The third installment of Peterborough’s biannual multi-arts festival Precarious will proceed in some form, but the latest provincial public health restrictions have forced a postponement, artistic director Kate Story says, and it isn’t clear to her when and how the festival can proceed.
The festival has been retooled this year as a series of artist residencies without live audiences in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first residency was scheduled to start on April 19 at the Theatre on King, but the latest stay-at-home order from the province states that theatres and other performing arts venues must stay closed. Even livestreaming of performing arts has been prohibited.
“Performing arts has been essentially killed by this legislation right now,” says Story.
Last week, concert venue owners in other parts of Ontario expressed frustration when it became clear that the provincial government’s “emergency brake shutdown” prohibited livestreamed concerts, which have proven to be one way for venue owners to continue operations during the pandemic.
Story is supportive of public health measures to address the pandemic, and the Theatre on King has “developed COVID regulations that we’ve been enforcing,” she says. “We’ve been so careful.” But she feels the current restrictions come down too hard on performing arts organizations, and that they aren’t entirely grounded in evidence — especially the prohibition of livestreaming.
No matter how it proceeds, this year’s Precarious Festival will be a scaled-back affair compared to previous years. Story has opted for an artist-residency model that will give individual artists one week each at the Theatre on King to develop and refine new work, with support from a small technical team and mentorship. Artists will be paid, and their work will be shared with the public in a way that is safe — most artists are proposing some form of livestreaming or other digital release.
Story believes it was important to find a way to safely hold the festival this year despite COVID-19. “We wanted to do it during the pandemic,” she says. “We thought people were going to need this. The artists are going to need some money, they’re going to need some encouragement and a space and time to work. And the public — they’re going to need something exciting.”
Local dancer and performer Jenn Cole is one of ten artists selected to participate in the festival. Cole, who is a mixed-ancestry Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe, is working in collaboration with the Gitigaan Project, the Beautiful Canoe Collective and Public Energy. She is planning to develop a theatre-dance piece called Swim! that will imagine a future where “the locks come down in the Trent Severn Waterway, and the Odenabe River gets to take her rightful place.”
Cole will adapt to the regulations and delays, she says, but she’s hopeful there will be an opportunity to create work in the theatre at some point. “It’s the most beautiful gift to work in residence at the Theatre on King,” she says. The team there “always bring[s] really deep and intelligent attention to my work, and my work really grows in collaboration with them.”
“Setting aside the time to focus on nourishing a piece is really special for me,” Cole says. “It’s the most exciting thing to get to have a week to work on something.”
Television crews can film, but performing artists can’t livestream
Story questions why performing arts venues have been targeted with such strong restrictions, when film and television production has been allowed to continue.
“I’m puzzled by it,” she says, “as well as frustrated and angered. It’s really not making any sense to not allow us to livestream.”
Story isn’t alone in this assessment. On April 8, three industry organizations representing performing arts groups co-signed a letter addressed to Ontario cabinet members requesting a rethink of the regulations.
The letter was sent on behalf of performing arts groups in Ontario and signed by executives at the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, Orchestras Canada and the Canadian Live Music Association.
“[W]e seek an equitable and science-driven approach to the framing of public health regulations that affect our members,” the letter stated, including “an approach that gives live performing arts (and its pivot to digital content capture and sharing) the same standing as the film and television sector.”
Regulations preventing performing arts groups from “rehearsing, taping and livestreaming will threaten the survival of these sectors and the future of cultural infrastructure in Ontario,” the letter stated.
When asked to respond to the letter, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health directed Peterborough Currents to the Ministry of Heritage, Sports, Tourism and Culture Industries for a statement. A spokesperson for that ministry did not respond to emailed questions from Peterborough Currents.
Arts work and precarity
The Precarious Festival was first presented in 2017 and a second installment was mounted in 2019. Those past iterations featured live performances, panel discussions and collaborations with community groups. While the festival’s programming has always been diverse, the main focus is to explore and critique the economic precarity faced by artists and arts workers.
For an event that examines economic precarity in the arts, it’s ironic to see the festival get caught up in the discourse around what work is essential and what work isn’t.
Story believes the decision to shutter performing arts venues while allowing other workplaces to continue operating is reflective of society’s failure to acknowledge that art making is a form of work.
“I feel like because the legislators experience performing arts as entertainment, they don’t understand that it’s work to create, that we are cultural workers,” she says. “So they just see it as a frill.”
Cole says she has sensed “a misunderstanding of art practice as inessential” during the pandemic. The arts are a way to reflect and interpret our common experience, she says, and that’s especially important during the pandemic. “Perhaps we would like artistic practice to be doing some of the thinking and archiving and embodied work around this hugely sensate experience we’re having collectively.”
Victoria Ward, another artist who is set to participate in the festival, isn’t sure what impact the pandemic has had on the public’s perception of artists. What she does believe, though, is that it has “pulled the curtain back on the fact that a lot of people live precariously — not just artists.”
Ward is primarily a visual artist, but for her Precarious residency she intends to return to a play she mounted in the 1990s called Kitten with a Crucifix.
Story has tentatively rescheduled the residencies to begin in mid-May. She says she is in contact with a representative from Peterborough Public Health to determine what is permitted under the current regulations.
Meanwhile, Ward is playing the waiting game. “I’ve been in the arts a long time,” she says, “and I’ve had so many curveballs. Nothing quite like this, but a lot of curve balls. You just adapt.”
“I’m not in a panic about it. We’ll see what happens. But I am really hoping I get to be in a space with Ryan [Kerr, the Theatre on King’s artistic director] and Kate. They’re extremely talented, smart, interesting, creative people. I was really looking forward to that collaboration and human interaction.”
“My main goal at this point is that these artists get a little bit of money and a little bit of hope and support,” Story says. “Just to say that their work matters.”
Ultimately, though, Story says she needs more clarity before she can move forward: “If it looks like the Theatre on King might get slammed with a fine, then it’s not going to happen.”
For a complete list of artists participating in this year’s Precarious Festival, click here.