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Updated: Jun 28, 2021

by Lisa Mackay

Almost exactly a year ago, the Rozsa Foundation introduced the Online Programming Grant in response to the sudden shut down of the arts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to partner with the Calgary Foundation to offer 23 Online Programming Grants to arts charities, and with Calgary Arts Development to provide another 29 for individual artists and organizations who aren't charities (and so not typically eligible for Foundation grants). The previous newsletter’s article about these grants focused on organizations working with young people and the remarkable programs, lessons and results they saw. You can find this on our blog here. The rest of the grantees are an incredibly diverse group of companies, and this article will focus on several of Calgary’s performing arts companies.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the performing arts were among the first to feel the negative effects of the new reality. Productions ceased mid-run, rehearsals stopped, and performance spaces shut down entirely. The primary focus and concern for performing arts groups was maintaining contact and connection with their respective audiences and donors. And, as companies began to acknowledge the seriousness and longevity of the shut down, they were also forced to grapple with the questions of how to fulfill their performance-related missions and visions without access to any of the necessary components, space, or people. Moving online was clearly the only option available, but how were they going to do this in any meaningful way? And would their audiences join them there?

One of Calgary’s theatre companies approached the issue by looking at the universality of the strange pandemic experience. Ghost River Theatre mounted a hybrid presentation of SensoryBox, which was presented both live at the West Village Theatre in September 2020 for a physically distanced audience and simultaneously streamed online. In discussing the genesis of the project, they describe “We are exploring how artists and audiences interact with each other and find personal meaning through digital mediums while socially distant from others.” All audience members, both in person and watching online, were given or sent a physical SensoryBox. The performance, which featured one storyteller, Mike Tan, and this mysterious SensoryBox, was performed for sold out audiences here in Calgary as well as locations across Canada and abroad. “The project brought the sense of touch into focus, which was already at the top of mind for many people both at home and abroad,” explained Ghost River Theatre. “Due to COVID-19, everything we touch is part of our consciousness. This production examined this phenomenon and also what touch means in the midst of a pandemic. We are sitting in the discomfort of the unknown, weathering the storm, waiting out what seems like an eternity. There are so many variables overwhelming all of us so we thought it would be wonderful to just sit down and focus on something joyful. After experimenting with this new form during SensoryBox , we’re eager to continue developing new productions with similar models in the future. By presenting physical objects to the viewers, especially those at home, we’re creating a bridge to the immediacy of live performance.”

Vertigo Theatre chose a different tack, and the first Vertigo Mystery Radio Podcast, "Voice on the Wire" premiered online on September 7, 2020. They partnered with Six Degrees Sound to ensure that the production was of the highest quality, and have received extremely strong positive feedback from their community, including their older audience members who were thrilled to be able to participate from home. Vertigo saw such positive results of their online work that they intend to continue this series and create a second 'stream' of work once in-person activity resumes. “The initial reviews and responses from patrons indicate an extremely high likelihood of return purchases. As we move forward, we are developing multi-pack listening packages. For example: second episode purchasers can add the first episode to their package at a discounted rate. We are also developing future episode package subscriptions that will provide loyalty discounts for future episodes.” Vertigo Theatre felt that the radio podcast not only kept them connected to their appreciative existing audience, but it also allowed them to reach further afield and develop a new audience for their work, which had been identified as a goal in their strategic plan.

Inside Out Theatre moved their community drama programs online, and managed to retain 88% of their in-person participants, while also growing new members over the course of the program. The programs were entirely accessed by their prioritized populations, namely people with disabilities, Deaf Calgarians, people with mental illness, and older people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s. They plan to continue incorporating aspects of this programming in the future and explained “While we don’t see online programming as a permanent substitution for our in-person programming, seeing everyone’s ability to create and connect together online and the now obvious benefits to physical accessibility participating from home does show us that a healthy stream of online programming that is either parallel to or intertwined with our physical programming will be a big part of our future programming.” The development of their online program “helped keep our community engaged, and sustained us for that initial period.” In his final report to the Rozsa Foundation, Col Cseke enthused “looking back at the last couple of months I’m very proud of the work our Community Programs team has done in keeping our community together and in holding fast to our mission. They’ve held a welcoming space for our community during an incredibly scary time, and we’re all grateful for it.”

Music-focused companies also approached online programming in a variety of ways. The Calgary Folk Music Festival produced Virtually Live!; 6 live streamed concerts from May 29 - July 4. The series allowed Folk Fest to retain key sponsors through continuing their programming, rather than going dormant. They also built skills and capacity during this series that they would later use to present the CFMF online in late-July. “We used the format and same production and video team for CFMF at Home on our traditional festival weekend with 18 artists over 4 days based on the experience we gained doing Virtually Live!” Perhaps most importantly, “It provided a very welcome outlet for both artists and audiences in a new dark time for live performance and much needed revenues for artists. It both aligned with, and advanced, the strategic plan as it helped us share a passion for music, foster community spirit, surprise and delight our audience, and maintain a vibrant and sustainable organization.”

Honens International Piano Competition created a 50-minute online interactive presentation to address core curriculum outcomes of both Alberta’s elementary science and music programs. The presentation, which features a pre-recorded video performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (1886) featuring Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker and Calgary broadcaster / performer Jonathan Love, was combined with a live moderated Q & A session with the performers, as well as a zoology graduate student from the University of Calgary. This engaging program, without the live aspects, can still be viewed here: Honens was both excited and overwhelmed with the interest and the reviews of this project. “Without a doubt it feels this project was worth the resources allocated to it. Honens Artistic Director Jon Kimura Parker shared an excerpt with the San Francisco Symphony audience; and its PR firm is also keen to help find other outlets for the presentation. We realized that this video project is of interest to all ages and can be adapted to many different audiences. For example, in a presentation to the music students at the Conservatory at MRU, the focus was on the music, and the process of making the video. The students were encouraged to make their own videos and explore audio and video software.”

The Choir Alberta Association approached its community with a very different kind of project. It commissioned a new piece for digital choir entitled “Reunion” by Canadian composer Jason Noble, who was chosen because of his experience composing music that includes digital effects. The project ended up including 83 singers from 53 choirs across 13 Alberta towns, and in assembling this group, the Association broadened its connection to and understanding of the choirs in the province and allowed them to work directly with their members. The idea of a digital choir and ‘convolution’ – a process where disparately recorded sounds can be placed in a unifying acoustic space – has created a whole new dimension to choral programming and a new approach to choral performance. Enjoy this unique composition here: Choir Alberta is thinking of doing another commissioned piece for digital choir in the future, potentially a piece for double choir that includes very challenging parts for trained singers as well as much more accessible parts for less experienced singers. Many choral groups across Canada have subsequently borrowed different aspects of the Choir Alberta program. The program also allowed the Choir Alberta Association to better fulfill its mandate. “The Convolution Project galvanized Choir Alberta as a nimble and innovative organization. At a time of incredible uncertainty for choirs everywhere, that we were able to offer an interesting and creative project that brought together members of the provincial choral community was meaningful, both for participants and observers. Furthermore, it established a new dimension to our programming—digital choirs—that is likely to continue well into the future.”

In the world of dance, Springboard Performance also anticipated a need to reconsider how to connect communities within art, and how art development can be supported and shared in a time of isolation. Their Five Minutes to Change the World cabaret was an opportunity for artists to feature short works as part of the digital edition of Fluid Festival, building on previous Fluid Festival programming. Artists were encouraged to develop and present work that responds to contemporary social issues and consider how we might change the world in live, embodied ways. For Springboard, the program was a successful test of a digital platform. “We were able to invest in the local dance and performance community and ensure that they had a vibrant outlet for their work - in a time offering few options for live performance creation and sharing. We were able to offer training and support in encouraging artists to think about the potential scope of the digital stage, and we were able to identify workflow and an appropriate team in the areas of filming, streaming, artist support, planning, administration, creative producing, digital marketing, and dissemination. We tested different ticketing methods, and had the chance through the fall to test, review impact, and refine through every aspect of the project.”

In each of these examples, moving programming online allowed performing arts organizations a means of keeping the all-important connection with their audiences and communities. They were able to continue making art, which benefited the artists/creators themselves,as well as the people these organizations seek to serve. As all involved were thrown into this digital evolution with no warning, there was much trial and error, training, and learning done, which every company acknowledged built necessary skills to continue some iteration of online programing in a post-COVID-19 world. Perhaps the biggest lesson to come out of all of these projects was the knowledge that audiences will follow companies online, and invest in their connection to art.

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