Opinion: A Christmas letter to the artists of New West

Dear artists of New Westminster:

It’s getting harder and harder, it seems, to cling to the spirit of Christmas.

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In a world that seems increasingly full of chaos, conflict and rising anger, how can anyone who’s paying attention to the state of the planet profess to believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity?

Joy? Love? Selflessness? They all seem so absent from the public discourse as to be laughably old-fashioned notions. And giving? What’s the point of giving when the planet itself is not-so-slowly being consumed by greed and wanton thoughtlessness?

That’s where I was at last week, I admit – allowing myself to wallow, more than a little, in the bleak realization of all that is wrong with the world at this moment. It’s impossible to stand on the precipice of a new decade and not wonder where on earth we’ll be 10 years from now.

But then I started browsing back issues of the papers from the past year, getting ready to write my year-end salute to the city’s arts scene. And I found myself, as I so often do, succumbing to optimism, as story after story emerged to remind me just how many of you were out there in our community, shining your light of hope into the darkness that was 2019.

This year, I’m reaching out to salute 10 of those groups of people.



1. THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE US LAUGH.

If you can’t beat it, laugh at it - and help other people laugh too. New Westminster was full of laughter this year. There’s the ever-present comedy at Lafflines, the new Dirty Little Secrets Improv series at the Columbia Theatre and the series of comedy events hosted by Janice Bannister of Laughter Zone 101 that’s making space for diverse voices. There’s the improv comedy and stand-up that’s part of the Way Off-Broadway Wednesdays fun. And, perhaps most memorably of all, there was Canadian comedy star Shaun Majumder bringing his HATE tour to the Massey Theatre in November – and taking time out of his schedule to talk to the Record, sharing his thoughts about parenting, prejudice and his enduring affection for humanity.

Thank you all for lightening our spirits – and for reminding us that in the midst of laughter, we can learn and grow.

 

 

2. THE PEOPLE WHO SING.

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that my own personal cure for just about everything is singing.

Amabilis Singers, the 65-voice community choir with whom I’ve been singing for the past dozen years, is led by the incomparable Ramona Luengen and pianist Ingrid Verseveldt, two phenomenally talented women who continually inspire and raise us to new musical heights. To them, and to my fellow choristers, I am indebted for the weekly reminder that choral singing – where a group of “ordinary” singers can come together and make extraordinary music - is an expression of all that is right and good in the world.

New Westminster was full of that choral expression this past year – from the sing-along that kicked off last year’s Winter Celebrations at the Anvil Centre, to the New West Sings! pop-up choir at River Market, to the performance by the Real Group at Massey Theatre in February. Not to mention a year full of offerings from Quayside Voices, Vivo Children’s Choir, the Douglas College choirs, the Maple Leaf Singers, the New West Community Choir, and New West performances by top Vancouver choirs including Vancouver Cantata Singers, musica intima and Laudate Singers – and all of those church and school choirs that give people of all ages and vocal abilities a chance to experience the joy of singing together.

As long as we have a world where people stand shoulder to shoulder to raise their voices in harmony, we have a world where there will always be hope in the darkness.

 

3. THE PEOPLE WHO TEACH OUR CHILDREN.

Arts education became a big focus in New Westminster this year, as a group of parents and teachers got together in March to lobby the school board – successfully, as it turned out - for more funding for arts education. To all of the teachers and parents who stepped forward to talk to the board (and to me), my sincere thanks. Steve Clements, Kelly Proznick, Peter Zaenker … they’re just a few of the talented and dedicated teachers who are out there making a difference in our schools every day. To all of those who work to make arts education a priority and to nurture a love of the arts in the next generation  – both in our schools and in a host of other public and private settings, from community centres to dance and music studios – I offer my undying gratitude.

Thanks to your efforts, our children are growing up knowing the value of the arts – and our future world will be all the better for it.

 

4. THE PEOPLE WHO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR OTHERS.

Patrick Street Productions, Herringbone
Peter Jorgensen and Luisa Jojic starred in Herringbone, a Patrick Street Productions show at Anvil Centre. Patrick Street Productions earns a year-end salute for its efforts in creating opportunities for professional artists. - David Cooper, courtesy Patrick Street Productions (files)

“You have to hustle. You have to constantly be creating opportunities for yourself and other people.”

Those were the words of Burgundy Brixx, the burlesque performer and theatre producer who spearheaded a new cabaret performance series at the Columbia Theatre this year. It’s that last part – the creating opportunities for other people – on which I want to shine a light.

Anybody involved in the arts industry knows how tough it can be to make a living in the arts, so all of those who are hustling to make opportunities for others deserve an extra thanks at this time of year. To Burgundy, to Katey Wright and Peter Jorgensen of Patrick Street Productions, to the always hustling Howard Dai, to Stephen O’Shea and the Arts Council of New Westminster team, to Susan Greig of 100 Braid Street Studios, to Trudy Van Dop of Van Dop Gallery, to Jessica Schneider and her team at Massey Theatre, to Amika Kushwaha and Cassius Khan of the Mushtari Begum Festival, and to countless other producers, creators, directors and opportunity makers, I offer all the best of the season.

 

5. THE PEOPLE WHO STRIVE FOR DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION.

Giving a voice to those who’ve been marginalized and excluded from the public conversation is one of the things that the arts does best. New Westminster is full of people and groups who’ve been using their platforms over the past year to give voice to those who’ve historically been pushed aside. There’s Janice Bannister of Laughter Zone 101, who has been using her comedy shows to feature those who haven’t historically been represented in comedy clubs (pretty much everyone, in other words, who isn’t an able-bodied, white, straight man).

There’s the Arts Council of New Westminster, which is on a mission to highlight the diversity of the community, to break down exclusionary barriers and to create a platform for marginalized voices.

There’s Massey Theatre, which has been spearheading a year of LGBTQ+-focused events, from a drag queen spectacular screening of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert to Allan Morgan’s one-man show Pride: For the Young Gay, the Un-Gay and the Jaded Queen in All of Us. Morgan, the theatre’s artist in residence, has been a champion of the LGBTQ+ community and a leader in ensuring the community’s stories are told.

To these and all the other artists who are working to make space for the voices we need to hear, my thanks.

 

6. THE PEOPLE WHO HONOUR INDIGENOUS STORIES.

In a society where the words “truth and reconciliation” are often spoken but not always understood, it’s important to recognize those who are working to honour Indigenous art and to ensure Indigenous voices are heard.

While our local politicians have worked to advance the cause of reconciliation on the civic front, our arts community has also been spearheading a drive to make space for Indigenous stories. The Massey Theatre and Savage Society have partnered on a series of events at the theatre, including new play readings, dance events and visual art. The Anvil Centre hosted the Coastal Dance Festival in February – the event’s first time in New Westminster – and played host to Raven Spirit Dance’s Gathering Light in November. In April, LitFest New West incorporated workshops rooted in Indigenous world views, including Teka Everstz’ mask and movement workshop.

For those making space for Indigenous art, and most especially to those artists who honour the non-Indigenous among us by inviting us to experience your work, all the blessings of the holiday season.

 

7. THE PEOPLE WHO TELL STORIES.

Humanity is, at its core, a species of storytellers. Though we may not often sit in a circle around the fire to pass on the tales of our ancestors, we still rely on stories to unite us and to help us find our shared humanity.

In New Westminster, the storytellers abound. You can find them at a host of special events – at the Anvil Centre’s Winter Celebrations, at the Fraser River Discovery Centre’s Gift of the Fraser festivities, at New West Pride. There are regular Poetic Justice readings and story sharing sessions from the Royal City Literary Arts Society. There’s the Flame storytelling series at Plaskett Gallery and the New West Story Slam event that’s part of Way Off-Broadway Wednesdays, and the PechaKucha series that combines storytelling with slide presentations.

Storytellers have made some headlines in the Record this year - remember Tawahum Bige, sharing his expertise in literary performance at LitFest New West, and Allan Morgan, leading a storytelling workshop series for LGBTQ+ seniors at Massey Theatre. And don’t forget City Stage New West, which has been on a mission to fight growing levels of urban isolation by staging communal storytelling events, in the form of participatory play readings (culminating in A Christmas Carol on Dec. 19).

For all those who are keeping the storytelling tradition alive, and especially to those who are helping to make space for the stories of others, I offer up my deepest gratitude.

 

8. THE PEOPLE KEEPING CLASSICAL MUSIC RELEVANT.

Think classical music is dull? Outdated? Irrelevant? These artists will beg to differ.

New Westminster Symphony Orchestra
The New Westminster Symphony Orchestra has been helping classical music to thrive in New West for more than 100 years. - contributed, files

The New Westminster Symphony Orchestra has been at the forefront of the city’s classical music scene for more than 100 years, making it one of the oldest community orchestras on the West Coast of North America. It gives musicians of all ages and backgrounds a chance to make music and keeps its concerts accessible to the whole community by offering them on a by-donation basis.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra now has a regular presence in New West as well, thanks to the Tiny Tots concert series that runs regularly at Anvil Centre and introduces the youngest audience members to the world of classical music. And the Music at Queens concert series brings in musicians of all kinds throughout the year, including a couple of featured concerts by the West Coast Symphony.

New to the city this year was the Vancouver Chamber Music Society’s concert series at Anvil Centre, which is bringing top-notch, international-level performances to the local stage. (Watch for it to continue in the new year with a special made-in-New Westminster offering, when hometown cellist Tate Zawadiuk returns to New West with the Viano String Quartet.)

And, from a different but equally rich musical tradition, we have the Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance, which brings world-class performers to the stage to showcase the passion and excitement of Indian classical music to people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

For keeping our world’s rich musical traditions alive, for providing a stage to young talents and for helping to open up the world of classical music to everyone, I thank you all.

 

9. THE PEOPLE WHO FEED OUR SOULS.

OK, it’s a bit of a trick category, because, really, all artists are the people who feed our souls. But I want to take a moment to single out those artists who have made it part of their practice to look within and to help the rest of us do the same.

I’m thinking of artists such as Teka Everstz, whose Calling Them: From Within workshop at LitFest in April allowed participants to take a deep dive into their own inner selves and tap into the power of DNA memory; and Julian Legere, who spearheaded a series of workshops as part of Culture Days that encouraged people to pursue a path to Creative Wellness. And I’d be remiss not to mention Vitaly Beckman, the New West-based illusionist who elevates the world of magic from mere trickery to something that taps into the most fundamental questions of human existence.

“I feel like the whole reason why we admire wonder and magic is because we don’t know the most basic answers to the most basic questions: Why are we here? Why are we here for such a short time?” he said in an interview with the Record in May. “Life is fleeting. Wonder is fleeting. It’s beautiful, but it can be so sad.”

All the best of the season to these artists, and to all of you who help us to look within ourselves and to tap into the fundamental truth that art – in all its forms - is at the heart of our very humanity.

 

10. THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE MY JOB EASIER.

From the profound to the somewhat more mundane, I would also be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to pay my thanks to all of those promoters and publicists out there who help me to do my job.

Yes, I’m talking about people like you, Janet Kvammen, for your tireless efforts to promote the Royal City Literary Arts Society and New West Artists; and Erin “Jazz Hands” Jeffery for all your work on behalf of the Massey Theatre team. And I’m also talking about all the amazing publicists out there who always manage to track down local angles for me: Bonnie Allan, Marnie Wilson, the team at Murray Paterson Marketing Group, and so many more. For all your work in sending emails (and more emails, and more emails), in providing photos, in arranging interviews and in every way helping to make sure that I can spread the word about the never-ending array of arts and entertainment offerings in our city, my thanks.

I’ve put a word in with Santa, and you’re all most definitely on the nice list.

 

To all of the people mentioned above, and to each and every one of you who allowed me into your life this past year so that I could tell your stories, I offer my thanks.

However dark the world looks, however bleak the headlines seem, know this: the work you are doing matters. The more we teeter on the edge of the despair, the more we need the hope that artists bring. We need you all to call us together as humans; to make us laugh and allow us to cry, to help us believe in magic, to challenge us to become better people. We need you to continue to push for change, to challenge stereotypes and prejudice, to force us to ask ourselves questions we may not want to face so that in the very act of asking we may start to build a better world. Above all, we need you to help us find ourselves; to delve into the deepest parts of what makes us human and to find a path back to love and compassion when we begin to lose our way.

Because, despite it all, I still believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity. Joy, love, selflessness and giving will never go out of style as long as there are artists in the world.

So carry on. Make your music and dream your dreams, and invite us along for the ride. Together we will forge a better future for our planet – and we’ll do it with a dance in our heart, and a song in our soul.

Peace and blessings of the holiday season,

Julie

 

 

 

 

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