Artistic Director Spotlight: Gregory Oh, Open Ears Festival

Open Ears welcomes a new Artistic Director to the fold for the 2014 Festival. Gregory Oh, known for being a “new music revolutionary” is a renowned concert pianist, conductor and musical director.  We checked in with Gregory to get the scoop on his vision and plans for one of Waterloo Region’s favourite festivals coming later this month. This is your first full festival as Artistic Director, would you tell us about your vision for this year’s festival and how your programming choices will reflect it? Every community is held together by its stories, and I wanted to tell the stories of our region and also find some new ones. Our stories, even at their most intimate, are compelling and often universal. We have many local artists participating – Majdi Bou-Matar, Mike Farwell, junctQín keyboard collective, PSQ, Leslie Ting, DaCapo Chamber Choir and InterArts Matrix plus Kitchener-native John Millard and his Polka Dogs in addition to the many artists brought from near and far. What were your takeaways from the first mini-festival you programmed in Kitchener last fall and did that learning impact your choices for the 2014 Festival? In what way? I confirmed what I always suspected – Kitchener is a hub of cultural innovation, and there is an amazing support for creative art in the community. I am a bit of a risk-taker, and that’s why it is so gratifying to be in a community willing to give the unfamiliar a chance. There seems to be an increase in programming for the 2014 Festival.  Is that true and if so, what was the thinking behind that change? This is by far our biggest festival in terms of size and duration. I didn’t intend this – I guess when I was brainstorming ideas I liked so many of them that I just made the festival longer. With any luck, it’ll also be our most successful! Open Ears has always had close ties to other arts organizations in the community but this is the first time the festival has partnered with CAFKA to present concurrent events.  What was the inspiration for this new endeavor? What do you anticipate will be the impact on audience experience? I alluded to this before – this region is known for technology, but to me it is a wellspring of cultural innovation. With CAFKA and Open Ears running at the same time, and bringing in IAM, PSQ Quartetfest, the Summer Lights Festival and other local groups, we are creating an incredible experience to be had. Our artists tell our stories, and what a wealth of stories that will be told across all mediums in June! Also – what a wonderful excuse for friends and family to visit! You’ve worked on an intriguing range of projects in your career already across many different genres and mediums.  What are your musical influences and what keeps you always moving towards new creative ideas and experiences? I’ve always gravitated towards the art of our time. I think that rather than wishing for happiness, I’ve always wanted richness in my life, and nothing is more enriching than the artists among us that speak about us to us. I love many types of music, but I even love music I don’t like – that’s important – to have opinions and tastes but to also embrace what is scary or unfamiliar. How do you balance the many faces and projects of Gregory Oh from concert pianist to theatre director, conductor and now Artistic Director of Open Ears? Hmm…your guess is as good as mine. What are your hopes and goals for the Open Ears Festival under your direction? Continue to enrich the region. Continue to be enriched by the region. Try as hard as we can to create something truly innovative and wonderful, and don’t be afraid to fail.

Artistic Director Spotlight: Christian Bernard Singer, The Clay & Glass Gallery

The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery has been a long-standing site for contemporary arts, with critically-acclaimed exhibitions that challenge ideas and perceptions of art, craft and design today. As Canada’s only museum that specializes in ceramics and glass, it’s a national treasure trove of art in our own backyard! We caught up with Curator Christian Bernard Singer to get some insight into the Gallery’s upcoming events. Q: The Clay & Glass Gallery is currently running its Spring Exhibition. What can we expect to see? A: It's one big show of nine artists that's in two spaces. There are three shows: the design show, new function, and non-function. We have nine designers that look at the idea of design and what design is.  So in some cases the work is functional, and in other cases the work is non-functional and more conceptual. And while the show is about design, there are surprising twists and turns, but lots of colour, lots of fun, lots of beauty, and lots of ideas. But in all cases, it is eye candy. If you were going to reduce me to one phrase, I would say that it’s eye candy with meaning. Q: Tell us a little more about the thought process involved in picking what is showcased in the Spring Exhibition? A: The biggest thing that I am looking for when I look for work is the element of surprise, as well as the element of conceptual depth. There's a word that I love to use - ‘intentionalism’. Intentionalism to me is removing anything that can confuse, and thereby you have a work that is at its brightest pitch.  A lot of different people can then experience that work and bring their own experience to the viewing of it. It becomes about the viewer and how they feel rather than whether they got it wrong or not in terms of understanding that work.  Because ultimately work is inspired by an artist's idea, and is informed by their technical mastery of their material, their experience in making art, the way they look at the world and their own experience as humans on the planet.  But that's what got them to make the work, and a really good work should be able to transcend that. Q: You are an accomplished artist and come from a family with an artistic background. How do you think it influences the choices you make as a curator? A: It's huge. The fact is that I'm a very hands-on curator. This is an unusual thing - most curators develop an exhibition thesis with or without an artist in mind and then they develop the show based on that idea. I see the museum environment as an opportunity for artists to push themselves so far beyond what they could possibly have expected. To create works that are much larger than they could have imagined.  I coach them throughout that process.  And I do that by bringing my own experience as an artist, my experience at university level teaching, my various curating experiences...especially when you're working with an artist who is maybe emerging or mid-career. The mid-career and senior artists often don't have a chance to have an honest conversation with another professional about their work and I'm happy to do that - I kind of actually insist on it. Q: Why do you think senior artists don’t get as much feedback? A: Because your friends may not tell you the truth anymore (laughs).  It's not that I know everything - but it's a fresh eye perspective.  And it's a calling to them to go beyond. Even the simplicity of the way an exhibition is installed can be completely refreshing to the artist.  To see the way that their work has been installed and they didn't expect could ever be installed in that way. For instance I've done retrospective exhibitions, and I tend to shy away from looking at a retrospective exhibition from a chronological point of view, which I find is totally boring and predictable.  I would rather look at it from a perspective of what mythological ideas they are interested in,  and how do I combine various works so that they almost seem to have a conversation together that you just happen to come upon.  Surprising little things like that just bring the work and make it alive for people.  That's always what I'm looking for. Let's face it - for most of this stuff, it’s static stuff. Even an installation, it's just sitting there.  How do you turn that into theatre? It should be a theatrical experience when you go see an installation, but it's often not. Q: What is your vision for the The Clay & Glass Gallery in the coming years? A: When the gallery was first built, most of the work that was shown here was work on plinths - a lot of functional work.  And since then, the creative explosion that has happened in both of the medium of ceramic and glass have joined the wider art world and have opened up this place to be a real showcase for new ideas in contemporary art.  My vision for this place is to foster that. To continue to explore, to bring in works that challenge our perceptions of what art is.  Challenge our perception of who we are and what we're doing here, as well as doing it in a way that celebrates beauty and the material gorgeousness of ceramic and glass. It becomes eye candy with meaning - and I really think that that is something that will draw people in.

Artistic Director Spotlight: Claude Cloutier

The TD Kitchener Blues Festival experienced what Executive Director Rob Deyman called “its most successful year yet” in August of 2013. Presenting top notch emerging and established acts from Canada and the US, it’s no surprise that audiences are coming from far and wide to experience what’s quickly becoming one of Canada’s favourite outdoor music festivals. We caught up with Artistic Director Claude Cloutier to share with us some of his secrets to success. Congratulations on recording your biggest numbers yet at the 2013 Festival. The Festival has been around for 13 years now, how do you manage to keep the festival fresh and growing year over year?  This is going into my eighth year with the festival and every year has been a real treat programming wise. I can certainly attribute the success over the years to the dedication of our organizing board and volunteers. Our success would not have been possible as well without the support of our granting groups and sponsors who step up to the plate each year and invest in our festival to keep it a free admission event. I would be the first one to admit that I have a propensity to not repeat artists year after year. I do bring back some but by and large I like the freshness of the festival year after year. I am not really caught up in the notion that the TD Kitchener Blues Festival remains a pure Blues based festival. In fact, very few “Blues” Festivals throughout the world follow this mandate. I am quite aware that the Waterloo region and beyond is blessed with an incredible amount of talent so it makes it easy for me to showcase these bands on a yearly basis. This will always be a given at the festival. It’s important to have a well balanced mix of [genres] I believe to appeal to the varying demographics. I’m really like a kid in a candy store when programming this festival. Last year you introduced a number of younger acts meant to attract the 20 something demographic such as Great Lake Swimmers. How did that work out? Did you see any major shift in your audience demographic? My focus is to keep the festival fresh and interesting to as many people as possible without really going outside of the Blues box too much. But I have been pushing that envelope. I find it rewarding to see such a wide demographic at our festival. I think our audience really does have a broad knowledge of music. We certainly have developed a reputation over the years of presenting a quality artistic program. Even though there are recognizable artists at the festival, it’s also the ones that you don’t know that you should check out as they will be your surprise. Generally speaking, I think that people, young and old love music and I believe that they will continue to come out as long as the quality remains high. Tell us about your role in the festival and your process for choosing who to present.  Do you make the artist selections yourself or do you work with a committee?  Do you travel to other festivals to see what’s hot? I do like to take suggestions from other committee members and I also count on people giving me suggestions year round. I ultimately make the decisions myself but I need to be engaged in what is out there. I am very fortunate to be on the nominating panel for Canada’s Blues Awards- The Maple Blue Awards. I dedicate a lot of time listening to the great Canadian talent that we have and also read monthly Blues publications. I do check out other Blues Festivals in an effort to find that one great live performance.  I have such a love of music in general, not just Blues but Roots/R&B/Bluegrass/Country/Punk/Alternative/Soul/Rock/Celtic /Folk. The list goes on and on and I dedicate a lot of time listening to all of it. Perhaps this gives me a unique perspective in programming the Kitchener Blues Festival. I don’t know. What role do you play in young artist development as the director of Blues Fest?  Have you seen any local acts grow with you?  Well, I would like to think that I do. Aside from my role as Artistic Director of the TD Kitchener Blues Festival, I am also very proud of my association with The Grand River Blues Society. In my 10 years with this organization, we have hosted youth friendly jams and we also have been running a Youth Blues Camp the week of the KBF. We get 40 plus campers every year learning Blues based music to finally perform on stage at the Kitchener Blues Festival. Many of our campers have gone on to teach this program such as Matt Weidinger and Colin White. The KBF also hosts an annual Youth Legacy Challenge in April for Youth 21 and under. The winner of this challenge gets to open up the Main Stage at The Festival on Saturday. The TD Kitchener Blues Festival also conducts Blues in The Schools programs yearly. I am very proud of the efforts we have put into educating and fostering our young musicians to keep it up and develop their talent. What impact has the festival had on the local Blues scene? I think that the festival has had a tremendous impact on the local Blues scene. As I mentioned before, with all of the activities that the festival and the GRBS have done over the years in fostering Blues music with the youth in our community, our musical richness can only improve. It does not matter that you play Blues, as long as you pick up an instrument and play, we can only grow richer culturally in our community. Toronto’s Scene Magazine ranked the TD Kitchener Blues Festival in the top ten best festivals in Canada with an overall experience rating of 9 last year.  Did you imagine the festival would take off the way it has and extend its reach so far outside Waterloo Region? We have been programming some great Blues talent over the years and this has paid off as we have many visitors from across Canada and the US visiting our festival yearly.  I think we do well in our programming to appeal to a variety of people and ages. What’s the mix going to look like for 2014? Can you give us any hints on who to expect or is that all under wraps until the April 4 festival launch party? The festival offers a different flavour every year and attempts to remain fresh.  We have our announce date on April 4, 2014 so really can’t divulge too much so that we can have a surprise that evening.  I can say that that if you love Blues, Rock, Roots, Cajun, Folk, Soul then you will like the festival in 2014. What’s the next step for the festival? Well, it is a monumental task in providing this free admission festival on a yearly basis. Getting to the point of being financially sustainable is our focus right now. We need the support of corporate sponsors and granting organizations to help us keep this event a free admission event. For the last 4 years, we have been hosting a Thursday Night admission show to help us raise money. And last year, we hosted a Sunday night closing show for a fundraiser as well.  The group of people putting this great festival is working really hard all year. They are a dedicated and knowledgeable group and I can assure you that the music will always be top notch. We hope that the community and our corporate sponsors will continue to support us moving forward.

Artistic Director Spotlight: Majdi Bou-Matar, MT Space

Waterloo Region’s MT Space celebrates ten years this season under the artistic direction of Majdi Bou-Matar. We asked Majdi to talk about the success the theatre company has enjoyed and to provide some insight into their exciting upcoming projects. Q. Please tell us about your role as the founder and artistic director of MT Space, a company which has grown significantly in size and reputation over the course of the past ten years. Before coming to Canada in 2003, I was an actor with the Afro-Arab Centre for Theatrical Research (CAAFRT) in Tunis. There I gained great interest in the intercultural aspect of theatre. Being on stage with African actors with whom I did not share the same language strengthened my belief in a physically-oriented inter-cultural theatre based on improvisations where spoken language is never a barrier. I found in Canada, with its official cultural policy, an ideal place to advance my knowledge and practice my art along with artists who share the same passion. I have founded the MT Space to be a conduit for professional artists from diverse cultural backgrounds to share ideas, integrate in the community, and create new and innovative art, while at the same time build Canadian experience to be able to join the Canadian theatre industry. I believe that immigrant artists, and those from diverse cultural backgrounds could play a much larger role in the shaping the future of Canadian theatre. Q. What attracts you about telling stories of the many diverse cultures that make up Canada? MT Space believes in theatre that builds communities, changes policies and instigates social change. Our theatre creations are political, relevant, and challenging. The first question I ask myself when confronted with an idea for a new show is: “who cares?” I look for topics that are urgent and dangerous. Q. How do you go about developing those stories into a stage play? Once we identify the relevance and urgency of a certain topic to a specific community/ies, then we start our field research, interviews and discussions. We seek out community members with stories to tell, and professional artists (actors, designers, playwrights, musicians) that have something to say about the particular issue or topic. We immerse ourselves in the locality of our topics, themes and stories. We dig deep into the histories, the traditions and the memories of our actors and characters alike. We harvest the body and its cultural baggage. We work together based on a strong recognition and acknowledgement of our differences. We use such differences to create friction and spark actions that are thoroughly shaped and negotiated with much research, talent and artistry. We combine our disciplines and devise the work collectively. Q. Tell us about The Last 15 Seconds, the company’s flagship piece which is to be remounted at The Registry Theatre April 2 – 5. The Last 15 Seconds was devised using the process described above and tells the story of the tragic death of Syrian-American filmmaker Mustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima during a series of co-ordinated attacks in Amman, Jordan in 2005. Akkad is the director of two major films both starring Anthony Quinn, The Message: the Story of Islam (1976) and Lion of the Desert (1982). Akkad saw these films as a way to bridge the gap between the Western and Islamic world. Using movement, dance, video, vocals and text, The Last 15 Seconds constructs an imagined physical and verbal dialogue between Akkad and Rawad Jassem Mohammad Abed, the suicide bomber who carried out the explosion that killed Akkad. The play delves into the imagined history and memories of both the victim and his killer as they revisit each other’s lives after their fatal encounter. With over 70 performances in 12 different cities (including a tour to the Middle East) this play became one of our success stories. Listed as one of the top 10 plays in 2011 by both the Toronto Sun and theatre critic Lynn Slotkin, the play has garnered standing ovations and rave reviews across Canada and beyond. Q. Beyond producing and touring your own productions, MT Space also presents plays from around the world.  How do you go about selecting shows to present to the community? There are various reasons that make me chose a show to bring to this community. Most of the time it is work that I see or know of and I find that there is a mutual benefit for both of us – the artist and the presenter – to invite the work to Waterloo Region. It is about the voices that are not often heard and the stories that need to be shared. It is about the social responsibility I feel towards my own community in Kitchener and area and my wider community of Canadian artists and theatre makers, especially those of Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds. Q. You’re presenting Brimful of Asha at the beginning of May.  It’s an interesting little piece of theatre featuring Toronto-based actor Ravi Jain and his real-life Indian mother having a conversation about arranged marriage.  The reviews are very good and audiences from Toronto to Vancouver have raved about it.  In your opinion, what makes this show work so well? It is funny, exotic and about marriage! This play is about the challenges that arise out of the hope for happiness that you want for your parents (or for your kids). People of all backgrounds can identify with the parent-child relationship and the show works because both performers are so good at engaging the audience. On top of that, everyone gets to eat samosas! Q. As if running a presenting/producing and touring theatre company wasn’t enough, a few years ago you also launched Impact Theatre Festival, an impressive addition to Kitchener-Waterloo’s cultural fabric.  Congratulations for dreaming it and successfully pulling it off most recently in 2013.  What inspired you to take on such a major endeavor as an international festival? I think that our international festival IMPACT was a natural next step for our company. Since the very beginning I had the ambition to create a forum for sharing work and ideas. IMPACT was designed to bridge the local and the international, the emerging and the established, the ‘multicultural’ and the ‘mainstream.’ It is part of our efforts to ‘brown’ Canada’s stages and to share our cultural diversity and vibrancy with the rest of the world. Q. What’s the next big thing for you and for MT Space? The next big thing for us is to go to the moon or maybe to Mars. It is dreaming the impossible!

SPOTLIGHT: Artistic Director Phil LeConte, KW Comedy Festival

We continue our spotlight series in this conversation with Phil LeConte of the KW Comedy Festival (formerly the Uptown Waterloo Comedy Festival).  The Centre is pleased to partner with this growing local event to present their Gala performance on March 6, 2014 which will feature a full evening of fantastic comics including headliner Steven Wright. Q: How did the KW Comedy festival come to be?  PL: Well in 2006 I started the Waterloo Arts Festival, which was an annual event held in Waterloo Park, and four years in I had one of my sponsors ask me if I had ever considered running an event in the Uptown Core. I had already thought about one day starting a Comedy Festival but now I knew that I would have initial support going in. I proposed a plan, budget and 3 months later in March of 2010 we held the first annual UpTown Waterloo Comedy Festival. Q: What does it mean to you to be the Artistic Director of the KW Comedy Festival? PL: Artistic Director is only part of my job as executive producer. But I suppose that the Artistic Director portion involves choosing all the comics and performers, putting together all the shows and line ups. And to be honest this is the fun part of the job. I watch a lot of comedy online and try to see as many live comedy shows as I possibly can. It is a great feeling when you put together a show and hundreds of other people get to experience what you made possible. Q: How do you select comedians for the lineup? Is there a theme each year or do you look for certain types of comedians? PL: Most of the comics I book I have either seen live or have done much research to make sure that they are up to the highest standards that we have been trying to achieve at the festival over the last 4 years. I want people to trust that even if you are not familiar with a specific comic that you can feel good about buying a ticket and knowing that you will have a great time. I also review submissions from agents and comics alike. Every year we get more and more inquiries and that is a good sign. To me it means comics and agents are speaking highly of our event and how we run things. And aside from a few new theme shows we are running this year I always try to have a mix of comics with different styles - this way our audience has more choice and can always find a show that appeals to them. Q: The Festival has grown significantly since it began five seasons ago.  What do you think has contributed to your success? PL: I think that the growth is due to a few things. Number one we received a lot of positive support from the Uptown BIA, local businesses and all the local media before we even started and that support grew with the event. Second I had great support from my staff, friends and family. Lastly, I think that we / I had a plan to not compromise the quality of the comics or the brand we wanted to create all while taking our time to expand when it was right. Q: What else is new for the 2014 Festival? PL: The biggest thing is that we have expanded into Kitchener. So we are now officially the Kitchener - Waterloo Comedy Festival. This expansion opens us up to more venues, which means more ticket sales (hopefully) and that creates the opportunity for more shows and bigger names. It has also allowed for us to partner with Centre In The Square for our opening night Gala. Without such a partnership we would not have been able to secure such a great headliner as the Comedy legend Steven Wright. In addition we are having 3 theme shows, the Ethnic Late Show, the Rainbow Show and the Homegrown Show, all which are new to the festival this year. Q: What are your hopes for the future of the Festival? PL: I hope that the festival will live on for many years and that its reputation both with audiences and performers will be at the highest level for any event around the world.