by Lisa Mackay
It has been a year since the Rozsa Foundation introduced the Online Programming Grant in response to the sudden shut down of the arts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 23 Online Programming Grants were approved for arts charities by the Rozsa Foundation and Calgary Foundation, with another 29 approved for individual artists and organizations who aren't charities (and so not typically eligible for Foundation grants) thanks to our partnership with Calgary Arts Development. The recipients were companies large and small, and included theatres, galleries and museums, music organizations, festivals, competitions and associations, writers and literary groups, animators, community arts centres, youth and young people’s programs, film festivals and societies, arts schools, and dance collectives. We are nothing if not a rich and varied sector!
In writing this piece, it quickly became apparent that all of the great information, links, learnings, and projects from the funded groups was not going to fit into one article. We will instead be writing a series of articles, looking at the varied and imaginative projects, their implementation, engagement levels, and lessons learned. First up is some of the great programs developed by and for young people.
Many organizations would normally have been delivering programs in classrooms and school gyms and had to turn to providing things online. Evergreen Theatre created science- and environment-based videos accompanied by workbooks, curriculum connections, and activities, which can be found at https://www.evergreentheatre.com/videos. In addition to maintaining the connections they had with teachers and their community, they were pleased to be “providing educators with much needed fun yet curriculum-relevant resources to use with students when in-person teaching of the concepts wasn’t possible.” National Music Centre (NMC) also created videos for classroom use in place of field trips, and found that video was the perfect medium to reach more students than capacity would allow, and to teach complicated concepts like sound waves. They were also able to give viewers a look at valuable instruments that are usually inaccessible to school groups and the public in person. Their efforts can be found at https://amplify.nmc.ca/.
Trickster Theatre also strove to re-create its school residencies online, and chose to invest in the training their artists to work with technology and video production. “The artists in our team tend to work with us for many years and we really wanted to be able to keep them collaborating and learning together through the COVID-19 shutdown. In the end, we created more than 60 videos together in a series called “Tricksters at Home” (https://youtube.com/trickstertheatre).” This became the starting point for significant company-wide digital transformation that will continue past the worst of the pandemic.
The Young Alberta Book Society (YABS) also used video to reach their community of educators, matching literary artists with school students, and providing educators with free resources to help as teachers scrambled to move their teaching online. Unlike some organizations who had some previous experience producing online materials, this was completely new to them, as YABS’s programming has always focussed on in-person experiences and creating connections between literary artists and students in face-to-face settings. Even when schools resumed in person, “YABS artists began to visit Albertan classrooms via Zoom and Google Meets, bringing their stories, their writing tips, and their drawing lessons to classroom Smartboards and students’ computer screens far from their homes.” See their work at www.youtube.com/youngalbertabooksociety.
Quest Theatre and Calgary Young People’s Theatre were also working directly with kids, although in very different ways. Quest ran 13 summer theatre camps over five weeks, all online, and a stunning 87% of participants were new to Quest. 43% were from outside of Calgary city limits, demonstrating the positive potential of online programming to reach a wider audience. Visit https://youtu.be/R_3BHKKyQZA for a glimpse of their work. Calgary Young People’s Theatre created and mounted a new play “FOMO (Or What Did Shakespeare Do During The Plague)” with 11 teenagers. They describe the play as “a ’quarantimes’ play about what it means to try to understand the world around you when you’re locked inside. The play used sonnets, scenes, dance, and camera-based theatrics to connect the narratives of 11 teenagers who are trying to understand the world of COVID-19, dating, Black Lives Matters, mental illness, and self improvement in the month before they graduate.”
Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra created “An Orchestra Adventure,” a 4-part web series available for free on their website and YouTube. In each webisode, Maestro Karl introduces viewers to one of the 4 main sections of the Orchestra (woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion), and calls his friends in the Calgary Phil to help guide in those musical discoveries. The series was produced and directed by Deluxe Design Group (DDG) — an award-winning Calgary-based video production company. The overall quality of the series helped it grow into a popular, entertaining, and impactful teaching resource; as of this March, “An Orchestra Adventure” had already attracted more than 40,000 views. It also sparked a new partnership between the Calgary Philharmonic and KSPN (PBS in Spokane, Washington). The series is now available for free at www.ksps.org/arts-culture/an-orchestra-adventure/ and it will soon be televised on KSPN where it can reach 3 million households across the NW United States, British Columbia, and Alberta.
All of these projects were imaginative and helped keep a strong connection between the organizations and their communities. For some, this was teachers and students, for others, subscribers or creators. Many of them noted that their content and programs were viewed not only by their local audiences, but that being online expanded their reach nationally and often internationally. Most felt that their online programs helped them fulfill their missions and mandates, especially the National Music Centre, who felt that their online education series was “able to tell Canada’s music story to Canadians at large, fulfilling our mission in new and exciting ways that extend beyond our physical building.” Many of the organizations developed new partnerships out of these programs. As mentioned, the CPO had their series attract the attention of an American PBS station, Evergreen had their videos used by the Friends of Fish Creek Watershed Awareness Campaign, and as a resource through the Alberta Council for Environmental Education and the Ecoschools Canada program. NMC was contacted by the Calgary Central Public Library to partner for a virtual summer camp offering, and Beakerhead also took notice of heir work. The Young Alberta Book Society contracted Pe Metawe, a local, Indigenous-owned company, to provide the technical training for their artists, and ended up partnering with them on an Alberta Culture Days event called Tale Quest, where they delivered an online collaborative storytelling program to teens scattered across Alberta. Across the board there were so many lessons learned, particularly from companies that had little to no online presence before COVID-19. The Calgary Young People’s Theatre learned that youth have connections all across North America, and that that base wants to support them by attending shows. The CPO proved that virtual education programs could reach even more people than in-person activities. In a normal season, they would average around 10,000 students, but An Orchestra Adventure has generated more than 40,000 views by March, 2021. Quest learned that young people are more comfortable online than adults are, that the actions of playing with virtual backgrounds, muting, turning off their screen was ok and no indication that young people were not engaged, that performance was not as important as creating and playing together, and that they may not be as accessible to marginalized groups as previously thought. Young Alberta Book Society’s artists enjoyed the learning process as well as rethinking what they present to students and how. Many of them had to distill their usual presentations into their most powerful lessons and consider what is most important to them to share with their audiences. And the National Music Centre gained valuable insight about the types of video that an online audience connects with. They found that certain approaches to framing a topic and tag lines were surprisingly important. Several companies are grateful to have had the medium and impetus to continue their activities, but, in the words of Calgary Young People’s Theatre, “aren’t keen to do a lot of additional online content. This was partially because we value the live form so much that this online substitute, no matter how effective, didn’t fill that well for us.” For these groups, while they were proud of what they achieved during a pandemic, they “hope it will stand as a glimpse into a time that we hope to never have to repeat.” For others, there is no looking back. The NMC, for example, felt that “by building our technical skills and providing new insights into teaching effectively through a camera, we can now embark on new program development with confidence.” Likewise, Trickster Theatre enjoyed “learning and adapting to the current situation in a creative way, which will help Trickster share with more schools and communities in the future!”
We are curious other community experiences in online programming, and would love to hear from our readers: what kinds of programming did you move online? What did you learn about your audiences, and what were other benefits? Will you be continuing online efforts when in-person gatherings resume? Let us know! The Rozsa Foundation continues to fund organizational and digital pivots through our Experimentation Grants. The next intake deadline is May 14, 2021. Contact Simon Mallett at email@example.com to discuss options and find out more.