival to life?
A: When we started 10 years ago, we didn’t have purpose-built facilities for the arts in downtown St. Catharines. The courthouse theatre had just been converted into a performance space, which it no longer is. We didn’t have the spaces to do the work.
Something we really pride ourselves on is providing high-calibre professional production for all of our artists. That is a heck of a lot of work and tricky to coordinate and put together.
D: The site specificness of what we do makes it a challenge – going into a space you have never been in before and seeing something you probably would never see in that space.
A: For example, we participated as artists in something called Subdevision at The Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Ottawa a few years ago. You would take over a space in a building and create a work for it, and audiences would tour into these different works, so we adapted and refreshed that idea and we call it Rhizomes.
Rhizomes are a site-specific, choose-your-own art adventure. We started this at the Courthouse Theatre and did it there for a couple of years. But then, imagine this, we were given access to CorBloc on King Street one year.
D: The third floor used to be a call centre and it looked like everyone had just got up and left. There were desks and books and papers.
A: There were literally Call Centres for Dummies books piled up.
D: In the corner we had this incredible artist named Trevor Copp, who did a mime performance as people walked through a media installation by local artist Luke Gillett. On the second floor, it was all open with exposed beams as they were doing renovations, and we had Jane Kirby from Kingston do this gymnastic dance piece. There was a band playing in the boardroom.
A: I can remember patrons coming back from tours through CorBloc just blown away saying, “I was in this call centre ghost town and I saw this incredible movement piece.” This really drills down to one of the aspirations of the festival which is to create one-time audience experiences.
Maybe you have seen that band play before or maybe you have seen that artist perform their literary work before, or whatever, but you’ve never really seen it like this before.
We always find ways to elevate the work and create something really special for the artist first and foremost, because when it’s special for the artist it’s always special for us as the audience.
This year we will have Rhizomes at Silver Spire United Church on St. Paul Street, which is just incredible. There are a lot of really neat things about to happen there.
SCS: It sounds like the Festival is celebrating the artists and downtown St. Catharines by exploring spaces that people rarely get to see.
A: We have a beloved tradition in this community of closing the Festival with a sketch comedy show we call, The Dirty Cabaret at the Odd Fellows Hall, here at 36 James Street. Many people have probably never been into Odd Fellows before, and now it’s becoming a used space – a space that the community is aware of and has arts experiences in, and we helped open the doors to it. I think people will feel the same way about Silver Spire this year. There have been a few events over the years there, but not an exploration of the site in the way that we are about to achieve with the Festival.
SCS: How do you find these spaces?
D: I remember being like, “What about there, what’s going on up there?” And then you have these really weird conversations with the building’s management.
Silver Spire is right next door to the Niagara Artists Centre. It has been downtown forever, and they are really open and have a wonderful staff. Reverend Jane Capstick is really onboard to open the doors up and let us do what needs to happen.
A: I will add that Deanna has this amazing ability to shift our perspective of a space. In 2014 she had this grand aspiration to bring a Ferris wheel to downtown St. Catharines. The PAC was just getting built, so she had this idea to look at downtown from this different vantage point as it was in a moment of transformation.
People looked at us like we were crazy. It was this incredible moment of, yeah we can do that, and we did it. The ambitions are always so great and we are always looking to make it special. This year the concept of the yurt came up, and we fell in love with it. Now we are muscling through how to bring that to fruition. We found really eager partners in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre to help bring it to our community and have these special one-time audience experiences in it.
SCS: What are some of the other highlights that people will experience during the 10th anniversary of In The Soil Festival?
A: We are really excited about the artist, Kristina Rolander from Wisconsin, who is designing our hub stage for us.
D: She does stage design for bands, including video projection and painted backdrops, and creates these worlds for bands to play in. She is making a crystal-caves stalactite funky space, and is working in collaboration with Luke Gillett who is going to add a video component to her design.
A: Thematically, we grabbed onto something that really expresses how we feel about year 10. A long-time friend of the festival, Lisa Renee McKenzie, had an idea for an installation she has called Common Thread.
Lisa will be connecting our venues all around downtown with this long piece of wool. This idea really identified the heart of the festival and how many of us have become connected and built a community through In the Soil.
People are going to start congregating about 5pm on Friday the 27th of April for the launch of the Festival, and we will welcome everybody to the festival by having a Common Thread moment – then go into the entertainment for the evening.
D: Local artist, Jon Lepp, who is in a band called Fat Moth, and some artistic collaborators have created a whole new concept which will be Fat Moth In The Garden. They are working with visual artists to do an installation at the Niagara Artists Centre. They will be playing music and doing literary art and video, which is really exciting.
We are also bringing in Stewart Legere from Nova Scotia, and he is doing a special intimate set in the yurt. He is writing a song for In The Soil to close his set and creating a video inspired by the space.
DJ Shub is headlining Saturday night at the Festival Hub. He is an incredible turntable artist and DJ.
A: Lemon Bucket Orchestra, a big-time festival favourite for a few years, have been invited to join us again and they will close the hub on Sunday with their lively Klezmer music vibes and will have everybody on their feet.
D: We have a great theatre series too. There are about five different plays that will be at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.
One in particular that Annie and I saw a couple of years ago called Extremophiles by Georgina Beaty, is an incredible one-woman show.
We will have a closing-night party after The Dirty Cabaret with Marinko Jareb. Merinko will use photos and videos from the past 10 years as part of the closing set which will be a great way to wrap it up.
When 27 to 29 April
Location The Festival Hub will be located on James Street, St. Catharines, with participating venues throughout the city. See ITS website for details.