Monday, February 26, 2024

Near and Now: On the Road

Last month, Same Boat Theatre embarked on a milestone journey to take our play Whale Fall to the Vancouver Fringe for a six show run at the Pacific Theatre. I say milestone because the achievement of taking this play outside of Hamilton to the literal other side of the country was a watershed moment. It also represented a new experience for the company, one I think every artist should strive to achieve.

Like a lot of theatre makers in this city, I have largely seen my work produced as part of the Hamilton Fringe. Local arts festivals, like the Fringe for the theatre, are an ideal launch pad for taking creative risks and starting new work in front of the public. Unfortunately, some work never leaves the festival circuit. And that’s a shame because once a piece has had an initial run it really has a chance to thrive as a mature piece of art on its own.

Now, plenty of work gets a second life in the community where it was first created. And that can create momentum, both for the growth of the work and the artist(s) involved. Look no further than the recent Take Two Festival of Fringe shows at The Staircase. And there’s something gratifying about getting an encore performance shortly after your premiere. But to really test the legs of a piece of art, as well as the producing artist, the work needs to be taken on the road.

At Beyond James we’ve written about the benefits of touring art. But as beneficial as it can be, it can still be an uncomfortable place to work. As a theatre creator, I can attest that you have to perfect the art of the hustle every time you tour. Each stop requires a meet ‘n’ greet with other performers and the public-at-large even as you hit line-ups with postcards and reach out to the media and local businesses. All of it is done in the hope of generating the coveted prize: word-of-mouth buzz. Social media helps, but in big festivals (Vancouver boasted over 80 shows) the ground game push is always in motion. My step counter during my time out West is proof.

Hopefully, encore performances also result in feedback that informs further development of the work. Certainly, this is the case with theatre which can see improvements to performance following the initial run. This sort of growth then garners further recognition and accolades outside of the immediate community. And this is a huge morale boost. Confirmation that the work stands out, especially in larger artistic communities, is the kind of validation that can power creators for years afterwards. And, in my opinion, it just doesn’t happen if the work stays local.

But, an even better reason to tour is the solidarity it builds between the participating artists. Travel is both physically and emotionally demanding, even at the best of times. Throw in the added stress of being at your best for an audience, and it’s all about keeping focus and managing stress. Artists touring together often share accommodation and experiences, both as part of the work and sightseeing on off days, so that often means that everyone is working together to keep a tight ship. 

And, so long as everyone is respectful of each other’s space while also being open to sharing their time, it can foster amazing connections. These connections can then lay the foundation for future collaborations once the company is back home. Certainly, this was the case with Same Boat in Vancouver. The plans we hatched over post-show meals and off-day road trips will hopefully bear fruit for years to come.

So, consider the benefits of taking your work outside of Hamilton, especially somewhere you’ve never been before.  We have to get ourselves a bit lost together, I think, if we’re to find those hidden parts of ourselves that create new stories, new songs, and new images for others to share.

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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