The Artist Spotlight series aims to celebrate creators at a time when art is being consumed the most. This week features some of the artists and creatives behind YES Theatre, a Sudbury – based professional theatre company that epitomizes the meaning of collaboration through their unique artistic process. Founder, Artistic and Managing Director Alessandro Costantini, along with Resident Production Manager Crystal Lee, Resident Choreographer Janie Pinard and long time Resident Actor, Singer and Performer Ruthie Nkut, spoke with artsUNITÉ about the vision of YES coming to fruition, and share what they’ve been working on during the downtime of the pandemic.
Q: YES theatre was founded by a group of high school students who are now working at some of the most prestigious institutions in the Country. Can you talk a little more about the growth from grassroots to the organization it is now?
When we began we had one intention and that was to produce HAIR! It was a tremendous summer full of community spirit that led to a huge success. At the time, no artists were paid; we fundraised about $40,000 to cover the costs of the rentals, (theatrical) rights, set and costumes and some simple marketing. The community support was incredible. No one had any real experience in the professional theatre, as most of us were high school students. However, in the years following that production, many of our artists chose to pursue post – secondary training from various theatre schools across the country. As the individual artistic process of our artists progressed, we recognized the potential to build something more meaningful within our community. We were successful with creating community within the work itself, but wanted to expand the vision to ensure the work we were producing was of a very high level, would be thought provoking, able to inspire and educate our audiences, and to prove that young people were capable of contributing something excellent, and significant to the cultural landscape.
Now we have arrived at a place where the company is just slightly under the $1,000,000 operating budget. Since 2010, we have produced 20 productions with over 230 artists, and welcomed over 60 thousand patrons to the theatre. We are currently developing Canada’s largest musical theatre festival, provide training opportunities to emerging artists, developing new original musical theatre works, launched our very own Orchestra and have many more plans to continue to expand our programming from the Summer months into the full calendar year!
Q: Can you share a little about yourselves and your individual background in the creative field?
Click below to hear a little more about each artist’s background, in order of speaker: Crystal, Ruthie, Janie & Alessandro. (0:00- 06:24)
Q: YES has a rather unique approach and highly collaborative artistic process wherein you intentionally include artists (and community members) with various levels of experience in your productions. Can you share a little more about this concept of a citizen artist?
“The definition of a Citizen Artist is someone who lives, works and plays in the community in which they create and who values artistic connection.” – Alessandro, YES Theatre
We welcome artists of various experience levels, with a wide variety of skills and perspectives. We also believe that everyone is capable of artistic excellence. Theatre can be a very elitist industry, and through this process of merging Professional and Community practices we look to dismantle some of the structures that make it so.
To me, community theatre ideology is about creating an environment for the individual to have a meaningful experience, and provide a sense of community and purpose through the arts. The professional ideology is more rooted in the impact of the work; what it provides to the audience and an artist’s ability to share their vision. Through this merger of ideologies and utilization of artists ranging from high school students to trained experienced professionals – which includes people who are nurses, teachers, accountants by day and actors by night – we arrive at a unique ecology of people on stage that is reflective of the community. Therefore, the community is reflected in the audience.
There are many reasons why a person may choose not to pursue a full-time career in the arts. I use the term “full time” with skepticism as I recognize that most artists have secondary jobs to pay their bills. What we try to achieve is creating a space where artists young and old, who are talented and committed to the craft, can work in a professional setting and be a part of creating something excellent.
Click to listen to Janie & Alessandro delve deeper into the collaborative artistic process of YES theatre. (12:37- 15:06)
Q: What have you witnessed the reception and/or impact this merged structural model has had on the artists and creative/theatre community in Sudbury? Have you seen increased interest in the arts, specifically theatre since the incubation of this approach?
There has certainly been renewed interest in the theatre. We frequently hear patrons saying how grateful and impressed they are to see members of their own community doing such wonderful work here in Sudbury. This may seem like a small compliment, however it’s important to us because we can recognize that audiences are beginning to develop a sense of ownership over the work and the artists they see on stage. This builds their appetite for more theatre and engagement in future works.
Many regional communities see many of their artists relocating to major urban centres for more opportunities; I wanted to create a space for local artists to work in, and return to. Sudbury has always had a very rich cultural identity, with many long standing organizations who have accomplished incredible work. However, in terms of the theatre, there was no organization that was solely focused on providing professional work to local artists. Since our inception, we’ve seen 18 of our artists pursue post secondary training in theatre arts, and all of these artists have returned to Sudbury to work for YES.
Most importantly, we are instilling the belief that even if you are not always in pursuit of a career in the arts, if you have other passions that lead to other work, you can still be recognized as an artist. You can still work as a professional and contribute to the arts and culture community.
Q: Is there a quote/ mantra you live by, if so, how has this shaped your practice?
Click below for some gems, including “D.W.A.I – Don’t Worry About It” and “Cut your head off” (06:24– 11:40)
Q: The theatre industry has been hit hard over the past 6 months. How have the pandemic and physical distancing measures affected the theatre/ your individual abilities to work and collaborate?
We had to cancel our 2020 Summer festival productions of A Chorus Line and Disney’s Newsies. We’ve decided to shift these productions to next summer pending that limitations on gatherings have been lifted. In the immediate future, we are focusing on smaller scale work. So much of our work at YES have been quite massive musical productions. We are focusing on developing some of our commissioned projects and turning to more intimate offerings – things like a 2-3 artist cabaret, 2-4 hander pieces- all in the planning stages right now but we’re hoping to make some announcements by the end of September!
For the last couple of months, we have been very focused on internal strategic planning and policy building. We have never had quite enough time to dig into that work in a meaningful way as we’ve always been on a speed track towards opening a big ol musical! The pandemic pause was actually a profoundly useful time to do this work. We recently hosted a small retreat where we brought together some of our resident artists to examine our past and to look forward toward the future.
Individually, all of us were all pulled off various projects in March when the pandemic hit, but have been keeping busy and actually creating more during this time. For many of us, this was the first summer off in 10 years! Ruthie is enjoying a change of pace while she waits to hear about starting back production of Billy Elliot in NYC, while Janie has enjoyed watching the seasons change and finally started a home garden. Crystal has gone back to some of her transferable skills, as mentioned above she has been working on some important infrastructure and policy making not only with Alessandro and YES theatre, but freelance as well.
Q: How do you envision the future of in-person/ interactive events like theatre & art shows and live music events, given physical distancing measures and reduced capacity of indoor spaces? Is the future all digital?
It has been quite inspiring to see so many innovative companies and artists across the globe finding ways to continue to work, to entertain and create community offerings. I believe once we really nail down the new and necessary safety precautions that allow for safe gatherings, we will see robust artistic experiences emerge all over! I think people are very eager to have live performances back in their lives (safely, of course). I went to see my dear friends Viviana Zarillo and Jesse Collins at the Orillia Opera House in mid August in their production of On A First Name Basis It felt totally safe – 50 people distanced in the 677 seat theatre – and was very special to sit in a theatre with a group of mostly strangers and watch a play.
I guess I am trying to embrace the fact that it will be different for a while, but also know that there will come a day when we will be able to return to the large offerings we are used to creating; and when that day comes, I think we will see an interest in the theatre like never before. I believe the consideration of digitizing live work is wonderful. I am full in support of making our work more accessible to a wider demographic, and when it’s digital, it can be seen from anywhere in the world… its WONDERFUL! However, I don’t think we will see a future that is completely digital. Live performance and congregation I believe to be integral to society and to our ability to experience a rich and full life. It won’t ever die!
Click below to listen to hear Alessandro speak about changing the narrative & the future of in-person events. (11:42-12:36)
Q: What do you think companies/collectives/local organizations need to be focusing on to address the ongoing systemic racial inequalities in the arts and culture sector?
It’s been important for us to examine how we contribute to those inequalities, specifically in terms of our leadership and the opportunities we create for BIPOC artists. I think it is imperative that we focus on training and education, the arts and artists themselves have major responsibility here because of the platform our work provides. We have the potential to create cultural shifts through our work; exposing young people to a diverse range of narratives, providing BIPOC and marginalized youth with opportunities, ensuring that there is strong representation within our leadership – these are the things we are working towards strengthening at YES. We plan to build relationships with the school boards so that we can get into the schools in our community and provide workshops led by BIPOC artists to expose students to the theatre. With budget cuts to arts education, we must ensure we are building bridges to access young minds whether that be through our programming or other initiatives in schools. Sudbury has an incredible brand new Black Lives Matter Chapter that has been doing very powerful work in our community, led almost entirely by new generation people.
We must ensure we collaborate and share our already developed platform and audience with underrepresented cultural groups. Crystal has begun work on some personal ancillary projects which includes creating a database for BIPOC artist to list their services and skills for hire in the industry (a similar concept to the work of previously featured artist, Alex Punzalan’s BIPOC tech list). I also think it’s tremendously important that we foster new ideas and collectives that are being led by young POC’s. This way, there isn’t the same sort of systemic undoing required to take place unlike many of the more established arts organizations with long histories.