This past season, although incredibly wearisome to grapple with a global pandemic and difficult yet invigorating to face the necessary resurgence of anti-racism and anti-oppression, Suitcase in Point continued to make creative pathways in our community. Through it all, we knew we wanted to find ways to engage our community and pay as many artists as we could. In the end, we engaged over 120 artists and over 13,000 audience members/participants, many of whom were new to our programs and many of which come from underrepresented or marginalized communities.
Before COVID-19 turned the world upside-down, we were working toward our 12th annual, three-day In the Soil Arts Festival. We were planning a site-specific Emancipation Day play. We were working on a sketch comedy pilot and in full swing with our inaugural Nest Residency. We had hosted two community long-table discussions focussed on the current state of racial equity in theatre in St. Catharines. We had just finished a strategic planning session and hired a Marketing and Development Director. The sun was starting to set a little bit later and-
Despite the pandemic, we managed to do – almost – all of it. It just came out looking a little different.
SIP reimagined our programs, starting with In the Soil Arts Festival (ITS). We swiftly developed new plans to continue planned programming with a mix of online and postponed content delivered between May 2020 and February 2021 – In the Soil Multi (p)Arts Festival.
The first part of the reimagined ITS festival was delivered online between May 22-June 5 2020. Our launch event met over 4000 views and was riddled with original performances from incredible local and national artists. It was weird not to literally be together – but amazing to all meet there. Other events included: Remixed a listening party for one, directed by Sarah Conn; a live song swap; art-making workshops; a screening of Two Birds One Stone by Natasha Greenblatt and Rimah Jabr; a live-streamed sunset dance party and more.
Two-weeks into our online program, SIP decided to postpone the remainder of our events to leave space for the grief and necessary resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd. We rescheduled events through the rest of 2020 and solicited donations for the Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association.
SIP staff, board and artists began anti-racism work that included tough discussions in which we shared truths and accountabilities. We made a commitment together toward a better, more equitable artistic culture. We hosted another long-table discussion and paid two new-generation, BIPOC women to provoke a discussion around action and accountability. This initiated the Niagara Arts Equity Coalition (NAEC), that has since become a shared community initiative between individual Niagara artists. NAEC is committed to disrupting and dismantling systems of white supremacy, while challenging racial inequities within our arts communities. SIP is proud of the leadership we have taken in addressing the need for change in the local theatre and arts ecology and understand that we still have a long way to go.
In August 2020, Freedom: A Mixtape was born – an audio piece of original songs, stories, poems, anecdotes, and spoken word pieces from folks living in Niagara. What was originally planned to be a live production to celebrate Emancipation Day, the global response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade awakened many people to the fact that Emancipation was just an early step in the fight toward true equality. The mixtape is a community conversation about emancipation and the human right to be free. Freedom is the brain-child of Suitcase in Point’s Outreach Director, Marcel Stewart and features the voices of 12 local artists and citizens. Freedom Mixtape was one of the first audio projects to launch in Niagara as a result of the pandemic. Since the Mixtape was released on August 7th 2020, Freedom has been streamed over 600 times on Soundcloud, was shared by CBC’s podcast Secret Life of Canada and was recently broadcast in its entirety on ELMNT FM’s Moment of Truth with David Moses.
In September 2020, SIP worked with 14 artists to produce RHIZOMES, a series of site-specific installations and performances throughout the east-end of downtown St. Catharines. Artists illuminated the architecture of our neighbourhood, inspired thoughtful conversations and in some cases, spread a little ridiculous joy. Tours for small, socially distanced groups included live performances, indoor art and outdoor video installations.
In January we showcased two plays-in-progress online: JimiBill by Genevieve Jones and Sister Warriors with Affair of Honor. Other theatre work that couldn’t be adapted for online include: Lester Trips’ Safe and Sorry who have a tentative residency with us in June to explore filming the production, and; Celia Green is using their artist fee to explore the incorporation of ASL interpretation into the performance of Wha Wha Wha.
Our Youth Advisory Committee, a group of high school students that have been a part of the ITS programming team since March 2019, continued to meet online to develop creative opportunities for youth which resulted in an online showcase of work developed by local youth between 15-18 and our inaugural theatre program for teens, Electric Innovations, in partnership with National Theatre School of Canada.
We continued to roll out our annual Nest Artist Residency for new-generation artists who are supported in the development of new work. Each resident was paired with a professional mentor. This year’s mentor roster included: Adrienne Wong, Janice Jo Lee, Matt McGeachy, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks and more. All Nest activity pivoted to an online platform, including a bi-weekly forum series featuring guest artist facilitators. The Nest culminated in an online showcase in June with a viewership of over 800 audience members.
SIP shared a series of digital comedy shorts and was presented by FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as part of the #NiagaraPerforms online series with a new sketch comedy show. We developed this show over Zoom and delivered a mix of live and pre-recorded content. In December 2020 we launched “Laugh Together,” a series of online comedy writing workshops and shows, beginning with an online comedy show followed by a week-long online showcase of community comedy clips that were chosen from a submission process. We partnered with local restaurant, The Merchant Ale House on a meal-and-show deal, delivering a delicious meal to enjoy before tuning into the show. Over 100 guests registered for the pay-what-you-can event, with over 20 buying into the festive meal-deal.
To help support our downtown community, we developed an audio/video project that shared real stories from 18 local artists. Art of the City shone a light on the synergy between artists and downtown businesses. Through a series of online video segments that shared the stories, perspectives, and dreams of local artists and their special relationship to downtown St. Catharines, Art of the City connected to and garnered support from the larger community for our downtown businesses, venues, and events that have been struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic. This was another creative way for us to support each other; while we dream for the future and celebrate what we have in this reimagined present.
In August – October 2021, we delivered a reimagined In the Soil Arts Festival Summer Series, offering in-person, site-specific performances and experiences throughout St. Catharines, inspired by the theme of Lost / Found. In an important moment in time where individual and collective healing is paramount, we offered Lost / Found to spark local artists’ imaginations which resulted in the presentation of over 20 experiences throughout St. Catharines. From a music performance at Burgoyne Bridge, to a family-friendly play zone on James Street, to comedy and dramatic performances in backyards and parks, we ended up delivering the most innovative In the Soil Arts Festival series to date.
IN THE COMMUNITY
Throughout the season we partnered local organizations, Brock Human Rights and Equity, OPRIG Brock and OUT Niagara to deliver arts-based panels and discussions, many of which revolved around amplifying IBPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+ artists. Through our programs, we raised donations toward Niagara Native Centre’s Homeward Bound program and the Niagara Region Anti Racism Association.