Nanaimo’s performing artists get ‘crafty’ as recovery inspires new forms

‘For musicians, there’s all sorts of things you can do, and performing is just one of them.’

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When local promoter Andrew Roberts and musician Elise Boulanger recently found out they had been picked to get a SoundON grant, it was a welcome boost in what for many in the entertainment industry has been a challenging year.

“[Last year] a few musicians told me about these grants and that I should apply for them, but I just didn’t care, I didn’t have the motivation,” says Roberts. “It sucks because you’re bringing people together. That’s the business.”

In 2019, Roberts estimates that his company Got Pop? Concerts had booked at least 100 shows throughout Vancouver Island, including those for comedians, musicians, and former WWE wrestlers like Mick Foley. 

All of that dropped off completely when the pandemic hit, though Roberts has kept busy with a side business in collectibles, which he says exploded in popularity during the pandemic. 

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“People are stuck at home and they can’t spend their money on anything else, so stuff that’s normally selling for $10 is now selling for $50. It’s crazy,” says Roberts with a laugh. “I’m a closet nerd. But I guess people know it now, because I’ve been promoting wrestling shows.”

Though he initially wasn’t interested in doing digital shows because he felt like they lacked the energy of a live performance, in August he successfully hosted a 30th anniversary WWE reunion discussion via Zoom featuring Bret “the Hitman” Hart and other wrestlers from the legendary The Hart Foundation vs Demolition Tag Team Championship pay-per-view match in 1990.

“It was actually the first time those three guys ever got back together for an event, which is really cool,” he says. “They talked about the show and talked about their careers. People all around the world bought tickets, we had people from New Zealand and Australia staying up until like 3 a.m. to watch it.”

Local promoter Andrew Roberts sits on The Vault patio smiling.
Like many people in the performing arts industry, promoter Andrew Roberts has pivoted to offer shows online. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Earlier this year Roberts started to feel motivated again, and when a musician told him about the SoundOn grant in February, he decided to apply. 

The grant, offered in partnership with Creative BC and the province, will allow Roberts and Boulanger to put on four events in June featuring Island-based artists, as part of a live-streamed acoustic series at The Queen’s in downtown Nanaimo.

“Before COVID struck, I had planned to do my first tour of Western Canada, but that didn’t happen. But that’s okay, it will happen eventually. So… I don’t know, I just got pretty crafty, ” says Boulanger, a chamber folk-pop singer and musician who will both co-organize the shows in June and also perform.

That craftiness involved doing a series of impromptu “taking it to the street” performances over the summer of 2020. “I would perform at museums or campsites, a bit more of an unorthodox location. So I was able to perform a fair amount. Whether or not they were the ideal performances is another question, but it was always a unique experience so that was fun. For musicians, there’s all sorts of things you can do, and performing is just one of them.”

Over the last year Boulanger took the opportunity to focus on her craft and do more songwriting. At the end of 2020, she released a single called Cigarettes et Rosé and plans to put out a new music video in May. She also dove into a two-month online program based in Toronto called Canada’s Music Incubator that focuses on the business and marketing side of music for those who want it to be a sustainable career.

Nanaimo performing artist Elise Boulanger stands in a deep forest green landscape in a flowing dress.
“I just got pretty crafty, ” says Elise Boulanger, a chamber folk-pop singer and musician who will be organizing and performing in shows this June thanks to support from the SoundOn grant. Photo by Laura Baldwinson

Recovery from the pandemic is still taking shape

Roberts and Boulanger are not the only ones who have struggled in the uncertainty of a global pandemic. Musicians and performing artists had already been struggling for some time in an industry that some had described as “broken”. The shutdown of live shows and closing of venues due to COVID-19 seemed to be just another nail in that coffin.

According to a survey on the impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian artists and independent cultural workers in the spring of 2020, 83 per cent of respondents said they expected their income to be severely reduced and 96 per cent were stressed about the impacts of COVID-19 on their arts and culture-related income. Of those affected, 68 per cent are women and 25 per cent are racialized groups, new Canadians or have a disability.

Recovery so far has also been slow. By December 2020 the “performing arts, spectator sports and related industries, and heritage institutions” were the furthest away from recovery, according to  a report from the Canadian Association of the Performing Arts, and their earnings had dropped 61.7 per cent lower than they were in February of that year. 

“No other industry group experienced a larger decrease, besides air transportation,” the report adds.

Roberts says that though he feels certain things will come back for Nanaimo’s performing artists, this financial hit makes him concerned about what form that will take. “People don’t realize that if you enjoy a band, you have to keep supporting it, or an artist, or comedian. Otherwise when things come back, they’re going to be doing something else,” he says. “That’s what we’re seeing, a lot of people in the industry are finding other jobs and finding other ways to make money.”

A show of resilience for Nanaimo’s performing artists

Though it’s hard to put a positive spin on the situation, in speaking with some of Nanaimo’s performing artists, musicians and promoters about what they’ve been up to, a picture of resilience nevertheless emerges.

“Well for us the experience was kind of front-end loaded because we had to cancel a production five days before it was to open,” says Frank Moher, executive director of Western Edge Theatre. “So that was scary, especially because we had put out money for four weeks of rehearsal at that point. And it was very disappointing for everyone involved.”

Fortunately, Moher says they were helped when many ticket buyers converted their purchases into a donation, and again when they received an emergency grant from the Vancouver Foundation.

Because the theatre company is small, and primarily devoted to new plays and cutting-edge productions, it allowed them to be “nimble” in response to crisis, says Moher, who teaches theatre and journalism at Vancouver Island University.

“It helps to be small, but it’s still been difficult and frustrating to go through not being able to produce theatre,” says Moher. “But we have done a lot of digital stuff instead.”

This has taken several forms, with varying levels of success: live streaming plays, filming full productions and posting them online, Zoom readings with actors, and staged readings where all the actors were onstage together and filmed from four angles. Moher says of all the versions, he mostly prefers the live streaming.

“By definition, theatre is: you go there, you sit in a darkened room with other people, and you experience it live. It unfolds in front of you in real-time. You are all in that time together. That’s theatre,” he says.

That’s also why live streaming comes closest to the real thing. “It’s more visceral, it’s more dynamic, it’s more in the moment. All those are aspects of theatre. But sometimes when I do it, I go, ‘Why are we doing this?’ We could just record it and if nothing goes wrong, just put it up. But for the most part we have live streamed stuff.”

The theatre company has stayed remarkably busy: In the summer of 2020 they hit the ground running and performed a Zoom live stream of Sandpiper Serenade and The Shadow World, two 1940s-style one-act plays by local playwright Bill Miner.

In December, they released a video performance of Extended Wings, a play that was in the works for two years and explores how the lives of a 72-year-old Tsimshian man, a “raging granny” named Viv and her teenage granddaughter Mads all intersect.

Western Edge Theatre has been releasing performance on demand, like Extended Wings, a play that was in the works for two years and explores how the lives of a 72-year-old Tsimshian man.
Western Edge Theatre has been releasing performance on demand, like Extended Wings, a play that was in the works for two years and explores how the lives of a 72-year-old Tsimshian man, played by Sam Bob, a “raging granny” named Viv and her teenage granddaughter Mads all intersect. Photo by Western Edge Theatre

In February of this year, Western Edge decided to go ahead with their New Waves festival, which featured four new one-act plays from Nanaimo and Qualicum Beach-based playwrights, whose works were selected through their Mid-Island Playwrights Initiative. They were performed as staged readings at the Harbour City Theatre downtown and streamed using their new camera system.

“Look, I think actually kind of being forced into digital presentation is in the end going to turn out to be a blessing for organizations, for theatres,” says Moher. “Because it’s a second way—it’s an inferior way—but it is a second way to make theatre available. It removes a lot of barriers to accessibility. It means your aunt in Ontario can watch you. So I think that we will blend the two ways of doing it in the future.”

Re-building the performing arts community

Performing isn’t the only thing that composer, teacher and musician Liam Ross Gibson misses in the wake of closed venues, cancelled shows and Zoom-based music lessons.

“Music is such a social thing. And art in general, all the arts. Aside from the actual doing of the art and creating and sharing it with people, I’ve just been really missing talking with people about it,” he says. “Introverted people are often attracted to being composers because it’s a lot of solitary work. So in some ways, not a lot changed for me. I’ve never had any trouble keeping myself busy and having projects on the go. That said, I think the longer it goes on for, the more I’m feeling it.”

A pole for advertising local performing arts events, once covered in posters, sits empty along Nanaimo’s Bastion Street
A pole for advertising local events, once covered in posters, sits empty along Nanaimo’s Bastion Street. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

“Like a lot of people, I was just so focused on forging ahead and keeping my head together for the last year that I haven’t fully processed or grieved for what’s been lost. I feel like it’s bubbling up more and I feel the weird loss now more than I did a year ago,” he adds.

After graduating from the University of Manitoba with a master’s of music in composition, Gibson worked at a coffee shop and started building a clientele of students for private lessons. When he found a gig filling in as a teacher at Vancouver Island University in January of 2020, he felt fortunate.

Though things got tricky when COVID-19 hit, Gibson says his luck held out and he was able to not only keep teaching, but found out in September that he had been accepted into PIVOT, a professional development program for self-defined early career composers.

Participants get paired with a mentor instructor, with whom they develop a piece over several months, and then work on a performance with contemporary classical musicians at Continuum Contemporary Music in Toronto. Along the way they also received professional development guest lectures with various instructors and music experts via Zoom.

“A lot of programs are just really not accessible to people because they’re really expensive,” says Gibson, who premiered his piece Snowmelt on April 22. “With this program they make a point of paying the participants, ” he says. “To get into a professional development program and get paid to do it is fantastic.”

One of the things that has kept many in the arts community going through the pandemic is their support for one another, Gibson adds. For him, that has taken the form of an interdisciplinary online musical collaboration with former classmate and violinist Aliayta Foon-Dancoes and visual artist Paul MacIntyre, both of whom live in London.

“We hit on the idea of just each spending 30 minutes a week just making something and it’s like a conversation. So one person makes something one day, two days later, the next person responds to that,” says Gibson. “It was weirdly fortuitous that we started this remote collaboration right before the pandemic started, and we’ve just continued that since.”

Nanaimo performing artist Liam Ross Gibson performs a solo experimental set in 2018 at the White Room with glowing lights on stage
Liam Ross Gibson performs a solo experimental set in 2018 at the White Room, a much-loved performance space that closed in April of 2020 and left a huge hole in the local arts and music scene. Photo by Dave Howard

The project—which they dubbed “THIRTYMINUTES”—eventually took shape as a multimedia piece and was shown on June 21 during a 48-hour online festival at the Sub Tei gallery in Berlin. “The piece is a seance, or summoning of sorts; an attempt to invoke the unintentional beings that emerge from our endless game of telephone,” states the artist description.

Nanaimo’s performing arts spaces squeezed  

Though Gibson feels confident about his own position as an artist moving forward, he worries about the loss of the spaces that allowed his music career to flourish. Whether it’s that rising rental rates and house prices may squeeze out the basement practice spaces that he used with other band members, or that the venues they used to play in have shut down.

When downtown performance space White Room announced their closure in the spring of 2020, it was a huge blow to Nanaimo’s music and arts scene. It was where Gibson debuted some of his own solo music in the summer of 2018, opening for experimental Vancouver-based composer, improviser, vocalist and violinist Wallgrin.

Places like the Port Theatre have their place in the arts scene, but to fill the seats, the music that is featured there has to have a certain commercial appeal, where the White Room wasn’t constrained in that way, he says.

“That was a space that really filled a niche that hadn’t previously been filled in Nanaimo and was so open-ended and geared towards more interesting and experimental stuff,” he says. “Nanaimo’s had some good venues but none of them quite filled the role that the White Room did.”

The downtown loft space was home to a performance venue, gallery, the Runaway Lane recording studio and The Black Dot record shop in the three years it was open, and was the site of an endless stream of music, artwork and dance shows.

“We always ran the space on the tightest of margins and the coronavirus shutdown has now pushed us beyond,” said the announcement on their Facebook page on April 26. “Once the dust settles, we hope to re-emerge with offerings of the strange and wonderful yet again.” 

In the months prior to their closure, White Room quickly pivoted to providing content online and filmed a series of socially-distanced “Quarantiny desk concerts” with local artists that were uploaded onto YouTube and provide a remarkable and poignant record of the diversity of Nanaimo-based talent at the time.

“Shutting down the White Room has been pretty devastating. It was a dream job,” says musician and recording engineer Christopher Thompson via Facebook message. “The whole industry shut down—for poor people at least—and a lot of people are in the same boat, but it still hit me very hard.”

Local performing artists Jana Crook and Chris Thompson stand in front of a blue building with face masks on.
Local musicians Jana Crook and Chris Thompson saw a gap in the programming at community campus radio station CHLY 101.7 FM and decided to start Party Platter, a radio show that focuses on “cool pop” and local musicians. Photo by Jesse Woodward

In addition to booking and promoting shows at the White Room with Dave Read, Valentina Cardinalli, Jack Tieleman, Brendan Holm and others, Thompson also ran the Runaway Lane recording studio. 

Since their closure, the group that ran White Room has continued with other projects; Dave Read, also known as the “Vinyl Record Guru”, has found some success in his band Moths & Locusts, who released their new album Exoplanets in the fall of 2020.

Thompson says he’s used the time away from performing to play around with recording a cover album, experiment with music video animation and start a two-hour radio show called Party Platter/Locals Only with fellow musician Jana Crook, who plays in the band Crooked¿ with their twin Kiks Crook.

“I saw there was a gap in the programming and I thought of what I wish would be there, and then realized that I could make that happen,” Thompson says. “Jana was an easy choice to ask, they’re super cool and fun to talk to and know pop music better than I do.”

It runs every Saturday evening at 5 p.m. on CHLY 101.7 FM, with the first hour focused on pop music and the second featuring all local bands and musicians.

“I wanted there to be more avenues for local music. I used to put on shows, but with that off the table, and live streams being very limited, it’s the best way I can figure to support the local scene. And then as for the pop half of the show, I just wanted to listen to some good pop but there wasn’t any,” says Thompson, who adds that he’s excited for a time when performing arts thrive again, “but it is hard to tell when that will be.” [end]

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