• Hamilton on the Fringe

    August 2, 2013 by Stephen Near

    This summer saw the 10th anniversary of the Fringe Festival in Hamilton. For those who may not be aware, the Fringe is an annual 11-day theatre festival where artists from across the city and elsewhere present new and previously produced plays at a variety of venues in the downtown area. This year’s Hamilton Fringe took place at four venues in the downtown area but also included two Bring-Your-Own-Venues (BYOVs) and a new series of mini-gallery shows at three locations along James Street North.

    The Fringe is a summer tradition for theatre artists not just in Hamilton but all across Canada and internationally, as well. As a playwright and performer, myself, I had the opportunity to speak with the Playwrights Guild of Canada about the unique process of playwrights developing new work in the Fringe. I also had the privilege of being involved in this year's Fringe as one of the producing companies with the debut of my new play.

    One of the things that struck me at this year's festival was how diverse and how supportive the companies and artistis were to each other. Without question, this year's Fringe was one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) in the history of the organization with over 45 theatre companies or independent artists performing during the run of the festival. You would be forgiven if you thought that such a large number of artists and shows might not find a wide reception in Hamilton but such is not the case. If anything, the reverse seems to be true.

    Indeed, this year's Fringe was likely one of the most successful in the 10 year history of the Festival. Certainly, it was one of the most dynamic with eclectic and off-beat shows that pushed the boundaries of theatre and took risks in ways I haven't seen in years past. And it sure seems that Hamiltonians wanted to see these plays. Audience numbers were up and the enthusiasm by many local artists both in the line-ups and at the Fringe Club was at an all time high. All of this just serves to remind me that not only is Hamilton growing but that theatre as a form of storytelling in this city is becoming more important and more powerful.

    One of the most exciting things about being an artist in the audience for the many of the shows in this past Fringe was wondering how plays that got their start here might evolve down the road or how artists beginning their career would grow and focus their practice. But regardless of their experience, every artist involved in the Fringe essentially was given a fertile and safe venue for experimentation of new and daring work. And that's at the heart of the Fringe's power.

    Of course, this year there were some bumps along the way. The massive storm that knocked down trees, knocked out power, and flooded some venues served to remind us all that theatre isn't always clean. It can be messy and chaotic. But sometimes that's precisely when the real magic emerges and the beating heart of the story truly comes through.

    No doubt, the folks at the Hamilton Fringe are now taking a bit of well deserved break. But I, for one, can't wait to see what's in store for the Fringe in Hamilton. Be it next year or ten years down the road, I have feeling there's plenty more stories waiting to be told.

  • January 2013 Theatre Arts Committee Meeting Notes

    February 14, 2013 by Stephen Near

    The Theatre Arts Committee was convened this past January by the Hamilton Arts Council as part of our mandate to promote critical dialogue in our creative community. Aside from a general discussion on how to encourage a greater sense of community with the Hamilton theatre scene and the importance of nominating local theatre artists for the upcoming City of Hamilton Arts Awards some of the specific talking points are covered below.

    The TAC was reformed last year with all of the members being theatre artists in the Hamilton region who work to advocate on behalf of theatre arts in the city. The meeting on January 14, 2014 took place at Theatre Aquarius and was attended by Trevor Copp (Tottering Biped Theatre), Ray Louter (Redeemer University College), Radha Menon (Red Betty Theatre), Luke Brown (Theatre Aquarius), Barbara Milne (The Pearl Company) and Stephen Near (Hamilton Arts Council Liaison).

    1) Theatre @ Supercrawl: The Committee discussed how the theatre community could present at Supercrawl 2013. The obstacles of how to present the diversity of Hamilton’s theatre scene amidst a bustling music and visual arts event were also discussed. It was suggested that the community might collaborate together to create a pictorial collage of “moments” from the past year of Hamilton theatre. This might be punctuated by sound bites, video-clips, etc. to create an interactive, multimedia, installation about theatre work and artists in the city. The goal would be to paint a picture about what stories have been told on Hamilton stages in the past year. The Committee also discussed encouraging the use of the Twitter hashtag #hamonttheatre.

    2) Media Coverage for Theatre: The Committee talked about how to better market and promote upcoming productions more to the media in the city. There are concerns about the coverage of theatre by both the Spectator and the View as well as by CBC Hamilton. The Committee discussed the idea of encouraging more widespread use of blogs and to building relationships with local theatre critics and arts reporters to improve coverage of theatre artists.

    3) Upcoming Theatre Events and Productions: The Committee summarized some of the events and productions coming up for them or their companies. Tottering Biped is staging a new work at Theatre Aquarius called First Dance which is in the midst of a tour of southern Ontario universities. Red Betty in partnership with Hamilton Festival Theatre is producing her new show The Circus at the Lyric Theatre also involving Lori Le Mare‘s aerial performance troupe. Barbara reported that the Pearl Company was holding the 1st Annual Winter Theatre Festival featuring plays by Bob Wiseman, Krista McNaughton and playwright Bruce Gooch. Ray reported that Redeemer is doing South Pacific. Luke reported that Aquarius is staging Last Romance with Jamie Farr and is in the midst of planning a series of training workshops open to Hamilton theatre artists.

    4) Hamilton Arts Council news:  Stephen reported that the Hamilton Arts Council will be significantly revamping their website to allow for greater interactivity bu users and members. He gathered feedback from the members of the TAC as to what they would like to see on the site. Stephen also talked about the Annual Theatre Guide and reported on both the positive comments and the critical feedback received from the community. The HAC is planning on releasing a new Guide for 2013-14.

    5) Project Funding: The Committee discussed the issue of Hamilton artists getting theatre project funding. They discussed the recent initiative by the City of Hamilton Arts Advisory Commission and the Arts Funding Task Force to address the issue of municipal level arts funding. The Committee discussed the deficit of project funding from the OAC towards artists in Hamilton. Much of the funding seems to be going to artists in Toronto. The Committee raised the prospect of Hamilton theatre artists communicating to the OAC about the growth of the arts community in the city and opening a dialogue about how to improve the prospect of funding from the province.

    6) Canadian Plays and Playwrights: Stephen mentioned that he is in talks with thePlaywrights Guild of Canada and local Guild member playwrights on how to get more new Canadian plays by local playwrights produced by community theatre companies in Hamilton.

  • A new Approach to Arts Investment in Hamilton

    February 1, 2013 by Stephen Near

    On the evening of January 28th, inside a packed room of artists and cultural figures from across Hamilton, The City of Hamilton’s Arts Advisory Commission (AAC) and the Arts Funding Task Force (AFTF) presented a new set of proposed arts funding initiatives. These proposed changes would see a dramatic change in the way that funds are distributed into the arts and cultural sector. The arts community have known about this meeting for a while now and everybody in the room shares the opinion that not enough is being done to support and cultivate the arts sector in Hamilton. But the Task Force promised some terrific ideas on how to change all of that.

    As the lights dimmed, both Anna Bradford and Councillor Jason Farr took to the stage and made it clear that the City of Hamilton sees the importance of supporting the arts and understands that a strong arts scene leads to a healthy and vibrant community. Next to the stage was the Chair of the Arts Advisory Commission, Tricia LeClair, who outlined the evening's agenda which included a crucial community feedback and discussion component. She then outlined some statistics about the arts and their importance in the community. It turns out that 95% of Ontarians not only feel that the arts enrich their lives but they also believe that the success of Canadian artists gives citizens a sense of pride in Canadian achievement. This last point was an interesting insight especially to me. Since moving to Hamilton over two years ago I've noticed one important thing about Hamiltonians and, specifically, the artists of this city: they have a very passionate sense of pride in themselves and the quality and character of this city.

    Tricia also pointed out that 89% of Ontarians believe that if their community lost its arts activities the people living there would lose something of value and 81% believe that the government should spend public dollars on funding the arts. She clarified the challenges facing Hamilton with regards to funding the arts. As many know, arts funding is generally low in this city and significant gaps exist in the structure of how the funding is distributed. Clearly, the current programs--which include the Community Partnership Program and the Boards & Agencies Budget Stream--do not effectively meet the needs of Hamilton's growing arts and culture sector.

    The goals for the Arts Funding Task Force, in this regard, were fivefold: cultivate artistic creation and dissemination; provide stable operations support; encourage emerging and established projects; build capacity and sustainability; and foster entrepreneurship. Speaking to these points was Tim Potocic, founder of Sonic Unyon Records, Board member of the Hamilton Arts Council, and the newest recipient of the Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award.

    Tim set the tone for the news to come by pulling out a camera and taking a picture of the packed room in front of him. Tim's been at the forefront of many arts initiatives in the city with the most notable being the Supercrawl festival which last year pulled in over 80,000 participants to the downtown core. So it was fitting that he was the one laying out the details of eight new and upgraded arts investment initiatives proposed by the Task Force.

    First of all, there is the Created in Hamilton initiative. This is a new program that would represent a total investment of $150,000 to be disseminated across Hamilton in the form of grants to individual artists focusing on project creation. For me, this was very welcome news as so many artists in Hamilton have made it clear they want to see individual project grants available to them at the municipal level. Many other Canadian cities have such grants and Hamilton's lack of such project funding has been a deficit in my view.

    The second proposal represents Innovation Grants for a total investment of $100,000. Also a new program, this initiative would specifically go to support inventive approaches and special projects in the creation of new work. Although I am a strong advocate of art that is ground-breaking, I did feel the details of this particular initiative needed to be better defined. The Task Force agreed and advised that the community feedback and discussion component would hopefully address some the broad strokes of this proposal.

    The third proposal was to Arts Festivals and Events for a total investment of $350,000. This would essentially be operating grants for major festivals in the city as well as project grants for established and emerging arts and culture events. Although this wouldn't be a new program per se, Tim specified that it represented a significant revision to the city's existing funding for such events via the Community Partnership Program and Boards & Agencies.

    The fourth proposed investment would encompass Arts Grants for Established & Emerging Organizations. Representing a total amount of $2 million, these grants would help fund the operating costs of arts organizations but might also encompass project grants for non-arts organizations. I understood that this initiative would essentially replace existing Community Partnership Program funding as well as the Boards & Agencies funding with the new model.

    Next in the presentation was another new program called Business Development Services for Arts Entrepreneurs. Meant to emphasize the building of start-ups in the arts and culture sector, this new initiative would invest $50,000 in services to encourage and sustain entrepreneurship in the arts in Hamilton. On seeing this, I was reminded of one of the first conversations I had with Jeremy Frieburger (link Cobalt) where he told me that one the most important characteristics of those in the Hamilton arts community is their entrepreneurial spirit.

    The sixth proposal was another new program designated towards Capacity Building Grants for Arts Organizations. Representing an investment of $75,000, the program would help organizations build capacity and meet sustainability challenges. This was another initiative that spoke to me as I have seen so many arts groups face immense challenges in the area of operations and sustainability particularly small theatre companies and galleries trying to get off the ground.

    The seventh proposal was the Capital Maintenance and Equipment Fund. Representing a total investment of $200,000, this program would be a series of grants to assist arts organizations maintain and meet their equipment needs. It's another proposed new program and an initiative that would really be useful to companies across the board. Conceivably, such grants might allow theatre companies to upgrade their lighting grids and galleries to invest in new media equipment.

    Finally, the eighth proposal is a Capital Facility Development Fund. During the presentation, Tim specified that the investment amount has yet to be determined since it would work as a group of affordable loans and incentive programs to assist with facility acquisition and development. Although vague in the details, this proposal has the potential to be a real game changer in terms of allowing organizations and investors to acquire and redevelop spaces in the city into new centres of arts and culture creation.

    The reaction from the assembled crowd ranged from scattered cheers and applause to hushed whispers as people feverishly wrote and compared notes. The proposals put forth represent a fundamental shift in the way that arts funding would be delivered to the city and, even more so, an increase from years past. Overall, the recommendations outline an increase in existing arts and culture funding by $1,026,436 for a total of just over $3 million.

    Next up was the Chair of the Task Force, Kristine Germann, who outlined how these recommendations represent a six-point plan to City Council. This would involve 1)adopting the model at Council, 2) securing the funding and sources for the programs, 3)ensuring that adequate transparency and accountability is in-place, 4) properly administering the implementation and oversight by Culture and Tourism Division, 5)determining effective means for reporting on the success of the programs, and finally 6)creating an overall cohesive program.

    The evening culminated with a series of round table public participation sessions focusing on four key points of clarification: topics that the Task Force felt needed further development. These topics were: Peer & Jury ReviewEncouraging Innovation & Novel ApproachesDetermining Success, and Advisory Services. For me, this part of the evening was the most exciting. It allowed me an opportunity to sit down at a variety of tables with artists from all across Hamilton and brainstorm ideas about what I'd just heard. And, at every table, there was a facilitator who guided us through a series of questions to help focus the discussion.

    I ended up participating at the Peer & Jury Review table and the Encouraging Innovation & Novel Approaches table. Ideas were thrown back and forth and there was a real sense that the arts community was truly excited to be so deeply involved in helping to shape a policy model that could shape the future of arts funding in Hamilton for years to come.

    The evening wrapped up but I felt like I could've stayed a lot longer. The feeling of optimism, of a change in the air, was palpable and I was left with a very charged sense of things to come. There are still many details left to iron out and, of course, these proposals will need to be passed by City Council. But the blueprint is now in place and it is an encouraging sign that the vibrant arts community of Hamilton had a direct hand in drafting it.



  • November Literary Arts Committee Meeting Notes

    January 22, 2013 by Stephen Near

    The Literary Arts Committee was convened last November by the Hamilton Arts Council as part of our renewed mandate to promote critical dialogue in our creative community.

    The LAC is the longest running Committee associated with the Hamilton Arts Council and all of the members are published authors or publishers in the Hamilton region who work to advocate on behalf of the literary arts in the city. The meeting on November 28, 2012 was attended by Susan Evans ShawMary AndersonNoelle Allen (Wolzak & Wynn),Claire MeldrumWilma Seville and Stephen Near (Hamilton Arts Council Liaison).

    1) Lit Live 2012-13: The Committee discussed the Lit Live Festival and reported that Gary Barwin has also agreed to sit on the Lit Live Committee and will be taking a hand in maintaining the blog along with Chris Pannell. The Committee also discussed funding matters regarding Lit Live including the upcoming Ontario Arts Council grant deadline. The Lit Live Reading Series is a monthly event that takes place on the 1st Sunday evening of every month and is held at Homegrown Hamilton.

    2) 20th Annual Hamilton Literary Awards: The Committee first reviewed the success of the 19th Annual Hamilton Literary Awards (Held in November 2012) and discussed some ways in which the Awards could be better administered and organized for next year. The Committee also discussed the future format of the Annual Hamilton Literary Awards which will feature four Awards in the following categories: POETRY – Book, NON-FICTION – Book, FICTION – Book and the *new* category of the Book that best epitomizes the spirit or essence of the city of Hamilton. A variety of ideas for what to call the Award were suggested and discussed by the members of the Committee with a final decision being made in January. The Committee also discussed how they can be more involved in administering the Awards including contacting prospective adjudicators and assisting the HAC in gaining sponsors for the Awards. The Committee is very enthusiastic about continuing to move forward with the Lit Awards and the streamlining of the Awards from seven to four categories will allow the HAC to develop more press and advertising by possibly releasing a short-list in advance of the awards ceremony in November. .

    3) New Committee Membership: Several members of the LAC have already stepped away from the Committee and so the members briefly discussed prospective candidates. Several notable individuals in the Hamilton literary scene were mentioned as possible candidates and some members have volunteered to ask these individuals.

    4) Niagara Literary Arts Festival: The Committee briefly discussed the possibility of collaborating with the planners of the Niagara Literary Arts Festival. Bringing the Festival into Hamilton for June 2013 might be a possibility especially if it could be done in collaboration with Open Streets Hamilton.

  • Sept Literary Arts Committee Meeting Notes

    October 26, 2012 by Stephen Near

    The Literary Arts Committee was convened this past September by the Hamilton Arts Council as part of our renewed mandate to promote critical dialogue in our creative community.

    The LAC is the longest running Committee associated with the Hamilton Arts Council and all of the members are published authors or publishers in the Hamilton region who work to advocate on behalf of the literary arts in the city. The meeting on September 26, 2012 was attended by Susan Evans ShawGeorge DownMary AndersonNoelle Allen(Wolzak & Wynn), Wilma Seville and Stephen Near (Hamilton Arts Council Liaison).

    1) Lit Live 2012-13: The Committee discussed the Lit Live Festival and how it will be funded in the coming year. Susan, who sits on the Lit Live Committee, reported that funding for the Festival looks to be improved over last year and that was good news. She has also booked a consistent schedule of both authors for the readings and MCs to introduce the evenings. The Lit Live Reading Series is a monthly event that takes place on the 1st Sunday evening of every month and is held at Homegrown Hamilton.

    2) 19th Annual Hamilton Literary Awards: The Committee discussed, at length, the future format of the Annual Hamilton Literary Awards. This Awards event is coming up in November and will feature a number of awards presented to Hamilton-based writers for their published work. The nominated categories for the Awards are: POETRY – Individual Poem, FICTION – Short Story, NON-FICTION – Short Article, YOUNG ADULT/CHILDRENS – Book, POETRY – Book, NON-FICTION – Book and  FICTION – Book. The Committee discussed the merits and challenges of having an city literary awards event with 7 categories as opposed to one or two categories. The Committee ultimately decided to look at alternative formats for the Hamilton Literary Awards that would feature fewer categories but offer more distinction and prestige as well greater prize amounts. This issue will be discussed further in the months ahead by the Committee members.

    3) New Committee Membership: Several members of the long-standing LAC are going to be stepping away from the Committee and so the members briefly discussed prospective candidates. Several notable individuals in the Hamilton literary scene were mentioned as possible candidates and some Committee members have volunteered to ask these individuals.

    4) Culture Days 2012: The Committee discussed the Culture Days 2012 events in Hamilton with a specific eye on those events that fell into the literary sphere. Although there were over 40+ events taking place in the city, the Committee admitted that the proximity of Culture Days to Supercrawl does seem to present some programming and funding issues for arts groups in Hamilton.

    5) Niagara Literary Arts Festival: The Committee briefly discussed the possibility of collaborating with the planners of the Niagara Literary Arts Festival. Bringing the Festival into Hamilton next June might be a possibility and some on the Committee wondered if it might be possible tie such a collaboration with Open Streets Hamilton.