Interview: Patti Shaughnessy brings a “glocal” perspective on the arts

Looking at Patti Shaughnessy’s long, successful and eclectic career, one might be surprised to know that she is from the Peterborough area. Fifth-generation Irish from the settlement of Peterborough and Anishinaabe from Curve Lake First Nation, Shaughnessy has deep roots in Treaty 20 soil. She’s even a Trent University alum.

“I took voice class with an elder, Edna Manitowabi, and it piqued my interest in theatre,” she said of her time at the university.

Shaughnessy then worked at 4th Line Theatre before continuing her performance studies at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto. Since then, she has worked across the province and country, becoming an established actor, dancer, director and filmmaker.

In 2004 she co-founded the O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk Collective, or OKW, with Sara Roque and James Whetung. Named by Elder Taaji Cameron, O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk translates to “weaving sweetgrass in toward the heart of the braid.” OKW formed in response to a lack of Indigenous arts programming in the Peterborough area with the goal of developing, nurturing and creating a platform for Indigenous arts practices.

“Even though there’s Indigenous Studies at Trent University, which is the first [of such departments in North America, founded in 1969], and with all the reserves around Peterborough, there was very little Indigenous arts programming. There was a lack of contemporary Indigenous arts,” Shaughnessy said.

Depending on the projects that OKW has on the go, the members of the collective change over time. Right now, the collective consists of Sean Conway and James Whetung, with Shaughnessy leading and carrying the administration of projects.

Since its founding, OKW has programmed, curated, and presented several productions, gatherings and festivals in Peterborough and Curve Lake. Highlights include the O’demin Giizis Festival co-produced with Public Energy and the Beats and Braids music festival. Internationally, OKW co-produced the Indigenous Contemporary Scene festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2019.

For the past 10 years, Shaughnessy has also worked abroad as a director and theatre instructor at the National Theatre of Greenland and its school. Most recently, she directed a stage adaptation of Inuit author Aviaq Johnson’s 2017 novel Those Who Run in the Sky. The production showed in Toronto this May.

With all this in mind, Shaughnessy brings a perspective from beyond the city limits to the Peterborough arts scene.

Peterborough Currents: First of all, how are you with the pandemic going on? How have things been for you? Have they changed, gotten better or worse?

Patti Shaughnessy: I feel fortunate and grateful. I was in Greenland for five months last year with my partner Bill Coleman, and we got in on a window where they were accepting international flights. There was [virtually] no COVID. We worked in the theatre in person and went everywhere freely without masks, so we were very lucky.

I’ve been very busy doing other artistic projects, like online curating and curating shows for Public Energy. I was directing Tomson Highway’s 70th birthday extravaganza in December, at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa, but we got COVID. We had to cancel the production, but it’s been rescheduled for July 23. The show is a retrospective of Tomson’s life and career. Last summer I made a short dance film for the NAC’s Dancing the Land series.

OKW was able to put on two gatherings, along with Black Duck Wild Rice – called Mnoominkewin – in 2020 and 2021 with small numbers at Curve Lake and that’s been special. It features wild rice practitioners and knowledge keepers in the community talking about our traditional mnoomin beds in this area and their depletion because of the Trent-Severn waterway, the influx of cottagers, and development along the shoreline. Many cottagers don’t appreciate it because they look at it as a noxious weed. So we’re trying to build more of a celebratory gathering, where we focus on the positivity of mnoomin. We’re planning the gathering again this September, during the harvest and processing time of the mnoomin.

PC: How would you describe your relationship to the Peterborough arts community?

PS: I was very connected to the Peterborough arts community from 2003 to 2012. Most significant was Ode’min Giizis (Strawberry Moon Festival). It was held in June under the Strawberry Moon. We brought in so many Indigenous artists, national and international, and then we coupled them with local Indigenous artists. We had several community partners, which was so much about relationship building. The artists met with many of the community members and Peterborough artists. There was a real buzz and energy about it. I think it was really well supported and celebrated by the Peterborough community. We were bringing in a lot of people – restaurants were filled. Hotels were filled. It was very good for the downtown.

Mind you, we didn’t get any [money]. Well, we got $1,000 from the City of Peterborough, but the festival had grown significantly. We went through the process of getting the festival incorporated and able to access investment funding through the city and they still didn’t fund us [meaningfully] – they funded us $2,000. We raised money from the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Arts Council, and through Public Energy’s incorporated status, we could access tourism monies. But I lost steam when Peterborough didn’t support it. There was no advocacy at the city level at that time for what we were doing. I suppose we were ahead of the times. So when I was offered a job in Greenland, I jumped at it!

I think I gravitate to Greenland, because of the people and the beauty of the land. Amazing food and very talented artists is a huge draw. Plus, there are so many different theatre influences here.

PC: Can you explain a bit more about the changes you’ve seen in the arts landscape over time? Have you seen certain projects, practices and movements gain traction and/or fall to the wayside?

PS: I do feel across the board, not even just Peterborough, artists have suffered during the pandemic. Many artists utilized the shutdown to create things, despite the lack of funding. People do do meaningful work with very little money, but I just find that the support is lacking. From my perspective of working in Greenland, time and funding is given to create. Longer rehearsal processes for instance makes for good theatre. Here in Canada, we build more hockey rinks than art centres. Locally, there is a lack of arts support. Artists are creating with very little funding. I suppose the minimal funding elevates emerging artists, as there’s proof of public presentation and increases the chances of gaining support from provincial and national funders. But for mid-career or senior artists, where do we fit into this? We deserve more. Wouldn’t that be a way to keep artists in the area? Too often artists are expected to create with next to nothing. But creators continue on. I’m tired of the ghettoization of the arts. I think the City needs to do better, to recognize the amazing talent Peterborough has, and that it’s not simply a hobby.

With regard to provincial and national arts funding, they have created a check-box culture. They ask arts orgs and presenters to “check a box” if they are presenting or supporting BIPOC artists or artists with disabilities. What they don’t have a checkbox for is the relational aspect of connecting to these communities or doing outreach to build an audience of non-white or anti-ableist communities. But funders are prioritizing funding towards these communities because of the colonial nature of white gatekeeping artistic directors who historically have not paid any attention to these communities. So in a way, funders are enforcing diversity, but then there’s no one checking up on how these communities are treated. There’s no talk about relationship building and understanding. Sometimes I feel that [artistic directors] engage me, not because of my artistic experience, but because they can check a box and write about how they’ve achieved diversity in their reporting.  

I’m hopeful that colonial attitudes are shifting. The old, tired gatekeepers of arts organizations who are resistant to change are close to retirement. This will make space for new diverse arts leaders with new ideas. I do see this happening around the country.

PC: On the flip side of this, if you could expand on it more, what do you think contributes to a strong arts ecosystem, infrastructure or community?

PS: Funding? [laughs]. A sophisticated audience, which Peterborough can boast, but also with an appetite for diverse arts programming. Affordable spaces for artists to create. Artist and audience outreach. Partnerships.

Transparency of arts organizations is a big one. For instance, if you look at an arts organization’s budget, you will definitely see where the priority is. Does it go into the office space they are renting, their salaries? What percentage of their funding is going to the artists? We witnessed that many arts organizations receiving arts support funding during the course of the pandemic to make up for a lack of box office revenue. What did artists receive during COVID? And I think it’s important that arts organizations look at that; and ask themselves if they would even have jobs if not for the artists.

PC: What’s next for you?

PS: I’m directing Tara Beagan’s play, Honour Beat, at 1000 Island Playhouse in Gananoque in August. OKW got some funding to make a short film funded through the Canada Council, so we’ll be working on that in September. I’m hoping to expand Mnoominkewin to add theatre and music performances. That’s it so far, besides growing medicinal herbs at my farm in Douro, and most importantly, spending precious time with my grandson Kye.

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