The Real Mackenzies were ready to play the Starlite Room on March 13 when the venue’s co-owner and MacEwan alum Tyson Boyd made the difficult last-minute call to cancel.
On Friday, March 13 at 6 p.m., Tyson Boyd had a band on stage, sound checked and ready to play. He had already reduced the show’s audience from 400 to 250 people, installed hand sanitizing stations and implemented new protocols. Then, the co-owner of the Starlite Room, who is also a MacEwan University Arts and Cultural Management alum, got a call from Alberta Health Services.
“We couldn’t confidently achieve that with a punk concert – we knew we were going to have an active crowd,” says Tyson. So he broke the bad news to ticket holders, then sat down to talk with the band, their agent and their label in Montreal. An offhand comment lamenting that the concert couldn’t be streamed online sparked a big idea.
“I realized it was entirely possible,” he says. “We called in a couple of techs to operate HD cameras from multiple angles and produced a board-recorded stream – a bit like creating a live album on the fly.” At 10 p.m. that same night, they shared the Real McKenzies’ full set on social media using Starlite Sessions – a digital venue they had quietly launched a few months earlier to act as an incubator for developing local artists.
Although Starlite Sessions was never intended to feature the venue’s headliners, the unplanned foray into the digital world definitely filled a momentary gap, and has potential to do even more. Since mid-March, Starlite has streamed several live performances, following strict protocols for cleaning and physical distancing. The response has been incredibly positive, says Tyson.
“People have been pretty blown away at the quality and that we were able to make it happen so fast,” he says. “But adapting is something people in the music industry are used to – we work large, live events and festivals with factors that are constantly changing.”
“We’re inviting digital services and products and experiences into our little bubbles of isolation and engaging in ways we never have before.”
Annetta Latham, an assistant professor in arts and cultural management who researches cultural policy and urban regeneration, also isn't surprised by what she’s been seeing online over the past several weeks.
“Creative people create – they can’t help themselves,” she says. “With COVID-19, the script has been thrown out and the world is improvising – we’re inviting digital services and products and experiences into our little bubbles of isolation and engaging in ways we never have before.”
This placemaking, essentially activating a space within a local community, says Annetta, is usually physical – installing public art, for example. But since mid-March, there has been an explosion of digital placemaking. Music venues, art galleries, theatres, opera houses – and the artists themselves – are inviting audiences to share spaces with them in ways most of us never expected.
“I’ve seen more artists’ bedrooms and basements than I ever thought I would,” laughs Annetta. “It’s the human scale of what we’re seeing – the realness of it – that is giving it so much strength.”
That humanness is at the heart of the Citadel Theatre’s Stuck in the House Series, which launched on March 20 and features a number of MacEwan alumni. Chantell Ghosh, the Citadel’s executive director, says the series has racked up over 100,000 views and more comments and shares than anything they’ve ever posted on social media.
“We decided to do Stuck in the House knowing that it was not going to be perfect – because nothing about this situation is perfect,” says Ghosh. “It was about finding our common humanity and cobbling together moments of lightness and brightness amid all the cancelling and postponing we were having to do. I think there has always been a fear in the arts that if you drop the curtain, the magic goes away, but I think it actually makes the magic so much more powerful.”
The Citadel’s Stuck in the House Series featured an artist a day (including several MacEwan alumni) from March 20 to April 20.
Rather than an online version of the polished shows the Citadel normally produces, the 10-minute Stuck in the House vignettes give viewers a peek into the lives of performers they would usually only see on stage. Megan Dart, a MacEwan Distinguished Alumni award recipient and graduate of MacEwan’s applied communications degree, invited people to join in on a birthday baking experiment with her three-year-old daughter. Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter, who both attended MacEwan’s theatre arts program, walked viewers through a day in the life of social distancing in their two-artist household. And Luc Tellier, also a theatre arts alum, presented a hilarious solo adaptation of a notorious feline theatre production.
Not only was the series a way to help connect with audiences during an indefinite period of confinement that Chantell calls “the extended intermission,” an accessibility grant from the Edmonton Community Foundation also made it a small income opportunity for the Citadel’s artists.
“Artists can’t work from home – their work depends on an audience,” she Chantell. “We wanted to make sure artists received something, and we also wanted to bring attention to the fact that their work has stopped.”
Award-winning MacEwan music alum Dan Davidson organized the first COVID-19 digital music festival on March 28 and 29.
As paid artistic work of all kinds screeched to a halt, Dan Davidson, an alum of MacEwan’s music program, was also thinking of ways he might be able to help.
“For touring musicians, shows and tours can represent about 80 per cent of our income,” he says. “I’ve been in music for the last 10 years – it’s my only job – and it’s a point of pride for me to be an active member of the music community and to try to support people around me doing the same thing.”
So Dan set out to host the first COVID-19 digital music festival in support of the Red Cross and the Unison Benevolent Fund, which offers counselling and financial aid for people in the music community who need help.
Borrowing the name and branding for Diesel Bird, an outdoor music festival he was thinking about hosting a few years down the road, Dan started making phone calls and inviting big-name country artists including Dallas Smith, Corb Lund, Terri Clark and Meghan Patrick to join him. Before he knew it, the line-up for a full day was packed, and the decision was made to add a full second day of performances from artists across a mix of genres, including Big Sugar and Josh Ramsay of Marianas Trench. Over the course of that single weekend, the Diesel Bird Digital Music Festival earned 35,000 unique watches and raised over $53,000 for the Red Cross and Unison.
“In only two weeks, it went from an idea to a live broadcast with some of the biggest stars in Canada,” says Dan. “It felt like a triumph of the indie spirit.”
“When we tried to get by without the arts, we discovered that the things that might have been considered add-ons or nice-to-haves have a much greater role in our day-to-day lives. They are essential.”
But where do we go from here – what comes next in these uncharted waters of digital placemaking? Are these efforts just a temporary stopgap, or do they have the potential to permanently change how we consume art?
“Globally, the arts is a multi-billion dollar industry,” says Annetta. “Not only are companies around the world going to have to think about the challenge of how to bring audiences back into their physical spaces, they’re also going to need to decide whether they continue to keep making these digital offerings available after the restrictions are lifted – and if they are going to try to monetize those offerings. How we manage the opportunities and challenges that come with digital engagement is going to be critical.”
Here in Edmonton, Dan is already thinking about what the next Diesel Bird Festival might look like. The Citadel Theatre has moved all of its teaching programs online, and is offering workshops and master classes for free during the month of May to entice more people to give online theatre education a try. Tyson has been hearing from festival organizers, event planners, fashion designers and DJs who’ve been forced to cancel plans to see if the Starlite Room might be able to help.
The bottom line?
“The arts and cultural sector is never going back to the way it was before,” says Annetta. “This virus is changing the face of our industry around the world. When we tried to get by without the arts, we discovered that the things that might have been considered add-ons or nice-to-haves have a much greater role in our day-to-day lives. They are essential.”
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The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes the exceptional achievements of alumni who have earned prominence within their profession or service to the community.