Interview with Janie Renée

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Interview: Leslie McCurdy works to alleviate anti-Black racism through her art and activism

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Leslie McCurdy has numerous stage, film, and TV credits but is best known for the one-woman plays that she wrote and has performed for over 20 years. The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, her first play, was a finalist for a Canadian Chalmers Award for Best New Play for Young Audiences. Her second play, Things My Fore-Sisters Saw, was filmed for TV and premiered on the Bravo Network in Canada in February 2006. In this interview, Leslie talks about relationships: between herself and her the women she represents onstage, between activism and art, and between racism, slavery and the economy.

Leslie McCurdy. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: It is incredible (though not surprising!) that you’ve been successfully performing The Spirit of Harriet Tubman for over 20 years. What do you feel gives this particular story and your performance of it such staying power, especially in schools?

Leslie McCurdy: I have always been a little surprised at the response that I receive performing The Spirit of Harriet Tubman. I know that Harriet Tubman is a fabulous character to be recreating; she was such a formidable fighter for human rights as a woman and particularly a Black woman, but I don’t get to experience my performance live, so I can’t speak about it. I have been told that it is powerful and inspirational and shares so much information about Harriet Tubman as a person, so I humbly accept that. I know that I love performing it, so perhaps that resonates as well.

You are described as both an artist and an activist. For you, are these identities merely intertwined, or indistinguishable from each other? How does your experience as a Black woman influence your approach to art and activism?

My activism is born of my art. I literally tripped, fractured my hip, and fell into performing the way that I do. Having my druthers, I would have been a modern dancer in New York City, but fate had a different plan. I started performing Harriet Tubman because of that accident, and then discovered I was considered an artist for my work writing and performing the play. It was the questioning by students that followed performances and things occurring in the world around me that catalyzed my activism. I began connecting the legacy of slavery and racism with our world as it is today and pointing out that, in many ways, we haven’t come very far. It became my purpose to share some of my personal experiences and philosophies to illustrate what, in my belief, our world could be. That has now extended to my being an activist in my home community, working to alleviate anti-Black racism where it exists in various guises and institutions. Now, I create art specifically to address that.

A performance of The Spirit of Harriet Tubman at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in St. Catharine’s, Ontario. Photo provided by MASC.

In the documentary film “The Leslie McCurdy Story: On the Money,” currently streaming on CBC Gem, you talk about the relationship between racism, slavery, and the economy. We now have a Black woman—Viola Desmond—on our 10-dollar bill. What is the significance of this recognition of her legacy?

I’m not sure if the relationship between the economy and slavery/racism is something that was considered when Viola Desmond was selected to be the new face on our 10-dollar bill. It was primarily about getting a woman “on the money” and her sister, Wanda Robson and a historian, Graham Reynolds, worked hard to have her selected. I also don’t think that most people are cognitive of this relationship. It is not something that is readily taught in school curricula. Most people, outside of Nova Scotia, don’t even know of the civil rights stance that Viola took. I know that the orientation of the bill, from horizontal to vertical, is supposed to be indicative of “a new direction” that Canada is going to take in becoming a world leader in civil and human rights, but there is still so much resistance, from the Prime Minister on down, to disrupting the institutions and practices that allow for the existence of racism, sexism, ableism, religionism, genderism, etc. because of the power dynamics built into our current economic model where the influence of money is inherent in all decisions made.

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

Well, I get to be a working artist first and foremost, for which I am eternally grateful. It was one of MASC’s founders, Jennifer Cayley, who “discovered” me.

I have had opportunities to help students find their own voices. I remember one time, after a performance of my other play, Things My Fore-Sisters Saw, an Indigenous student came to talk to me at length about the history of her people having been erased, and I encouraged her to tell the stories. I explained that when I started, the history of Black people in Canada was also ignored/erased for the most part and how I believe my work helped to initiate changes to that. I told her that she could have the same impact in telling the stories of her people truthfully. After our conversation, a teacher told me that she had never self-identified as Indigenous before. Then there was the young man, who was said to be “troubled” and not very vocal, who stayed after all of the other students had left to tell me that The Spirit of Harriet Tubman was, in his opinion, a “beautiful play” and how inspirational it was to him. The supervising teacher told me that speaking to a stranger like that was not something that he did readily or easily. Knowing that my work can impact children in this way is what keeps me going.

Leslie in The Spirit of Harriet Tubman. Photo provided by MASC.

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

Artists, whether professional or not, often view the world differently and/or have the courage to use their art to speak to concepts that aren’t easily heard/understood otherwise. The “professional” part comes when others value their work and pay for it. The value of arts in a community is hard to measure and I hate to imagine what our world would be like without artists, of all genres, trying to challenge us to be better versions of ourselves. It is art that keeps us grounded in our humanity. In my humble opinion, we need a lot more grounding lately, thus a lot more art.

Interview: Eleanor Crowder, Actor, Director and Playwright

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Eleanor Crowder is an award-winning actor, playwright, and director. She is a member of several artist collectives, including Bear & Co.Calalou, The Skin Songs Collective, and The AWAY Collective. With MASC, Eleanor works in classrooms to explore text and dramatic creation, online in the delivery of these programs, and with the seniors program, where she and storyteller Katherine Grier have developed two shows, SMILE and GROOVE.

Eleanor Crowder. Photo provide by MASC.

MASC: In the summertime, we can usually find you involved in one of Bear & Co.’s summer Shakespeare productions. How is this summer different and what have you been up to?

Eleanor Crowder: This is the first time in 25 years I have not been under a tree with a script in my hand! Shakespeare and breezes go very well together. It has felt a bit jangly. But I have been kayaking and swimming more days than I would usually. I love summer, which is why outdoor theatre is a defining part of my life. I do miss the camaraderie. We have kept at the text work with the lovely cast of Two Gentlemen of Verona, but Bear & Co.’s next show will be summer 2021.

I have online classes two nights a week, and I have been at my desk much more than I like. But to good effect: I completed a draft of the Away script in mid-June and sent it off for Jane Urquhart’s reaction.

I will be teaching Odyssey Theatre’s Youth Apprentices, a totally online course, in August. That’s a challenge, since commedia dell’arte is such a physical form. I am looking forward to seeing how we can make a series of on-screen boxes hop as a venue for physical comedy.

Eleanor Crowder. Photo provide by MASC.

MASC: As a playwright, director, producer, and actor, a lot of your time is spent in the theatre. With the pandemic necessitating the temporary closure and soon the partial reopening of theatre spaces, how do you think theatre companies – including yours – will adapt?

EC: Oh, this is the big question, isn’t it? We have all been rolling this around the Zoom and phone conversations. What is it that makes theatre so special? The circle of attention from the audience, the almost subliminal sync of performers, the sheer pleasure of being in a circle of story or song around a fire it’s the shared creative collusion that is so powerful. The act of making an imagined world.

Audiences in beleaguered situations actually thrive on that difficulty. No one ever forgets the show we stood in the rain for. The one lit by nightlights on the floor in a prison cell. But the new difficulty is physical distance. In the last decade or so there’s actually a science of proxemics: how tight to pack an audience to build shared laughs, to get the frisson that makes theatre ripple. Audiences actually share breath and muscle rhythm when they really enjoy themselves. What does it mean? We will need to evoke a much more internal response.

Artistically, tiny audiences can be magical. The intimacy of the exchange is very real. But budgets are based on houses of 100, not 50. Bear & Co. has a solo show in the works and a big cast show. We are crunching numbers to see what is possible.

What is it that makes theatre so special? The circle of attention from the audience, the almost subliminal sync of performers, the sheer pleasure of being in a circle of story or song around a fire it’s the shared creative collusion that is so powerful.

As for our Christmas show, we are still very unsure about whether we can even sing at all. There’s talk of Plexiglas booths and shields on hand-held mikes. Will the audience still be invited to carol sing?

As of last week, Phase 3, we can put 50 in a theatre. That’s huge! Being able to open a theatre feels normal. I think I slept deeper that night than I have since March.

Student’s drawing as part of theatre workshop. Photo provide by MASC.

MASC: Your new online program for MASC invites young people to create art inspired by personal experience. When it comes to creativity, why are real-life stories a good place to start?

EC: You are the expert in the details of your own life. Working with young people to express details of everyday builds their confidence in inventing worlds, characters. I use painting and overlaid drawing as a way to build up a bank of detail before we put an experience into words. Each of us walks through life taking in details all the time. The habit of shaping that input (into words, music, gesture) takes some practice. That’s what we do as artists — reinterpret our input streams. So I invite kids to pay close-up attention to their own experience and to enjoy a layered approach to sharing some elements of it.

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

EC: I find that I am continually learning when I’m teaching. Theatre, writing, drawing, singing, it’s all experimentation. The discovery that drawing is a great way to build ease with words came about in classrooms where many languages were spoken.

Student’s drawing as part of theatre workshop. Photo provide by MASC.

A line drawing allows students to find words slowly. Returning to an image with a shadow colour, a light colour, noting how your perspective shifted each time, we make very practical discoveries as we work. By way of MASC, Centennial School set me on that particular journey. I learned to make discovery more manageable for Grade 3 students who were grappling with two languages. I’ve used drawing and painting in language building ever since.

Right now, the online experience is pushing towards a very detailed exploration of language. This month, we tried out a MASC seniors workshop using a conference call system, Mercurii. The focus was A Day in The Life. We made a series of audio postcards for each other. It was magical. The audio format brought us up close much faster than an in-person workshop might do. We met and talked like old friends. Those postcards are very alive for me: a ski-doo race across the Minnesota border in the dead of winter, swimming with dolphins, deciding to skydive. I have never seen the faces of the participants, but I shared the thrill in their voices.

Interview: Alan Shain frames disability as just one part of his story

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A multidisciplinary artist whose career spans theatre, dance, storytelling, and stand-up comedy, Alan Shain blends comedy with a strong flavour of honesty and truth while drawing from the lived experience of disability. He has been touring his first original play, Still Waiting for That Special Bus, across Canada, England, the United States, and Australia since 1999. In this interview, Alan talks about adapting his work for young audiences and creating new work that speaks to their experiences as young people trying to fit in.

Alan Shain. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: On your website, it says “Through performance, Alan treats disability as a political and cultural identity, offering particular vantage points from which to foster new ideas around disability.” In what ways do you employ your artistic practice to educate and enlighten audiences regarding disability as an identity?

Most people think of disability as a weakness, or something to overcome. My work treats disability as being a valid part of who someone is. I never frame my work as being specifically about disability. Rather, disability is part of the context of the story I am telling.

For example, my show Still Waiting for That Special Bus is about someone going out on a date. Attitudes around dating and disability, and inaccessible dance clubs and bus systems create tension in the story in terms of the character getting to the date. Disability is presented as something that shapes experience, like gender.

I never frame my work as being specifically about disability. Rather, disability is part of the context of the story I am telling.

In another one of my shows, First Day in the School Yard, disability is actually framed as a vehicle for the forming of a new friendship. That show is about going to a new school and wanting to fit in. Again, that show is not really about disability per se, but the character has to maneuver around attitudes about disability in order to find the connection he is looking for.

What are your thoughts on the current messaging in popular television shows about disability (such as Love on the Spectrum or Atypical) or in other art forms? Do you think it makes a difference when the show features only one character with a disability, or features several characters with disabilities, when it comes to how audiences perceive disability?

I feel these types of shows are making people think more about disability, and help shift the mindset. I think they challenge the idea that disability automatically means incapacity. As long as the show doesn’t fall into the stereotype of someone with a disability trying to be as “normal” as possible. It is important that the disabled character is not measured in terms of how “well” they are doing. Disabled people need to be seen on our own terms, on how we organize our own lives, and how we contribute and bring value to the rest of society.

Disabled people need to be seen on our own terms, on how we organize our own lives, and how we contribute and bring value to the rest of society.

I think it does make a difference when there is more than one character with a disability. That shows the different experiences of disability, that we don’t all think and act in the same way! Actually, though, I haven’t watched Love on the Spectrum or Atypical. I don’t watch much TV.

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

One important thing I learned from my experiences with MASC was how to create and adapt my work for young audiences. One of my shows deals with dating and disability. It wasn’t written specifically for young audiences, and it employs a lot of comedy that is mainly relevant to adults. I had to really tweak it to connect with younger audiences who didn’t have a lot of the same reference points or experiences that I was drawing from. I discovered that the basic plot still worked, and the humour that was more straightforward worked. But a lot of the more subtle humour didn’t work as well (although the teachers laughed!).

When I wrote my second MASC show, it was written specifically for young audiences. I set the story in a school context. It’s based on my experiences transitioning from going to a special school for kids with disabilities to my own neighbourhood school. I framed the story in terms of going to a new school and trying to fit in. This provided me a way to address disability issues with young audiences.

Alan Shain. Photo provided by MASC.

You are employed as a Disability Arts Officer with the Canada Council for the Arts. At what point in your career as an artist did you develop an interest in creating policy that would improve conditions for disability artists and foster “inclusive arts” more broadly?

I had been involved in arts advocacy for a while before getting the job at the Canada Council for the Arts. My arts advocacy had been around Council’s policies around disability arts, so it was kind of a natural progression. I think my involvement in arts advocacy started when I was doing my master’s in social work. My focus was looking at social policy and disability. Because I was an artist, I naturally combined social policy, disability, and the arts. I co-founded Propeller Dance with Shara Weaver during that same time and joined the MASC roster. So that all gave me a broader focus than just focusing on my own artistic career. I also wanted to encourage others with disabilities to consider a career in the arts. I wanted other artists with disabilities who I could collaborate with. The more of us the better!

Interview: Lola Ryan is a catalyst for growth through dance and movement

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Lola Ryan is one of Canada’s foremost practitioners of dance and movement improvisation. A former champion athlete, she began a career in dance in her twenties, founding and co-founding several dance/theatre companies and touring nationally. Her work with children and adults is an abiding interest and encourages links between youthful play and the world of dance. In this interview, Lola talks about the body in motion and creating new work with a focus on identity and lived experience.

Lola Ryan. Photo provided by MASC.

Your current programs with MASC include workshops titled The Elastic BodyThe Quiet BodyThe Playful Body, and The Expressive and Social Body. How many versions of the body are there, and why is it important for us to discover them?

I chose these Bodies out of a multitude of options mainly because they lend themselves to working in an educational context. We can think of our body in a purely physical way, as a complex set of muscles, bones, blood, and nerves, which is often the most direct and accessible. However, it’s also possible to consider it in terms of culture, of the natural and manufactured environment, or as a vehicle for performance. Going even further, we could consider the thinking body, the philosophical body and so many more. There is an infinity of lenses we could use, from basic to detailed to esoteric. The more we know about ourselves, the better we can function in our daily lives. However, I have stayed with only a few options that can be explored within a shorter period of time.

You are currently working on a performance titled Skin Songs with fellow MASC artist Eleanor Crowder that combines poetry, songs, storytelling, audio recordings, music, and movement to create a theatrical exploration of womanhood. What was the impetus for this project, and how have plans for the show’s premiere developed since the onset of the pandemic?

Skin Songs originated with a body of poetry that I composed in order to make sense of my gender transition and the changes I was going through on many levels. I shared these poems with Eleanor, and she shared her writings with me. It sparked an intense conversation between us about the nature of the feminine and the challenges of living in relation to the dominant culture while still being true to our authentic selves. This marked the birth of our collaboration. We realized that this is a topic rarely confronted head-on in the way we were discussing it. Since then, our work has gone through a number of iterations and some personnel changes, then we were faced with the added challenge of a pandemic. At this point, the piece will combine both live and recorded texts and performance, ideally in an outdoor setting where the pandemic constraints will be reduced.

Lola Ryan performs. Photo provided by MASC.

At MASC, we invite our artists to celebrate and share their cultural heritage and identity in their workshops and performances. As someone who belongs to the 2SLGBTQI+ community, do you feel your identity is reflected in your work as an arts educator?

Even though I am now a transgender woman in my life and work, I must say that the teaching that I do as an arts educator has not substantially changed. We all have a body and a relationship to it, no matter how we identify on the gender spectrum. Even though my body and mind have undergone some major changes, the work I do is no different—having said that, I am more aware of social distinctions related to gender and age and strive to address the individual concerns of each person I interact with.

Lola leads seniors in a dance workshop. Photo provided by MASC.

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

I have been a MASC artist for almost 20 years, and I am always gratified by the reactions of my students of all ages. I have seen children positively glowing with their accomplishments in class, doing things they had no idea were possible. Rolling and balancing on a ball, creating movement combinations, and learning from their fellow students, and not only me, is an absolute joy. Likewise, with seniors, their awakened sense of their bodies and quiet amazement at what they are still capable of doing also fills me with intense satisfaction. My role is a catalyst for the growth of whoever I work with, and I am complete and content in that position.

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

Artists open possibilities—social, physical, imaginative, and creative. We provide schools and communities with new windows on themselves and the world they live in. A community rich in creative expression is what I dream of. Artists are a crucial factor in helping realize that dream.

Interview: Crazy Smooth dances to express, not to impress

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Yvon Soglo (B-boy Crazy Smooth, founder of the Bboyizm Dance Company) has been dancing for over 10 years, during which time he has become known as one of Canada’s top street dancers. His professional experience includes teaching Cirque du Soleil acrobats and performing at the Nancy Jazz Pulsations festival in France. Yvon dedicates himself to carrying on street dance culture in the world of performing arts with the motto “Dance to Express, Not to Impress.” Here, Yvon talks about vulnerability in hip hop culture and staying rooted to his community.

Bboyizm Dance Company. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: Congratulations on receiving the 2020 Clifford E. Lee award from the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for your dance work IN THE BODY. This piece addresses aging in the street dance community, and you have said, “They say that the most courageous thing a dancer can do is to grow older – for a b-boy/b-girl, experience approaches heroism.” Why do you feel that’s important to communicate?

In high school, I was listening to rappers who are now in their fifties, and most of them still rap about the same things. There’s no talking about, oh yeah, I went through a hard time, I went through depression… There’s a bravado that exists in our art form. Vulnerability is not normally celebrated; it’s considered taboo. But I think there’s something beautiful about opening up in that way.

I try to write about the reality that I am living right now. I look to my left and I see my youth, and I look to my right and I see where I’m going. I can still do the same things that I did when I was younger, but the consequences are different. I just turned 40 and I’ve had many injuries and four knee surgeries.

Bboyizm at Awesome Arts Festival. Photo provided by MASC.

Over the years, I’ve been asking questions to young dancers and the OGs, and I’ll be doing more formal interviews as I continue to work on this project. These elders are the gatekeepers to this knowledge. Some of the older dancers I’ve talked to say they’re dancing better now with fewer of the capabilities they had when they were younger. They have fewer inhibitions. When you’re pressured by other people’s perspectives, it affects you; when you’re older, there’s no longer that pressure. You develop more precision, more substance through your limitations.

Your piece incorporates both words and movement to communicate ideas. How does verbal language contribute to the visual language of dance? What is the process for working with one art form alongside another?

We’re putting together a threesome of dance, spoken word, and multimedia. Dance goes places that words cannot. Words can go places that dance cannot. Same with multimedia. We’re using each of these mediums’ strengths to elevate the others.

We’re trying to create the perfect balance and combination of these art forms to tell the stories and execute this show. Will the dancers be speaking onstage? Will there be voiceovers? Will words appear in projections? Will we see the insides of dancers’ bodies? We haven’t yet determined many of these things. That’s why we’re in a creation process to help me go to the extent of the vision that I have for this piece.

Bboyizm dance workshop. Photo provided by MASC.

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

MASC makes sure I stay connected to where I come from. I don’t think I would be where I am today without that. We’ve never been artists that get to a certain point where they’re too far to engage with the community. We’ve been touring since 2010, and we’re still going to the same community centres.

Many of the staff at MASC are artists themselves and they care about seeing the community thrive and grow, and they care just as much about the artists. For me it’s an honour to be a MASC artist because they’re so well-respected in the community. Since Bboyizm has become more and more successful, I make a point of keeping that relationship with MASC because they keep me rooted.

Bboyizm with students. Photo provided by MASC.

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

They seek out good artists and bring them into schools. We can’t quantify the impact we have on the kids, but I know that I have boxes of letters from kids from these workshops. And I’ve had kids tell me how much we influenced them years ago. It kinda makes me feel old!

There are many barriers to attending shows, so MASC often brings students their first exposure to live performance. These kids are going to grow up and have their own kids and continue the consumption of live arts. Performing arts venues and organizations are constantly asking, how do we attract new audiences? Look to MASC! They are contributing directly to the ecology of local arts.

Bboyizm at Arts Court. Photo provided by MASC.

Many people have seen and enjoyed street dance, but know very little about the history and cultural context of this art form. What do you want people to know about the culture behind the dance?

Our MASC program “The Evolution of B-boying” is a history lesson about hip hop culture disguised as entertainment. There’s so much history from the African-American community, the Latin American community, from the 1970s and ’80s up until now. There was a specific social, economic condition that existed in the ghettos in the south Bronx that, out of love and beauty, spawned this art form that then travelled all over the world. There’s a history behind it, and it varies from region to region. It has impacted and influenced traditional and contemporary dance. There are talks about having it as a discipline in the Olympics. It’s a serious art form.

In 2007-08 I was at a jam called Circle Kings in Switzerland, and I was looking at everyone in the jam: Israeli B-boys, Korean B-boys, people of all races, religions, backgrounds. And everyone existed there in peace for the art form. For that moment, all the other things didn’t matter. We’re all human beings sharing this moment together.

Interview: Nicole Bélanger helps develop critical thinking and a sense of belonging through group art

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Nicole Bélanger is a visual artist who specializes in murals as collaborative works of art. In schools or the community, her emphasis is on group work, both in conceptualization and creation. Nicole believes that the power of energy comes from the creative efforts of the group and that there is room for everyone in the world of creativity. In this interview, Nicole talks about adapting her work in communities for the pandemic and having respect for an artist’s career.

Nicole Bélanger. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: In your mural workshops, you provide a creative and artistic learning environment for students and encourage a team spirit. What are the skills the students learn in your workshops? And what are the benefits of working together?

Nicole: The idea of creating a group work is powerful and the students quickly discover the pleasure of group work. They develop many skills, such as the power of critical thinking, positive discussion, the challenges of the work, and a sense of belonging. On a practical level, there are the skills of mixing colours, how to manipulate a brush, how to do shading, and more.

You often say that your mother is a great source of inspiration for your work. In turn, how do you hope to inspire young people in your workshops? What are the important values you try to pass on, and how do you go about it?

It is very common to discuss the life of an artist during a creative session with me. What I always share with the participants is the importance of artistic discipline. I refer to all the great artists, whether it’s music, painting, or dance, and point out the time these artists invested in their work before they got to where they are now. I like to tell them that being an artist is as important as any other career and that their work has value.

Nicole paints with seniors. Photo provided by MASC.

As a result of the COVID-19 restrictions, many MASC artists have had to adapt their approach to creating and teaching art. You came up with the idea of “art kits” that could be delivered to individual participants. What are these kits and where did you get the idea?

In my case, since I had already developed the digital mural, the concept of remote assembly was an established idea. The kits are essentially the materials needed, but divided and delivered so that each participant can work independently. For example, in the case of the watercolour project, each participant receives watercolour papers, small individual containers for paint, brushes, an example of a piece of work, and a very detailed explanation sheet. There is a lot of work and planning involved in putting the kits together.

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

This question is very important. For a long time, I was not convinced of the importance of my work with MASC to my private practice. What I can say today, with certainty, is that my work with children and teens informs my private practice. As I share my knowledge and work with the material in a concrete way, my craft as an artist is strengthened.

Nicole teaches a kids’ workshop. Photo provided by MASC.

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

Creativity is now a sought-after and respected aspect of all learning. Larger organizations recognize the importance of this. What we as professional artists offer our local community is an important source of information related to creative thinking. The impact of these contacts is limitless, as each child or teen or adult who comes into contact with a professional artist comes away with something that will in turn influence others.

Interview: Marc Walter’s land art seeks to remind us that creativity is within each of us

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Marc Walter is an artist who oriented his practice to environmental art (or land art) in 2004. Particularly prolific in his field, he won in 2007 the Grand prix d’excellence de la Fondation pour les arts, les lettres et la culture en Outaouais as well as its 2014 Jury Prize. He has been featured in many Canadian and international land art events. Marc has taken part in over 100 solo and group exhibitions both in galleries and in the context of outdoor nature art events.

In this interview, Marc explores how the landscape influences the creation of works of art, and how those artworks in turn transform the landscape.

Artist Marc Walter. Photo provided by MASC.

Many of your works of art are oriented towards a connection with the environment. How has your relationship to nature and art changed during the pandemic?

My work is as much about the environment as it is about people. By this, I mean that it allows viewers to connect with themselves and with each other, whether through direct physical encounters with the sites or through their impressions left on the works. My practice seems to me especially important during this pandemic, when the psychological discomforts and daily stresses are so acute. Most notably, I have created anonymous mini-artworks and structures in the village where I live and in the area of our home to allow locals to discover new visual elements in their environment and to engage with them. My works aim to awaken the senses and to remind us that creativity is within each of us.

Your work has been featured in galleries, as well as in the context of outdoor art events. How does your approach to creating your art differ knowing the venue at which it will be presented?

Each creation takes into account the site in which it will be experienced. What are its physical characteristics, dimensions, scale, materials present, skylines, or views from windows? What is the social context, the way of arriving and leaving, the conventional use of the place? Everything is taken into account to stimulate the visitors’ emotions and encourage them to live authentically in the moment: the visuals, the existing and added sounds, the smells, the textures to be discovered, and more.

A collaborative art process. Photo provided by MASC.

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

We serve as a model to remind people that professional artists exist in society and that it is an extremely important profession. We remind everyone that creativity is the driving force behind an interesting life and that everyone has this inherent capacity for creativity. My particular practice allows me to develop a link to the community, a pride in the creation of often monumental collective works, and an awareness of a freedom in the expression of this creativity in society. We also offer time for creative reflection and a reminder of artistic possibilities to the teaching staff who sometimes lack the time to realize them.

You offer a school residency through MASC in which you work with students (from kindergarten to grade 12) to create a land art installation. Could you tell us about some of the artworks that have resulted from these residencies?

Here are three recent examples:

Last month, I worked with elementary students to create planets out of branches with mini-paintings and text added. The planets were hung in the school area from trees in some of the students’ yards. In this way, a community link was made between the school, teachers, students, and other community members. A creative presence is added to the environment, with a sense of celebration related to the end-of-the-year season.

One of Marc Walter’s school installations. Photo provided by MASC.

At one of the local high schools, we are creating poles that will serve as markers for a forest of local species planted by students in the spring, which will be part of the international project The Global Forest. Each pole will bear the effigy of an endangered animal and will serve to protect the forest. Painting, recycling, construction, and appropriate intervention in the landscape are the multiple learnings transferred in this project.

This winter, as in previous years, I am conducting snow sculpture workshops. The students will fill moulds with snow, thus creating casts. These will be sculpted in small teams with various tools. The project results in a series of extremely varied sculptures that becomes an outdoor exhibition, a site of creative discoveries, an inspiring place to share. Above all, it is a way to savour winter physically and artistically in a country where this fantastic opportunity to connect with the outdoors is sometimes forgotten in educational institutions.

A wintertime school installation. Photo provided by 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?

Making these connections with students and teachers is invigorating. Of course, I share my skills and experience in these workshops, but I also ‘steal’ ideas in passing, stay in touch with my own sense of childhood, and bond with the wonderful creativity of young people. In fact, each workshop becomes a research and application laboratory for my own practice.