ICAI COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Clare Preuss and Elsha Yeyesuswork from Downstage Theatre
Tell us about Downstage! What would you like our community to know about who you are as an organization?
Clare: Next season will be the 20th anniversary of Downstage theatre, so we’ve been around for a while in Calgary. It was started by Simon Mallett with this idea of creating theatre that creates conversation in the city. These are the things we tend to focus on in new work as well.
A lot of new work involves local artists focusing on topics that are at the forefront of conversation in our community, things that might be a little nerve wracking or scary to talk about, even. And then approaching that with a sense of bringing people together rather than like pointing at a problem in an intrusive way. The goal with Downstage is to create a conversation, so we find pieces of theatre and performances that embrace complex topics.
I think a couple of our shows this year really highlight that. Our show “Gender? I Hardly Know Them” , which was a presentation and tour. And the world premier of “The F Word” , which is happening right now.
"We decided to go into the season with a sense of amplifying comedy"
With Elsha and the other staff members at Downstage and our board of directors, we decided to go into the season with a sense of amplifying comedy. Returning to the theatre after COVID, we realized how much people really needed to have a laugh and relax. I've found for a long time working in theatre that comedy can help us kind of disarm a bit and become a little bit less resistant to things that might be scary to talk about.
We might have certain belief systems and not know why they are in place, we just have them. They may just be from our upbringing, from our social context. So we went with those two shows as sort of one common element. Elsha is working with us on the stage at the festival this year, which features new work by local artists and emerging artists. Both theatre, but also in the realms of comedy and comedy and music.
So “Gender Hardly I Know Them” was focused a lot on gender, queerness and sort of playing very sketch comedy, but meant for folks in those realities rather than the folks that have been made fun of, using queerness as a sense of comic relief. Same goes with “The F Word” where it’s two young women looking at their realities as young a Filipino woman and a young Caribbean woman and being really close friends and their reality living in the world as fat women and what that journey has been for them until now. And again, it’s really written for fat people in a lot of ways, embracing everyone but really kind of centering fatness in the story and creating some size accessible seating options for people. So those are some examples showcasing us a full fledged production and a whole premiere.
Elsha: I run a stream of programming called Theatrical Skills for Social Impact, also focusing on provoking conversation from a place of kindness and curiosity, not necessarily like in an accusatory way. So these are programs that centre on social issues or groups who are not platformed populations; are not formed in the ways that they deserve to be or historically have been excluded. And providing spaces for people to do that sort of storytelling and creation on their own terms. Within the TSSI program is the Stage It group. And Claire mentioned that we're working towards a festival happening in the Spring with the Stage It folks, so we're really excited about that. It's going to happen from May 11 to 14th.
That festival's coming up and features the works of four really talented and young emerging artists who are in the development and process of creating new works right now. Another offspring of the TSSI program is actually working with ICAI that we did last season, which we are really looking forward to now creating a biannual schedule where we collaborate with ICAI on a set of short plays from Climate Change Theatre Action. They are an organization that commissions plays from all over the world. I think there's 50 every year that they do. And then outside theatre companies get to draw them and create whatever it is that they deem that they want to create.
"What we've done is take a master group of local, more established artists in this city and pair them with newcomer artists who are really proficient in their skill set, but perhaps aren't really settled into the creative community and Calgary yet.
We're hoping to continue that every year and stage these plays. I'm really excited for the next one that's going to happen and so far we’re looking at early Fall for the timeline of when people can expect the next round of the ICAI - Downstage collaboration.
How has the partnership between Downstage Theatre and ICAI made a difference for artists and the culture here in Calgary?
Clare: Well, both with our Stage It program, but also with the ICAI collaboration as two artists that met the last round of the Climate Change Theater Action, with the pairing of those more established local artists and newcomer artists. They've now gone on to do a project together that we're going to be working on with them this upcoming season and then it'll be a world premiere with Downstage the season after, so that's the plan.
That kind of planted seeds that have real fruition. They got to know each other through that project and got to know each other’s art and now we’re going on a whole other stage with them. That seems to happen organically again and again in our different Theatrical Skills for Social Impact programs that Elsha is working with, where the artists end up in other projects at Downstage. So we’re really trying to create a community of artists over time.
Elsha: We love ICAI!
"I think it's really incredible that a small arts organization in this city is focused on equity and making sure that the work that we're creating reaches people in a real way outside of the traditional margins of who historically has been able to access the arts. It's really cool to see another organization like ICAI tackle a similar mission as us but in such a different way and doing it so successfully."
Why do you think it’s important to support newcomer and immigrant arts and culture workers? How do you think programs such as these should be further supported?
Elsha: I feel like ICAI was the first thing that popped into my inbox when I started working for Downstage in November of 2020. Toyin reached out to introduce ICAI and what its goals are and said it would be really cool to connect. It was a really open ended invitation. We met and I think the first thing that came from that was the Climate Change Theatre Action project that now is going to evolve into this, like, really beautiful long term schedule, scheduled event that happens every other year.
"We're always trying to find ways to connect with the team at ICAI, because they’re just so great. I think it's such a wonderful pool of artists ICAI is connected with, that we otherwise would not have contact with."
With the Stage It festival for example, although the primary shows that are in that festival are from the stage of participants, we're really keen to reach into ICAI's portfolio, former IAMP mentees, the current mentees and see if anybody would be open to come and share their talents with us in a festival format. Or even if they're not a part of those cohorts, we’re always asking to tell us about who they are and let us work with them. We know that ICAI is so close with the immigrant community in a way that other organizations in the city really aren't. And it's such a wealth of knowledge and resources that they get to share with us.
What is the impact of integrating local artists together with the newcomer artists and arts and culture workers?
Clare: I think Calgary is in a really interesting place right now as a community and as a city. The multiplicity of lived experiences in the city itself. And I mean, I think we're getting there but I feel like there's a real need for this, and having spent about 20 years working in Toronto before coming to Calgary in 2018, I really saw the growth of that kind of trajectory in Toronto. I feel like we're on a similar path.
We need it and I think we're wanting to both attract artists to move here from around the country and from other places in the world but also to really have a look at who is here and what the barriers are for why they might not be feeling that a professional arts trajectory is a possibility in Calgary.
"One of the things that I think the arts community here needs is more artists with various lived experiences, and more of a multiplicity of perspectives that reflect more accurately."
We need to find ways to dismantle some of that. Obviously, some of those things are systemic barriers, for sure. And then other things might also just be internalised barriers, when one doesn’t know what the process is here. So obviously, we're not claiming that, through this program with ICAI alone we're going to dismantle all the systematic barriers - that's a bigger job. But I do think Calgary arts development is one of the more accessible arts councils in the country, so it’s really great having them on our side. I think in a lot of ways and they have a lot of desire to also grow the breadth of artists in the city.
"One thing for sure about the pairing of local artists who have been established here for longer and the newer artists who are arriving, definitely helps to break down certain fears."
Thinking if I go somewhere, I’m not going to know anybody there or I don’t necessarily know how auditions work here, or I'm not sure how to apply for a grant here, and so on but the more you learn about those kinds of things, you feel like you’re a part of the club in a weird way and it gets a lot easier.
The difficulty isn’t necessarily doing it. These newcomer artists and arts and culture workers have the skills to do it but it’s the sense of how do I start and will I be welcomed? And I know that this is something that has come up so many times for so many artists. This came up again in the last round with people often having a real sense of nervousness around the way they speak and what accent they speak with.
Audiences are used to it here in Calgary and I think that’s something different from other major art centers in Canada and North America, people getting used to the idea of who is on the stage and what stories are being told. Even at the F Word premiere, we got great responses from two Filipino community members who were in awe and at how beautiful it was to just see Tagalog up there on the stage, no one is interpreting it, there aren’t any subtitles and we’re just hearing the language. Those of us who know the language - know it, and those of us who don’t just get to listen to the language. What’s really cool is there is an educational ground happening and breaking down the barriers.
"It's exciting to have the sense of growing the base of artists that are here and we see it happening quite quickly. It's also a city where it can happen quite quickly, which I think is really exciting."
Elsha: The work is better if there are other people involved. And I think in a city like Calgary, and maybe in the arts in general, any sort of space where institutions, long term institutions are sort of in control of the access that people have to the kind of work that's being created. You get repetition, right. It's a lot of the same. Over and over again. You see the same faces, see the same people, the same sort of perspective, the same stories regurgitated. As an artist and an art lover myself, I find it just fundamentally boring, unequal and overall not great.
"I think it’s incredible for ICAI to exist in a city like this because I've never once viewed it as a form of charity to extend to migrants who want to be in the arts. It’s not like that at all. We really need organizations like these to exist."
Being held back from awful reasons to not participate in the arts because you're afraid of not being understood in your accent, if that's the thing that's holding people back, is just terrible.
Will I be allowed in the space where nobody looks like me? These sort of mental barriers that keep people out of the arts, to us as our arts viewers and consumers, is such a disservice because then we don’t have access to the ideas of these people who have so much to offer.
"So I'm just always really excited about the potential for what could be new, what could be interesting, what kind of art is going to be brought in by someone who might not have otherwise found themselves in the capacity to create if it wasn't for an organization like ICAI."
It requires so little to get people to get out of their shells a little more. That’s what I’ve learned more than anything in the Climate Change Theatre Action. It requires so little to get people to gather people at shows and have performances with each other. That alone, the practice of being present in a theatre space over and over again, I think just makes people feel like they’re allowed and welcome to be here. Suddenly you have all of these other things that come after that which feel like its very little effort but very high reward.
Which opportunities can you think of that are accessible to newcomers and immigrants in Calgary and could benefit from?
Clare: Elsha is leading these workshops mostly on Zoom that are pretty open and free!
Elsha: We’ve been running workshops for about 8-9 months now and they are semi-monthly, usually every single month. They’re always free, always on Zoom, and usually in the evening once people are done with work. By doing this, we are limiting people’s barriers to access. They are on a variety of subjects and you can choose to come to all of them or just the ones that only interest you.
Clare actually led one focusing on mental health and being creative, how to take care of your mental health as an artist. We’ve also done grant writing workshops for people who aren't familiar with the grant landscape and how to go about accessing funding as an independent artist.
We’ve also done artist talks with people in the community and artists that we think are interesting to come and tell a little bit about their stories and engage with other people in the Zoom, on a more Q&A basis. They vary month to month but that’s always something we’re keen to get people into. You literally don't have to do anything except log on, and you then have access to some knowledge that you might not have had before.
Recently I’ve also been a big fan of cold emails, which yes it may sound scary but honestly had someone told me a few years ago that you can simply go on the website of whatever organization you find interesting, go on their staff directory and send an email introducing yourself and what you are about, I would definitely do it more. You may inquire about any available opportunities for a way to be involved even if you’re not sure what exactly that would entail. I just highly recommend it because there are always people like me that are in search of it. Yes, it’s a scary thing to do, and I get it.
"I just really encourage anybody who feels like they're not sure where to start to just send an email to someone that you think is interesting or works in a place that you want to get your foot in the door and just see what happens."
THANK YOU to the Downstage Team for their hard work and contributing to the Calgary arts culture!