My journey from Volunteer Coordinator to Artistic Associate
Why Suitcase in Point and the In the Soil Arts Festival means so much to me and the St. Catharines community
By Michelle Mohammed, Artistic Associate
I want to share a story with you – one that I hope invites you to understand the impact, value, and importance of Suitcase in Point and the In the Soil Arts Festival.
In 2019, I was the assistant director on a show with Essential Collective Theatre in St. Catharines when Rebecca Walsh, general manager at ECT and In the Soil venue manager said to me, “I want you to work with me for the In the Soil Arts Festival”.
At this time, my experience with Suitcase in Point and the festival was limited – I had just wrapped up working on a RHIZOMES show for the festival in 2018 and spent one night during the festival hanging out with some friends and attending a small event. Other than that, I didn’t know much about the company, but was excited to interview and see where it went from there.
I will never forget my first interview with Suitcase in Point. At the time, I, like many other young artists working to develop a career as an artist in the theatre, had my plate OVER filled. I was serving, auditioning, doing a really time-consuming, essentially non-paying gig in Toronto, more auditioning, sitting in on a rehearsal for a show (also non-paying!), and trying to make it all make sense.
I was so busy during their Canada Summer Jobs hiring process that the only time I could interview with Suitcase in Point was on a phone interview on a GO Train ride. “So there’s no way they are going to hire me” I remember thinking, “if I have to conduct an interview on a GO Train full of people! They are also going to think I am NUTS for attempting to balance one hundred things all at once … but, here we go.”
After a myriad of self-doubt, I got hired as a Volunteer Coordinator for the 2019 In the Soil Arts Festival. I couldn’t understand how I got hired from a GO Train phone interview! However, after working with the team for a short amount of time, I quickly learned that, like me, this company was made up of a group of artists who simply loved and valued theatre and the arts. On top of this, these folks were dedicated to injecting their local communities with some of this magic. I was excited to work with a group of like-minded artists – who didn’t think it was crazy that I was balancing 100 things, but understood the spirit of my pursuits.
Working for the 2019 In the Soil Arts Festival was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
I witnessed a small, mighty group (of mostly females, mind you), artistically create, program, produce and execute one of the best arts festivals I’ve had the pleasure of attending and the best multi-arts festival this region has to offer. Seriously, what is accomplished by a small group of people – the amount of planning, energy, problem solving, and spirit that goes into curating this festival – is unbelievable.
In one short weekend, this festival lights up St. Catharines’ downtown core, proving why the arts are essential for our souls – Suitcase in Point being the heartbeat of the city and crucial in reminding me of this vital lesson.
As Volunteer Coordinator, I helped train, coordinate, and look over the responsibilities of over 100 spunky and beautiful volunteers (ranging from ages 14-77 years old!) with Outreach Director Marcel Stewart, and with lots of support from previous Volunteer Coordinator Anah Shabbar. I swear to you that I did not stop moving for three full days straight. The only time I stopped moving was the pocket of time I intentionally made space for on the last day of the Festival, to see Cole Lewis’ show, 1991 (which got me so emotional I left in tears. I allowed myself to cry in the venue bathroom for 10 minutes, and pulled myself together to continue working).
I had no idea that from there, I would develop a beautiful, long term relationship with this company, eventually being rehired with them in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic. During this time, a big portion of my contract was spent developing the inaugural “Electric Innovations” theatre intensive with Kaylyn Valdez-Scott. We artistically developed the entire program with Marcel and Dee, solidified an incredible relationship with our founding sponsors at The National Theatre School, and then Kaylyn and myself executed the entire program from start to finish.
Slowly, I was being weaved into the company’s staff meetings and getting a better sense of how Dee Jones (Artistic Director), Tamara Jensen (Director, Marketing & Development), Marcel and Holly Keus (previous Production Coordinator) operated on a day-by-day basis. Eventually, Dee came to me and asked me what I wanted to do as a young artist and how Suitcase could support my needs and desires.
After mulling this big question over and sharing my goals with her, we created the role of Artistic Associate. In this position, I am able to pursue the artistic development of projects while developing the skills to eventually grow into the leader of an arts organization. Essentially, I now work in some way, shape, or form on every major project the company produces (RHIZOMES, In the Soil Arts Festival, The Lost & Found Mixtape and more), with Electric Innovations still being my biggest project with Kaylyn, along with supporting our Director of Marketing and Development, Tamara Jensen. I attend weekly staff meetings, marketing meetings, project planning meetings, and in Suitcase in Point fashion, jump on supporting all of our projects in a variety of ways.
Suitcase’s staff is made up of a whole host of working artists – including myself. What is so beautiful about my contract is that it provides me both the security and the flexibility necessary to develop my career as an actor and artist – I am able to really hone in on my on-going work as an actor, audition, be in shows or on set, take acting classes, participate in workshops, pick up other short-term artistic gigs, work with other theatre companies – while still working with SIP on a part-time basis developing skills that fuel me as an artist and leader.
There are many reasons I am grateful for my relationship with this company, and I could go on about why I love the team at Suitcase in Point so much, but that’s for another blog post.
For now, I’ll leave you with this:
This festival and the quality of work this company produces never ceases to amaze me. The value they place on all forms of art, artists and the local St. Catharines/Niagara community is integral to the region and the present and future of arts and culture in Ontario.
Here are five reasons you should get involved with the 2022 In the Soil Arts Festival, as an audience member, volunteer, partner or more:
1. Volunteer and get to know some like-minded people.
Volunteering for the festival automatically connects you to a group of people (from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages) who are similar to you! In this process, you will get to interact with your local community, witness incredible art and have an incredible time.
Our volunteers leave with life-long relationships, memories, and invaluable experiences.
2. Put local, FIRST.
If you become a community partner or sponsor, you will collaborate with us on putting local, first! Suitcase in Point works hard to imagine ways our community can collaborate and lift each other up.
3. Develop your skill sets (even the ones you thought you had a handle on!).
When you work with Suitcase in Point, as an employee or a young artist, you are sharpening your skills in an extremely tangible way, a way that only a grassroots organization can afford you: problem solving, collaboration, communication, creation … the list goes on, and on.
I promise you, you will walk away with invaluable insights and knowledge that you can apply in any job to come.
4. Experience art that will transcend you.
Buy a festival pass and experience art that will transcend you. Programming this festival is a thoughtful, curated process. The committee works hard to culminate a variety of artists and art work that will allow you to experience a wide range of works and challenge one’s perception of art.
A note back to point #1, our volunteers scheduled to work during our launch weekend, June 10-12, will receive a FREE festival pass!
5. Experience community and have a great time
This year, Suitcase in Point is celebrating their 20th Anniversary, looking to raise $20,000.
For over 20 years and counting, comedy and play are at the heart of this company. There is no point in doing what we do if it is not imbued with laughter and joy. Whether you are an audience member, festival attendee, volunteer, artistic collaborator or employee – Suitcase in Point commits to the experience of community and joy. You can support this company by donating to their campaign.
So what are you waiting for?! Visit https://suitcaseinpoint.com/ or inthesoil.on.ca: join our mailing list, browse our sites to get to know us, get in touch, and get involved with this incredible company and the In the Soil Arts Festival.