Changing Hamilton’s theatre landscape

Much ink has been spilled covering a Hamiton’s successfully growing arts scene. The Art Crawl is a monthly staple on the calendars of the city’s art lovers. Cool venues like Casino Artspace and HAVN hold some of the best exhibits and events in the Hamilton core. The community theatre scene is as robust as ever; the Hamilton Fringe Festival enlivens downtown each sweltering summer with a smorgasbord of performance offerings, and Theatre Aquarius looms over the landscape as the region’s professional theatre house. But how does Hamilton keep emerging theatre artists in town, sustainably producing their own work? How can Hamilton’s indie theatre scene develop and flourish in a way that creatively satisfies audiences and artists while also remaining affordable and enabling theatre folks to earn a living wage?

In 2015, the Hamilton Festival Theatre Company – mother company of Hamilton Fringe – embarked on an educational initiative called ALERT (Artistic Leadership and Entrepreneurial Training Program). The goal? Train the city’s next generation of artistic leaders and bring young Hamilton-based artist-producers together to create a new winter theatre festival. “We wanted to offer a program that would give emerging artists a hands-on experience in producing a festival —providing them with the tools to create their own work and therefore live and work in Hamilton,” explains the organization’s Interim Executive Director, Marilo Nuñez.

Together, the Hamilton Festival Theatre Company and these intrepid young producers planned and executed the first Frost Bites Festival at the historic Cotton Factory in February 2016. The city’s first and only site-specific performance festival, over 400 people attended.

Each year, the festival is held at a different location to give theatre artists an opportunity to build performances. Eight companies were chosen to construct performance ‘bites’ no longer than 20 minutes each on rotation during the festival dates, with audience members choosing which shows they’d like to see.

Frost Bites provides an opportunity for Hamiltonians to view work that normally wouldn’t be seen in the city – and gives artists a chance flex their creative muscles. Participating companies visited the AGH and chose a location on the grounds around which to create a performance. “The site’s specific nature is new to me,” says Ryan Sero, Artistic Director of Make Art Theatre, one this year’s Frost Bites companies. “I’ve seen it done and thought about it a lot, but there was something weird about walking through the AGH, looking around, being shown all of the potential performance areas and thinking, Okay, what could I do here? For me, the interesting thing has been discovering what the space ‘wanted’ and working from there.”

By its nature, theatre is an intimately collaborative process—between designers, playwrights, performers, administrators, and audiences. The seven members of the 2016/17 ALERT team emphasize the role of collaboration and mentorship in their training program and in producing Frost Bites. The young producers are paired with both artistic and theatre business mentors such as Anna Chatterton (Dora Award-nominated librettist, playwright and performer), Christopher Stanton (sound designer, actor, and director), Derrick Chua (entertainment lawyer and award-winning theatre producer), and Lorna Zaremba (General Manager of Theatre Aquarius).

Carlyn Rhamey, one of the young ALERT members and creator of the solo show Saor at last summer’s Hamilton Fringe Festival, praises the program’s focus on gaining hands-on skills from seasoned professionals. “As an emerging artist, you can be a bit timid when it comes to asking an established artist out for coffee to pick their brain,” explains Rhamey. “But both my artistic mentor and producing mentor sat with me for hours, answering all my questions, giving advice and new ideas.”

After learning from their mentors, each ALERT member applies their new knowledge by assisting a Frost Bites company in different areas of producing. “I’ve met with my company a few times and been in constant contact over the last few months,” Rhamey says. “I’m also the festival’s Opening Night Coordinator and am working on planning invite lists, raffles, ‘thank yous’ and more.” The festival runs from February 16-19, with tickets available at www.HamiltonFringe.ca. It’s a chance for everyone to witness exciting theatre produced by new artistic leaders that challenge both artists and audiences. In Hamilton’s growing indie theatre scene, it is a young festival that will make a lasting impact.