News: Music videos reflect Lowertown youth’s relationship to home

My family’s from Haiti, but I was born here / Because of Club 310 we have no fear / The Nights might be scary, but I’m safe in the light / And I’ve got my friends / Yeah, I’ve got my friends / We’ve got Lowertown

LT We’re the Next 2 B

Originally published in the Lowertown Echo on November 15, 2022

What does home mean to you? For the past ten years, MASC’s community program Awesome Arts en folie has felt at home in Lowertown, having hosted our eight-week residencies and festival event in partnership with the Lowertown Community Resource Centre. Through this program, our professional artists have had an opportunity to meet, collaborate and create with hundreds of Lowertown children, young people and seniors in all different art forms, and to explore what it means to belong to the Lowertown community.

Music videos have served as a powerful medium for expressing the complexities of Lowertown youth’s relationship to their neighbourhood. In collaboration with spoken word artist JustJamaal The Poet, the young people involved in the creation of these videos pen lyrics that address poverty, violence, discrimination, and isolation, while maintaining a sense of hopefulness and pride about their surroundings and their neighbours.

Videographers Craig Conoley and Randy Kelly capture the Lowertown geography from multiple angles, reflecting the perspectives of outside observers as well as the people living and working there. Locals will recognize the housing complexes, the schools, the parks, the community spaces, the street names and the businesses that make up this community.

Music videos The H.A.T.E. (Humble Ability To Empower) and SUPERGIRLS explore themes of empowerment through words and images; the former includes choreography from Bboyizm Dance Company performed by the youth, and the latter features stop-motion animation led by media artist Tina Le Moine.

Another of these videos, LT We’re the Next 2 B, has over 7000 views on MASC’s YouTube channel and was presented to a live audience at the 2016 Awesome Arts Festival. The video received a lot of meaningful feedback, including from a superintendent from one of the Lowertown apartment buildings:

According to the video description:

He said that he’d seen it all, the violence, the drugs, the cycle of poverty. But then he said that after seeing the video, the passion the youth put into the lyrics, and the love they had for their community, he said it made him resilient. He said that he wasn’t going to give up. And that he was going to go back and keep trying to make a change.

What does home mean to you? For this person, perhaps it means recognizing the reality of his surroundings–positive and negative and everything in between–and despite the challenges, choosing to stay.  Perhaps it means to embrace his community as his home and do whatever he can to ensure that others feel at home there, too.

We at MASC are looking forward to returning to Lowertown in 2023 to celebrate our 11th year of Awesome Arts en folie in the community. Together we’ll create even more works of art that reflect ourselves and our community, in all its forms.

Interview: Luciano Porto shares Brazilian culture, dance, and music with young people

Originally published on Apt613.ca

Educator and performer Luciano Porto has been teaching music and movement to school children of all ages across Ontario for 18 years. As a member of MASC’s artist roster and the English Language Arts Network (ELAN), he has reached communities across Ontario and Quebec. Porto’s teaching style translates across cultural barriers and stimulates curiosity, creativity, focus and tolerance among the most diverse groups.

As an arts educator, you’ve dedicated yourself to sharing Brazilian culture, dance, and music with young people. What inspired this career path?

Because of chronic wrist problems from various physical labour jobs, I started looking for work that didn’t require heavy lifting or repetitive motion, and I ended up working at a daycare centre in Toronto. Working with school-aged children for several years required me to design creative art activities that could keep the attention of a rowdy group of kids. I used music, drumming, and Brazilian cultural art forms, as these were at the core of all my personal artistic endeavours at the time.

Brazilian drumming and dance are very powerful community bonds and traditionally involve all age groups from children to seniors. The drumming and dance groups I was involved with in Toronto at the time lacked this multi-generational element. Thus, I wanted to bring these experiences to children I worked with.

Soon, neighbouring daycare centres and schools caught on to what I had been doing and started requesting my workshops. This led to a natural evolution into a career that has become my primary focus!

You’ve recently appeared as a stilt walker at various events, including Taste of Wellington West and Ottawa Race Weekend. What can you tell us about the process of getting up on stilts?

Getting up on stilts takes an adventurous spirit first and foremost. Secondly, it takes being in great physical shape, as in having core strength. I have been blessed to have both of those qualities from a young age.

The process of tying one’s legs to long sticks should be guided, if possible. For that, I had a wonderful mentor in Toronto, Esra Houser, who trained with the infamous stilt dancers of Trinidad, where stilting traditions are very strong. Having masterful tricks taught to you directly really helps!

After several attempts, it becomes second nature. It’s like riding a bicycle! Kids that are really scared tend to take longer to balance on a bicycle, but if they persist, they inevitably learn and no longer fear falling off.

Luciano on stilts at Ottawa Race Weekend. Courtesy of Wellington West BIA.

In your MASC program Carnaval Arts, you create costumes, masks, and musical instruments with children of all ages, and guide them in presenting their very own carnival show. How do you bring the spirit of the Brazilian Carnaval into your workshops, while still encouraging the participants to make the performance their own?

It’s very hard to bring the true spirit of Brazilian Carnaval into a classroom setting. But I do try to connect with all the intensity of emotions I have felt both on the streets of Brazil as well as in Toronto during various parades when I performed in drumming and stilting ensembles. To create energy in the room, I’ll start playing a drum, singing, and dancing in front of the kids—sometimes in full costume. After getting the attention of the kids, everything seems to flow for me. My priority is getting the children to move, play, and experience something out of the ordinary. Most children don’t seem to have any trouble making the performance their own. Coordinating all the creative minds into doing something coherent and together is the main challenge.

I use the Brazilian drumming experience to give things some structure: simple traditional rhythms, songs, and steps that everyone can follow. After everyone learns to follow a basic rhythm and movement, it’s a matter of balance between giving the children some space to deviate and pulling them back into a collective harmony.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and the community?

In our modern, affluent, and privileged society, there are still many barriers to accessing arts and culture for many communities. Though financial resources exist, they are not often directed toward the well-being of people, resulting in, among other things, art and culture funding cuts. I see that over and over again, from the classrooms to the streets where I have taken my art. Being able to expand my practice as an arts educator to reach as many children and adults as possible that can benefit from the experiences I facilitate is at the core of my drive.

That is where organizations like MASC can really support artists, like myself and the local communities they serve—creating bridges between artists and where they are needed. MASC also helps me focus on the delivery of my art programs by taking care of the admin part of contracts. I have always been an entrepreneur and have done everything from marketing to contract negotiations, grants, and logistics for all my music and education engagements, so I do fully appreciate what the staff of MASC does. It makes me feel more of an artist in the end!

Presenting a Brazilian Carnaval performance. Photo provided by MASC.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

The arts are what makes us truly human. It bonds people in expression of emotions and experiences. It brings communities together in gatherings and celebrations. It nurtures the depths of our desire to relate to one another.

Someone who has dedicated so many hours of their life to an art form becomes an incredible source of inspiration for everyone else interested in that form and medium. Artists act as magnets, catalysts of vibrant communities.

November Newsletter

November already? Time flies when you’re being creative! Read our hot-off-the-press newsletter for MASC updates and highlights, including Giving Tuesday, new MASC artists, Remembrance Day with Amanda West Lewis, podcasts from Kathryn Patricia, and Apt613 interviews with Craig Conoley, Axis Theatre, and Sultans of String.

What’s on your podcast list?

MASC artist Kathryn Patricia is an incredible advocate for arts and music education in schools. This fall, she has been a guest on a series of podcasts talking about her work in schools and communities. Click on the links below to enjoy some of her beautiful compositions in addition to insightful musings on the role of arts education.

Afternoon Ti with host Jessica Grant.

Art, Music, and Connection.

Runtime: 30:00

The Elementary School Teacher Podcast with host Jessica Peresta.

How the creative process promotes innovative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Runtime: 25:02

Trending in Education with host Michael Palmer.

The Power of Music and the Arts in Education.

Runtime: 23:11

MASC Interview: Sultans of String celebrate and share music from around the world

This interview was originally published at Apt613.ca

Sultans of String are three-time JUNO nominees and SiriusXM winners. Thrilling their audiences with their genre-hopping passport of Celtic reels, flamenco, Django-jazz, Arabic, Cuban, and South Asian rhythms, Sultans of String celebrate musical fusion and human creativity with warmth and virtuosity. They recently won Best Musical Film at the Cannes World Film Festival for The Refuge Project—Visual Album. Bandleader Chris McKhool talks about upcoming projects and the magic of being a MASC artist.


Sultans of String always seem to have so much going on! First things first, tell us what’s happening with this Sanctuary (The Refuge Project) virtual concert on Friday, November 4, at 7:30pm.

Chris McKhool: We are so excited about this show! The Sanctuary/Refuge project was designed to highlight the incredible contributions of new immigrants and refugees to Canada. As a world music band, we get so much joy from working with artists from around the world and global talents who are also ambassadors for peace. We love to celebrate the successes of those who make the journey here and bring their extraordinary talents with them, and we hope the conversations we have as musicians will provide a model for peace that will inspire our politicians and citizens.

Our November 4 concert has an incredible lineup: singer Leen Hamo and clarinet player Majd Sekkar, both exceptional musicians and refugees from Syria; Persian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and tar player Padideh Ahrarnejad; Donné Roberts from Madagascar; a scarf dance by Tamar Ilana; and Saskia Tomkins on nyckelharpa. We will broadcast live from the Zoom Room we developed during the pandemic with a six-camera shoot from our digital soundstage, the same one we use for our MASC livestreams. It’s going to be a party!

Sultans of String. Photo: Jake Jacobsen.

Rumour has it you’re raising funds to support upcoming collaborations with an impressive list of Indigenous artists (including Crystal Shawanda, Don Ross, and Dr. Duke Redbird) from across Turtle Island. What inspired this project, and what do you hope will come of it?

Yes, we are currently recording our ninth album, a beautiful collection of collaborations with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artists across Turtle Island/Canada. We want to make a difference in the world with the music we play, so we’re making this album in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and Final Report that asks for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together as an opportunity to show a path forward.

We know that, as a society, we can’t move ahead without acknowledging and reflecting on the past. Before reconciliation can occur, the full truth of the Indigenous experience in this country needs to be told, so we’ve been inviting Indigenous artists to share their stories, their experiences, and their lives, so we settler Canadians can continue our learning about the history of residential schools, cultural genocide, and intergenerational impacts of colonization.

Sultans of String. Photo: David McDonald.

Sultans of String has been around since 2007, and you’ve worked with so many other artists. Over the past 15 years, what have you learned about what makes a good collaboration?

For us, it starts with an idea, something that we feel is important and needs to be said, and then reaching out to people we want to share voices and opinions with. We need a space and platform where everyone can be heard equally and contribute to the song. Also, we need to be open to new ideas and work together to come up with a statement or piece of art that captures elements of all the ideas that people are contributing.

In our current project, we are collaborating with the group Northern Cree, who create Pow Wow music that is outside of our typical song form. This requires a deep dive to figure out how to bridge our two musical worlds without interfering with or changing the core of what Northern Cree does. The pieces finally fell into place, and we unlocked the way for the musical worlds to connect in a respectful way. It has grown from there, and now the piece keeps morphing and changing. It is like watching a tree grow from seed right in front of our eyes.

Northern Cree and Chris McKhool. Photo: Chris McKhool.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and the community?

I really love sharing music and stories through the arts with audiences of all ages. It is a great way to connect with others and share thoughts and ideas that are important to me, as there is an element of community-building in the presentations we develop. Of course, it is only a concert if there is an audience, and as artists, we receive a lot of energy from presenting our work—especially when working in schools! It is a true joy to feel the energy of the students, to see the musical spark in them as they ask questions, and to imagine the amazing music and art they are going to create as they get older.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

For some, school is the only place where they may have exposure to the arts, so it is super important that we provide artistic works at a high level for students. Young people, just like adults, use the arts to make sense of the world around them and the complex feelings they experience.

I was personally very inspired as a young musician by seeing performances throughout my elementary and secondary years, and that was a very important part of my development in becoming an artist myself. I was exposed to concerts at my school, performances out in the community, and even seeing the National Arts Centre Orchestra. These experiences were all part of the big picture I formed of the depth and breadth of what was musically possible.

MASC Interview: Axis Theatre shares Indigenous stories with young audiences

Originally published at Apt613.ca

Axis Theatre focuses on engaging young and young-at-heart audiences. The company’s members live, work, and play on the unceded and traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples–sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations. In this interview, Artistic Director Chris McGregor talks about reaching new audiences during the pandemic and beyond.

Axis Theatre’s productions of Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish and Kwi’ah: The Girl Who Heals are inspired by Kwantlen First Nation tales. What inspired this working relationship with Joseph A. Dandurand (Kwantlen First Nation), and how has this collaboration influenced the focus of your company?

In 2015, Joseph contacted me through email and sent me one of his scripts, Don’t Touch the Indians. I really liked his writing style; however, the play was for an adult audience, so I asked if he had any scripts for young people, specifically elementary school ages. He said that he did, but it was on a floppy disk—you know, what we used in the olden days—something he wrote 25 years ago while he was an intern at the Canadian Museum of History.

A few days later, he sent me Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish, a script that combined three Kwantlen First Nations tales. Axis Theatre workshopped the script a few times, reduced the number of characters, and then mounted a full production with six performers.

Our relationship with Joseph has blossomed over the several years of collaboration. Axis Theatre has been introduced to so many talented Indigenous performers, visual artists, designers, builders and musicians—cultural practitioners from all walks of life. These relationships have enriched Axis Theatre’s work, and many of these contacts have worked on other projects with us. Most importantly, we are employing these artists and giving them the stage and a voice to tell Indigenous stories to young people. It is a beautiful relationship and one that we continue with new playwrights and emerging artists.

Joseph A. Dandurand. Photo provided by Axis Theatre.

During the pandemic, many artists shifted to an online medium to continue connecting with their audiences. The “liveness” of theatre is often challenging to capture on film, but your company has managed it beautifully. What were some of the challenges and opportunities in sharing this theatrical production via film?

We were met with several challenges moving from a live medium into a digital format. I would say that the biggest challenge was the actual filming during the height of the pandemic. We followed very strict health protocols to ensure the safety of the cast and the crew—our staff took on new, sometimes unfamiliar roles to support the filming process. Coordinating the filming involved the schedules of more than twice as many people as we normally work with on live production, and it is very expensive. However, we overcame those hurdles and delivered a film that we are very proud of.

There was a larger demand for the film than we anticipated, which was thrilling and brought in our only income during the pandemic, with live touring at a complete standstill. Our work was introduced to communities across Canada, to new contacts and familiar ones, an audience we would have lost contact with if we hadn’t taken the risk of adjusting how we share our plays. Even more than with our live productions, we heard from young people who shared how much they enjoyed the film and what specifically spoke to them through letters and drawings. This feedback overshadowed any challenges, and we are so thankful to be able to give people access to Indigenous stories that interest and educate them.

Kwi’ah: The Girl Who Heals. Photo provided by Axis Theatre.

Your productions often incorporate red-nose clown, mime, movement, mask work, and puppetry. What about these tools and practices do you find especially useful in sharing First Nations’ stories?

These theatrical practices help engage our audiences and happen to be the areas of theatre I, as artistic director, have studied and taught. Th’owxiya uses direct address to the audience: sometimes there are questions the characters ask of the audience, and sometimes the answers are a surprise! This style is very indicative of Indigenous storytelling and incorporates clown and improvisation aspects, too. When the performers practice clowning and improvisation in rehearsal, they learn the skills that help create a dialogue with the audience and the tools to maintain the story without going off track. This way, the audience feels they are a part of the journey rather than just spectators. This interaction makes it fun for the performers as well, keeping it fresh and alive—who knows what each audience may bring! Every performance is a story just for that audience, a performance just for them.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your performances in schools and the community?

Through MASC, we’ve had the opportunity to offer virtual talkbacks with Joseph following the performances. Students usually have many questions about the history behind the script and characters: Are the spirits real? Where do the stories come from? Joseph has a wry sense of humour and an abundance of knowledge, so he truly enjoys sharing his history, culture and art with young people across Canada.

Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish. Photo provided by Axis Theatre.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

I think it is important to experience the talents of those who dedicate themselves to their art and know that it is a real profession, not just something that will make you famous or earn someone a lot of money. For Axis Theatre, having professional artists involved is essential to the success and integrity of our productions. They have been well-trained in their craft; they do lots of research about the stories, people, customs and traditions that make up our Indigenous plays and our other work. The many artists involved, from designers to painters, carvers, weavers, and performers, in the making of this production, take their craft very seriously and know how to engage young audiences. There is a passion and dedication that professional artists share that can inspire young people to find their own passion and follow their dreams, regardless of the obstacles.

MASC Interview: Craig Conoley helps students tell stories through video

This interview was originally published on Apt613.ca

Craig Conoley is an award-winning digital content producer and director with over ten years of experience working in advertising and documentary production. Craig has been working with MASC through the Awesome Arts en folie program since 2014, and now, as a roster artist, collaborates with participants to create mini-documentaries, cinepoems, and music videos.

You’ve been doing music videos and cinepoems as part of the MASC Awesome Arts en folie program for many years. What made you want to join the MASC roster last year in a more official capacity?

It was a conscious decision to lean into the things I love, the things I’m good at, and the things I’m most passionate about. For me, that meant sharing my love for storytelling, my creative abilities as a writer, producer, director and video editor, and my passion for teaching. Having worked in advertising for the last eight years, and now having seen the effects of the pandemic on younger generations in the schools, I believe more strongly in cultivating opportunities for students to share their stories, perspectives, and hopes.

Recording session. Photo: Craig Conoley.

Your MASC workshops focus on helping students create stories on their cell phones. Tell us about the importance of making videography accessible to young people who may not have access to all forms of technology.

The exciting thing about cell phone-based videography is that traditional barriers of entry to video production are thinning due to advances in cell phone camera hardware and software. Like the printing press before it, the cellphone + the internet is democratizing mass media, giving way to new stories, with new perspectives and new representations. In this context, I think it’s important that our youth understand how to safely harness the power of their cellphones to not only share rich and meaningful personal/community-based content, but also take back storytelling as a sort of “act of resistance” or a “taking back” of the form.

Making video content. Photo: Craig Conoley.

You’ve collaborated with a bunch of MASC artists and local folks over the years. Who are your favourite (types of) people to collaborate with and why?

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with some truly amazing MASC artists, including spoken-word artists, musicians, muralists, dancers, and animators. Regardless of their creative medium, all MASC artists have two things in common: a high level of skill for their craft, and a deep altruistic desire to share their love of storytelling with others. It’s amazing to see the many unique and inspiring ways MASC artists reframe the world, themselves, and others while building community and inspiring creativity. My favourite people to collaborate with on workshops are those who share these things, and who also love the idea of incorporating a video element into their current curriculum.

Learning about video storytelling. Photo: Craig Conoley.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and the community?

Having worked with MASC for almost ten years now, I’ve gained a tremendous sense of purpose and affirmation. Purpose comes from turning a more passive relationship with storytelling into a more active and community-based experience, one that benefits others beyond the screens I’ve spent so much time in front of. I also recognize that in my own life, storytelling, or just being creative, has always been an agent of self-healing when faced with trauma and challenge. When you see students creating personal stories that have the same function in their lives, it’s incredibly affirming. From cave paintings to simple conversation, storytelling has the twofold power of healing both teller and listener. When you witness students using storytelling with agency rather than being passive consumers of it, it creates a sense of pride in what I do.

Craig with some satisfied students. Photo: Craig Conoley.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

Someone once told me that only about 1,000-2,000 people in Hollywood and the media control the kind of content we consume daily, the kind of content that profoundly shapes our worldview. These gatekeepers unfortunately don’t often represent the diversity that exists in our world. If you think about the power these individuals have in shaping our perceptions of the self and the other, you can feel quite removed from the media machine and those who exert so much consequence in our lives. Now, with the rise of the influencer and the means to produce and distribute your own professional-looking video content, perhaps we feel a little closer to having agency. Perhaps there is now, more than ever before, an opportunity to insert our story into the mix. When the car was invented and released for public consumption, it had no seat belts. Like the car, the internet has no seatbelts, and the ethics that should go along with using the medium often trail behind the invention. Professional artists, especially those utilizing the internet with students, help to instil some of the missing ethics that will help young content creators navigate sharing personal and creative content online.

MASC Interview: Janie Renée

This interview was originally published on Apt613.ca

Janie Renée is a Franco-Ontarian multidisciplinary and creative artist and songwriter who has been delivering workshops for over 30 years. She offers writing and drama programs, helping participants develop their skills by introducing them to the essentials of creation, production, and stage performance. On stage, she is often found partnering with musicians from different backgrounds. Behind the scenes, she lends her pen to numerous projects for young and old and is a fan of cultural mediation of all kinds.

Congratulations on joining the MASC roster! You offer such a wide range of programs in English and French: poetry, theatre, music, shadow puppetry. What led you to embrace all these different artistic disciplines?

Ahhhh… when you’re an artist, and you don’t have a lot of money for video equipment to produce videos, you make extraordinary discoveries using the tools at your disposal! Marionettes, sets made of cardboard, and shadow theatre are all part of these discoveries. I experimented, I tested, I learned… and I want to share all these discoveries with those who participate in MASC’s programs. In terms of poetry and songwriting, those have been my passions since I was a little girl because I wrote my first song at the age of 11. I think I have become a master of words; I have tamed them over the years.

One of Janie Renée’s workshops. Photo provided by MASC.

We’re looking forward to celebrating Franco-Ontarian Day on September 25. You have had a long music career in French Ontario and know very well the artists who forged the foundations of Franco-Ontarian music. What are the things most people don’t know about the roots of this music?

When Franco-Ontarian song music developed, there were two creative centres that were different due to geography, but also because of their circumstances and the nature of the creation. There was something bubbling in the Ottawa region, as well as in the Sudbury region. The north is more often mentioned than the rest of the province when we talk about the history of Franco-Ontarian song, perhaps because of the uniqueness of what was being created in the region. The first Franco-Ontarian song to gain international recognition was by an artist from the Embrun region, Monique Brunet, who won first prize at the Spa festival in Belgium around 1967. She was perhaps the first Franco-Ontarian woman to be recognized for her songs! (For a little perspective: Paquette arrived in the 1970s, CANO in 1975, Paul Demers and Purlaine in 1978).

In your bio, you say you’re especially interested in jazz and polyrhythm. Most people know what jazz is! But how would you describe polyrhythm, and why are you drawn to it?

In fact, I’ll point out that people don’t know much about how varied jazz is and associate it by default with freestyle jazz: sometimes tenuous and dissonant chords, little apparent structure and somewhat crazy, virtuosic soloists. But in sung jazz, by necessity, you must have a structure and a relative order. Besides that, writing jazz in French is difficult because of prosody—the way the words and the cadence of the text lyrics match the rhythm and the melody. Polyrhythm is the layering of rhythms that gives way to syncopations and often the “swing” of jazz: These are more complex rhythms, but super interesting ones! The great jazz musicians (Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Dave Brubeck etc.) have all made forays into Brazilian, Cuban, Martinique and African rhythms because they are composed of polyrhythms, and it inspired them to develop other forms of jazz.

One of Janie Renée’s workshops. Photo provided by MASC.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and the community?

By nature, I am someone who loves the spirit of sharing and cultural mediation, so it is natural for me to practice these by offering workshops. I like to witness the sparks of understanding, discovery, and to accompany the participants through the exploration and development of new skills. And in general, I have developed that “magic” touch to help participants in their creative process, to make them feel proud of what they’ve accomplished.

One of Janie Renée’s workshops. Photo provided by MASC.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

Art, in all its forms, is both a socially acceptable way to externalize an experience or a feeling and also a place where exploration, discovery, and connectivity are allowed. There is less formatting in the arts than in mathematics, where the result is directed, demanded, and there is only one possible answer. That said, since everything is, after all, connected—math can be useful in the creative process—inspiration and creation are within everyone’s reach. It’s unfortunate that institutions don’t place a great deal of importance on arts or expression; it is assumed to be an individualistic venture (a student taking music or art classes) rather than a unifying force that facilitates togetherness within a community and provides opportunities for innovation through creative projects that don’t fit into boxes.

Interview: Amanda West Lewis uses her writing to see the world from a child’s perspective

This interview was originally published on Apt613.ca

Amanda West Lewis  is dedicated to words. Words on the page and words on the stage. Her eight books for children and youth range from non-fiction books to historical novels. She has a particular interest in creating historically relevant stories for young people. In this interview, Amanda talks about sharing her love of words when presenting workshops in theatre, writing, and calligraphy to children, youth, and adults.

Amanda West Lewis. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: We were excited to learn last week that your manuscript Focus. Click. Wind. has been selected for a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2020 Young Adult Work-in-Progress Award. Congratulations! Your novel is set during the Vietnam War. Why do you feel you are drawn to the environment of war in your work?

Amanda West Lewis: First of all, thank you – I must admit I was very excited to win this award. It is an international competition, and my manuscript was the only one selected in the Young Adult category. It’s a story that I am passionate about, so I am thrilled.

I don’t know that I set out to be “drawn” to writing about war, but the more I have studied and researched, the more I realize that wars have a profound impact on children.

Wars are fought over ideals and territories. Or at least, that is what adults tell each other. But children don’t have much of an experience of the world outside of their home environment. How can they possibly understand when an adult says that it is necessary to kill someone for a political ideology that is different from their own? We tell children to share, and then we tell them that people are being killed because they disagree over a land boundary.

What I am interested in is how to see the world through the perspective of children. That perspective is, I think, quite unique in times of crisis. Wars exemplify everything that we tell children not to do. How is it possible to live with that level of conflict as you are trying to understand the world around you?

MASC: You’ve also written historical novels and non-fiction books that focus on war from a child’s perspective, touching on propaganda, indoctrination, racism, and survival. What do you have to keep in mind when writing about harsh subjects for much younger audiences?

When we talk about “harsh subjects” I think that what we are actually saying is that we, as adults, do things that we are horrified by, for which we have little or no explanation. How on earth can we explain that to children in our care? Who can “explain” the Holocaust to a child?

We can’t hide these truths, but we don’t want to brutalize children. So I try to give everyone in my books a human face. I want to show that people make choices, and they have to live by the consequences of those choices. By putting horror—real, human horror—in a real, human context, and showing how people respond, I hope that I’m opening the door for a discussion. Because in the end, there are no answers to these questions, only good dialogues.

What drives me is my enormous respect for children and young adults. I value their perspective on the world and think we need to listen to them much more than we do. If we could do that, perhaps they could help us to make the world a better place.

Amanda West Lewis teaching a workshop. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: The workshops you offer through MASC are as diverse as your many talents as a writer, theatre artist, and calligrapher! What do you think is the relationship between how words sound, what they mean, and what they look like? How do you describe this to participants in your workshops?

There is a direct relationship between the way we experience words and how we think. As a calligrapher, I am intimately involved with lines, shapes, and colours. These evoke responses in the viewer. What’s thrilling to me is that there is the additional element of literacy involved. Letters, put together, mean something.

But letters are, initially, sound. So I will often start a workshop with a vocal warm-up, to reconnect us to the sound of words. Humans come to speech naturally, and each of us owns the sounds that are familiar to us. However, reading and writing is something we must teach and each of us struggles with it in our own ways. By going back to our initial, personal experience of language, I think we can then move on to how we want to use it to express ideas, thoughts, and emotions on the page or on the stage.

MASC: Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

Professional artists have spent years refining their skills so that they can explore and experiment with ideas, big and small. Their work helps people articulate thoughts and feelings. Artists inspire, incite, excite, enrage, engage, and evoke new ways of looking at the world. They help us to embrace being human.

MASC: As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community? How has working with students inspired your broader practice?

I learn from every student I interact with. We all know that it takes someone from outside of our usual environment to help us to question what we take for granted. Young people help me to see what I should be asking questions about. They help me to see my own preconceptions and biases. They help me to see what matters to them, in their world. And I love what they teach me about how they use language and how they see their world. With luck, I am able to give them a few new tools and ideas so that they can tell their stories to the rest of us.

Festival Awesome Arts en folie returns to Ottawa

MASC hosts Festival Awesome Arts en folie on April 14th, 2022, from 6pm to 8pm, livestreamed across Canada from the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG). Featuring the work of children, youth, and seniors from Lowertown, Sandy Hill, Vanier, and Riverside Park, the evening will celebrate the resiliency and diversity of Ottawa’s artists and communities.  

Headlining the bilingual event are MASC artists Indigenous Experiences, Jacqui Du Toit, Kuljit Sodhi, Medhi Cayenne, and Simon Brascoupe. Afro-Caribbean dancer Suzan Richards will host the event, and DJ Seiiizi leads the pre-festival dance party.  

The evening will also include performances of children and youth from Viscount Alexander Public School, York Street Public School, Francojeunesse, and Sainte-Anne Elementary School led by MASC artists Wise Atangana, JustJamaal ThePoet, Jacqui Du Toit, Tina Le Moine, Kuljit Sodhi, Junkyard Symphony, Fana Soro, and Bboyizm Dance Company, as well as a montage of community murals led by Claudia Salguero, Kseniya Tsoy, Jimmy Baptiste and Nicole Bélanger. 

“Awesome Arts en folie has been such a positive intergenerational event in our community! It serves as an opportunity for diverse creative minds to come together and share their point of view through art.”

Mathieu Fleury, City Councillor for Rideau-Vanier Ward in Ottawa, who will be in attendance at this year’s festival

In addition to the evening of celebration, visitors to the OAG between March 25th and April 17th will be able to view the mural created by Nicole Bélanger and the students of École élémentaire publique Francojeunesse. Each student has created an individual piece that, placed together, form the stunning mural on display at the OAG.  

“MASC has jumped through many hoops over the last couple of years. We’ve perfected our online programming, and now we’re ready to explore a hybrid model that is even more inclusive to the communities we serve. Plus, have you seen our line up? Canada, you’re in for a treat!”

Jessica Ruano, Community Program Director for MASC

This year’s Awesome Arts en folie Festival is supported by Reconnect Ontario, Ottawa Bilingue (ACFO), Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, Boys & Girls Club, Ottawa Markets, Lowertown Community Association, Lowertown Community Resource Centre, Ottawa Art Gallery, Christie Lake Kids, and Riverside Community Association

About Awesome Arts: 

Awesome Arts is a community engaged program that allows participants of all ages to explore issues important to their community through the arts. Held in partnership with community organizations, Awesome Arts offers an exciting series of workshops in all artistic disciplines that culminate in a public celebration. The Awesome Arts Festival brings the community together for an evening of celebration during which the participants share their creations. The festival also features professional artists, inspiring the entire community to remain connected with the arts and the issues. 

About Ottawa Art Gallery: 

The OAG is an independent, not-for-profit, charitable organization governed by a volunteer board of directors. It was founded in 1988 as the Gallery at Arts Court by a group of local artists and community leaders and renamed the Ottawa Art Gallery in 1992. As a leader in the arts community, OAG presents new ideas and provide a cultural meeting place to actively promote relationships and exchanges between artists and various diverse facets of our community. OAG explores and reflects on diversity and social change through a spectrum of visual arts practice, focused on but not exclusive to the region in a national and international context. Over time, the OAG has built a significant permanent collection that now numbers more than 1,020 works including paintings, sculpture, graphic arts, photographs, and new media. 

Interview: Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre explore infinite world of possibilities in puppetry

This interview was originally published on Apt613.ca

Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre has toured across Canada and the U.S. since 1978 with over 100 performances a year in schools, libraries, children’s festivals, and theatres. Kathy MacLellan has also written for children’s TV shows including Mr. DressupUnder the Umbrella Tree, and Theodore Tugboat. John Nolan appeared as Jackson on the YTV show Crazy Quilt. In this interview, Kathy talks about the infinite world of possibilities in puppetry — whether live onstage or at a distance on screen.

Kathy MacLellan of Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: You may not know this about me, but I am a total puppet nerd, and in fact dedicated part of my Master’s thesis to deconstructing puppet theory, recognizing puppets as balancing on the threshold between life and death, embodying the qualities of both animate and inanimate objects… Do you think much about the philosophy and theology behind puppeteering, and how does that translate into your work?

The philosophy and theology are, in a nutshell, the magic of puppetry. A puppet is an abstract object. It encourages the audience to use their imagination and suspend their disbelief. This gets them more involved.

I pour my thoughts and feelings into the puppet, audience members project their own thoughts and feelings onto it, and we meet in the middle. As puppeteers, we have control over this little world, but in our approach, it’s a benign and loving authority, “comme des anges.”

Using puppets gives us freedom – a character can fly, jump off a roof, or dance on a teacher’s head. We are also inspired by the way that children play with toys – creatively, imaginatively, and cooperatively. When kids play like that with toys, they learn that they can shape their own stories, and perhaps their own destinies. Maybe change the world into a more loving, co-operative, and benevolent place.

Does the inside of your house look like a magical puppet fantasy land? Otherwise where do you create your puppets and where do you house all your creations and materials?

We live in a wonderfully normal-looking house in Orleans, with a two-car garage and an unfinished basement. The garage has shelving on three sides, full of sturdy boxes containing sets, props, and puppets for twenty different shows.

Various creative projects are always on the go in the main part of the house – sewing, knitting, design sketches, creative writing ideas, and the computers that help run the business. The basement is action central for John’s woodworking, sculpting, and bicycle maintenance. It’s also home to a lot of storage for items that could make it into a show some day – fabric, costumes, hats, interesting antique objects, and old toys. We love toys! Toys from our childhoods, toys that our kids have outgrown, and toys from thrift stores. And lately, the basement has also become a surprisingly well-equipped studio for recording, streaming, and hosting online events.

With your live performances, you present intimate and innovative theatre experiences for school and family audiences. How has this changed with your online programming? What new discoveries have you made about your art form and how you connect with audiences?

With our new basement studio, using close-ups, eye contact, and live interaction, we can be even more intimate and innovative! Our first event was the livestream of Felicity Falls, through the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms program. With one camera in a fixed position, we took a week to figure out how to move into close-ups and long shots, keep all the props organized, and keep going for the whole show.

We had over 3,000 views, and many heartwarming comments. Since then, we have taught drama classes online with Ottawa Children’s Theatre, performed online for a Montreal library and, thanks to Ottawa Community Foundation, launched Snippets — staged readings with special guests. Our first guest was Nadia Sammurtok from Iqaluit, and the audience included people from as far away as Vancouver and Mexico! Schools and communities can book a whole show from us — like Felicity Falls — or one story, like Peter Rabbit, from “Hippity Hoppity Snippets.”

Kathy MacLellan and John Nolan of Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre. Photo provided by MASC.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?

Some of my most poignant memories feature work with kids who have special needs: one girl who had never spoken before suddenly found her voice to make her puppet talk; another boy joined a group in one of our workshops and, for the first time ever, made friends at school.

I love the roar of the crowd when something is funny, and the absolute silence in a moment of tension. I also love how MASC connects us with other artists who work in schools and communities like we do. It’s great to share and learn from their experiences and approaches.

I value the input, advice and friendship I’ve had for many years with MASC staff, brainstorming solutions, fleshing out ideas, and sharing laughs. As Chair of the MASC Board of Directors for many years, I am very proud of things that were accomplished during my tenure.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

Art experiences and communal events are essential to any community’s quality of life. When a school group meets in the gym, staff and kids laugh together, think about new things, learn a bit about empathy and caring, see things from another point of view, and talk about it afterwards.

It’s also important that people see artists who live in their own city, that it’s possible to make a living in the arts, find a job that you love, work at something meaningful, and feel that you are making a difference. Some kids love sports and find a place to belong in that world. Others will only thrive and survive if they can find a way to express themselves through the arts. In our small way, we are throwing a lifeline to those kids. Life is beautiful and worth living, we say to them, and so are you.

Interview: Amanda Lewis, Founder and Artistic Director of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre

This interview was originally published on Apt613.ca

The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, founded in 2013, is dedicated to theatre that is by, for, and about young people and specializes in many areas of drama including voice and movement, improvisation, acting techniques, Shakespeare, musical theatre, and collective creation. This week, founder and director Amanda Lewis talks about transitioning to virtual classes and launching their first online summer camps.

MASC: When COVID-19 threatened the existence of your Ottawa Children’s Theatre classes and camps, you were tempted to give up — but instead you went online. What made you feel that the virtual move was worth the risk?

Amanda Lewis: First and foremost, it was because of the children. I knew that many of them would feel adrift during this strange time and I wanted them to have familiar faces to connect with. I wanted them to know that they could continue learning and having fun, but most importantly I wanted them to feel seen and heard and valued. I wanted to give them a small sense of normalcy by continuing their relationship with a trusted and familiar instructor. Over the years we have built a strong community of students, parents, and artists/instructors. I wanted to keep all of us connected as we navigated the huge upheaval in our world.

Young actors with Ottawa Children’s Theatre. Photo provided by MASC.

We know that there are challenges in doing things virtually, especially with drama classes where children and youth play off the energy of a shared space. But what are some of the positive aspects you’ve discovered?

The space that we create online is quite intimate. The kids see us in our homes, and see us struggling with self-isolation in similar ways to what they’re going through. They are aware that we’re sharing a unique moment, and this seems to give them an additional capacity to trust us. Young people who were very shy are opening up with new confidence because they feel safe in their own space.

Now more than ever, the arts can provide a platform for people to ask big questions and explore what is fundamentally important to them. 

One of the really unexpected positive outcomes is that we are working collaboratively with our students to problem-solve. They are helping us to discover what works and what doesn’t in this new medium. This means students and artists/instructors are learning together, which is creatively empowering for all of us.

Young actors with Ottawa Children’s Theatre. Photo provided by MASC.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?

We’ve been a part of the pilot project of MASC’s online workshops and it’s been really exciting to connect with the teachers in schools. I think it has been wonderful for them to see their students playing and exploring together. This has been such a stressful time, so having a chance to laugh and create together has been enriching for us.

Young actors with Ottawa Children’s Theatre. Photo provided by MASC.

Whether we are online or on-site, each MASC workshop is a unique experience that requires us to be open and receptive to the individuals in the room. As a visiting artist to a classroom or community group, you can feel very vulnerable going into a situation where you are “the visitor.” The participants know each other and their environment; whereas we are the outsiders, and we don’t know how we will be received. Each workshop feels like a risk. But I think because of that risk, that opportunity provided to us by MASC, we become better artists. I think that in that space, that space of our vulnerability, we “renew our vows” as artists.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

Now more than ever, the arts can provide a platform for people to ask big questions and explore what is fundamentally important to them. All artistic disciplines encourage you to discover what it means to you to be a unique human being, and what it means to share that discovery with other people. I can’t really think of anything more important for building a caring and empathetic community.

Young actors with Ottawa Children’s Theatre. Photo provided by MASC.

We could all use some heartwarming stories right now. Since you’ve begun this online venture, what have been some of your most inspiring interactions with your students?

I was teaching an acting class recently and had been frustrated that we hadn’t built the ensemble in the way that we usually do in the studio. There didn’t seem to be a way to develop a group dynamic. But then I tried a solo exercise called “What’s Beyond.” Each student had to develop a small scenario in which they entered into the space from beyond the boundary of the frame. They come on with an attitude or mood, entering because of whatever has happened “off stage.” Then they do something in the space of the frame and exit.

But I think because of that risk, that opportunity provided to us by MASC, we become better artists. I think that in that space, that space of our vulnerability, we “renew our vows” as artists.

As I spotlighted each performer, I realized that we were exploring the very essence of theatre. If you define theatre as “an empty space in which something happens” and you define your own personal theatre space as your Zoom box, you can create your story in that small stage. And as each of these students performed their simple, meaningful stories on their own stages, I could see them as unique individuals coming together for a moment in time. I watched them watch each other, delighting in our shared, basic humanity. We were connected in this magic space. It was a huge light bulb moment for me.