David Cooper is renowned for the skill with which he captures energy and light in photographs and film. But the multiple-award-winning artist was not appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020 only for his “innovative contributions to Canadian performance photography,” but also “for his dedicated mentorship of emerging artists.” One of the many ways in which he has shown that dedication is his support of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community in which he is based.
Cooper has taken countless photographs for the DTES Heart of the City Festival since the annual festival began 19 years ago, and for Vancouver Moving Theatre – the festival’s main presenter, along with Carnegie Community Centre and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians – for at least three decades. The festival photo sessions at his studio have been community-building gatherings and the festival provides copies of their photos to the culturally and socially diverse artists who live, perform and create in the neighbourhood. This year’s Heart of the City takes place Oct. 26-Nov. 6, with more than 100 events throughout the DTES and online.
It was Vancouver Moving Theatre co-founder Terry Hunter who introduced Cooper to the Heart of the City Festival, since it involved artists, writers, singers and storytellers and Cooper’s career has always been in the arts. Though that wasn’t always where his interest lay.
“I started training at U of T [University of Toronto] for architecture,” Cooper told the Independent. “It was a five-year undergraduate program and I came out west after my second year, as a break. I’ve always had a camera but never had formal photography training beyond a summer course at Banff when I was a teenager. Through a friend, I checked out a local theatre company to see if they needed any photos taken. Eventually, I was given a chance to shoot a play at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, directed by Christopher Newton. They were really excited about the results from a dress rehearsal and offered me a job. I spent four years there in the publicity department, also creating posters and marketing material.”
Cooper is from Forest Hill in Toronto. He grew up in a conservative Jewish neighbourhood. “I went to Hebrew school but I stopped practising Judaism when I moved out west from my family,” he said. “I still go back for special occasions and joined the JCC here in Vancouver.”
As a theatre, dance and music photographer for more than 40 years, Cooper’s photos and videos have publicized more than 60 companies throughout Canada and the United States. The Shaw Festival, Bard on the Beach, Arts Club Theatre, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, 605 Collective, Karen Flamenco Company, Vancouver Opera, Vancouver Symphony, Electra Women’s Choir, Chor Leoni Men’s Choir, Spirit of the West and Uzume Taiko Drummers are just a dozen-plus of the groups with which he has worked. He has been a stills photographer for several TV series and his dance videos have been shown internationally. In addition, he teaches and mentors students, holds workshops for both amateur and professional photographers, and photographs for theatre and dance schools.
Among the many recognitions Cooper has garnered, he received a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award in 1995 for his outstanding contribution to the Vancouver arts community and was elected a pioneer member of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I’ve mostly been a theatre photographer, shooting live shows,” said Cooper. “I spent 15 years shooting film and transitioned to digital in 2001. It was a Canada Council grant in 1978 that took me to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to learn more about ballet and I spent two weeks in class and rehearsals documenting the process.”
Firefly Books in Ontario recently published the coffee table book David Cooper Body of Work: Theatre and Dance Photography. Each of the 500 copies published includes a limited-edition print signed by Cooper.
“I have worked with a great graphic designer and art director, Scott McKowen, for 30 years, photographing marketing materials for the Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival, Yale Repertory Theatre, Canadian Stage, Theatre Calgary and others together,” said Cooper of how the publication came to be. “He suggested we compile all our work into a book and include my dance work that is separate from the theatre.”
According to Firefly’s website, the book includes essays on Cooper’s theatre photography (by Newton, artistic director emeritus of the Shaw Festival), on his dance images (by Vancouver writer and arts commentator Max Wyman) and on his marketing images (by McKowen). Ballet dancer Evelyn Hart “has contributed an appreciation, and Cooper himself discusses the most intimate relationship between photographer and subject – portraiture.”
When asked what the most gratifying parts of his career are, Cooper told the Independent: “Working with talented performers. Getting to travel all across Canada and the U.S. shooting for different arts organizations.”
The Nov. 1 online event Finding Grounds for Goodness includes the première presentation of Finding Grounds for Goodness in the Downtown Eastside, which was created during last year’s Heart of the City Festival. (photo from Jumblies Theatre)
This year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 7, includes the screening of short videos from Jumblies Theatre and partners on the theme of “social goodness.”
Jumblies’ multi-year Grounds for Goodness project is an artful exploration of why and how people sometimes act in good ways towards each other. As it has adapted to community-engaged art-making during pandemic times, this project has generated a varied and whimsical collection of short videos with communities and artists from around Canada.
At the Nov. 1, 4 p.m., online event Finding Grounds for Goodness, hosted from Toronto by Jumblies staff, a sampling of these short films will be shared, including the première presentation of Finding Grounds for Goodness in the Downtown Eastside, which was created during last year’s Heart of the City Festival with DTES creative community members and Vancouver and Toronto artists.
Jewish community member Ruth Howard is the founder and artistic director of Jumblies Theatre, which makes art in everyday and extraordinary places with, for and about the people and stories found there. The Jumblies project was originally inspired by the history about the rescue of Albanian Jews during the Second World War by Albanian Muslim people.
Composer Martin van de Ven, an expert in klezmer and Jewish music, who has been involved in many Jumblies projects, told the Independent, in an interview last year about the DTES’s Grounds for Goodness, about besa, “an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania,” he explained, “during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning.” (See jewishindependent.ca/highlighting-goodness.)
The festival at large
The 18th Annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is presented by Vancouver Moving Theatre in association with Carnegie Community Centre, the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians and a host of community partners. It will feature more than 100 events throughout the DTES and online.
This year’s festival theme, “Stories We Need to Hear,” resonates today as people grapple with the dramatic impact of the pandemic, ongoing displacement, the fentanyl crisis, and the reality of bigotry and systemic racism.
In the words of late DTES poet Sandy Cameron, “When we tell our stories we draw our own maps, and question the maps of the powerful. Each of us has something to tell, something to teach.”
The 12-day festival includes music, stories, poetry, theatre, ceremony, films, readings, forums, workshops, discussions, art talks, history talks and visual art exhibitions. The Art in the Streets program features surprise pop-up music and spoken word activities on sidewalks and small plazas throughout the historic district.
A few highlights of this year’s festival are We Live Here, a large-scale outdoor project projecting hyper-speed videos of Downtown Eastside artists’ artwork, produced by Radix Theatre; Honouring Our Grandmothers’ Healing Journey Launch, three days of ceremony, teachings and storytelling honouring grandmothers who traveled to the DTES (with Further We Rise Collective and Wild Salmon Caravan); and Indigenous Journeys: Solos by Three Woman, which profiles local artists Priscillia Mays Tait (Gitxsan/Wet’suwet’en), Kat Zu’comulwat Norris (Lyackson First Nation) and Gunargie O’Sullivan aka ga’axstasalas (Kwakuilth Nation).
Elder and activist Grace Eiko Thomson reads from and talks about her book Chiru Sakura (Falling Cherry Blossoms), which chronicles her and her mother’s journey through racism, and Eiko Thomson’s advocacy for the rights of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. In My Art Is Activism: Part III, DTES resident Sid Chow Tan shares videos from his archival collection that highlight Chinese Canadian social movements and direct action in Chinatown, particularly redress for Chinese head tax and exclusion. And the ensemble Illicit Projects presents Incarcerated: Truth in Shadows, three shadow plays dedicated to people who have faced unjust treatment in Canada’s incarceration system.
Other events honour various DTES performing artists and shared cultures. The festival involves professional, community, emerging and student artists, and lovers of the arts.
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
* * *
Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
The theme for this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is “This Gives Us Strength.” One of the more than 50 events that will take place over the festival’s 12 days is Spotlight on the East End on Oct. 30, 8:30 p.m. Curated by artist-in-residence Khari Wendell McClelland, the online presentation will feature “the compelling creativity and strength of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside-involved artists and residents who illuminate the vitality, relevance and resilience of our neighbourhood and its rich traditions, cultural roots and music.” Among those artists is klezmer-punk accordionist Geoff Berner, with whom JI readers will be familiar.
JI: You released Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis late last year (jewishindependent.ca/honestly-jewish-and-radical) and you also had a new musical, then COVID hit. What have you been doing creatively over this time?
GB: I just finished working on a lovely project for KlezKanada with the great theatre artist Jenny Romaine and a lot of other talented folks. It’s called Vu Bistu Geven? (Where Have You Been?) and it’s about figuring out the history of the land that KlezKanada takes place on. It was commissioned for their 25th anniversary. It felt particularly right to work with Trina Stacey, a Kanien’kéha singer, researcher and teacher. We talked a lot during the making of the piece about the value of recovering our ancestors’ languages, in order to find a way to think outside of capitalism and colonialism.
JI: You were scheduled to perform an outdoors concert in Roberts Creek Sept. 11. Did that happen? In what ways does an in-person audience affect your performance?
GB: Yep, that concert went off nicely. Everyone was outdoors and properly distanced. The folks in Roberts Creek are lovely. I’ve played only two other shows like that since the pandemic, one at a park in Vancouver, for Alan Zisman, and another in Chilliwack at the Tractor Grease. It sure was nice to play live again. It’s been a bit of a strain these past months, not being able to do the thing I’ve devoted my life to doing. I miss that magic human connection that only live music can do.
JI: What inspires you to participate in events like the DTES Heart of the City Festival?
GB: What inspires me is the honour to be invited. I’ve tried to be a friend to folks in the DTES, opposing displacement by City Hall-backed developers, fighting to stop the war on drugs, fighting against legislated poverty, and other stuff. It means a lot that I’m allowed to be part of things.
JI: Chelm is a recurring theme/subject in your work. If you had to offer “advice from Chelm” for people coping right now, what might that be?
GB: Advice from Chelm? Well, Chelm was the “Village of Fools” of Jewish legend, but in fact it was a real place, where the people had to struggle to survive. They weren’t fools at all, just ordinary people trying to live. Several fine Yiddish poets came from Chelm. So the advice from Chelm is, the real fools are people who look down on communities of other human beings.
JI: You helped start the BC Ecosocialist Party. Any opinions on the election you’d like to share?
GB: I have real hopes for the BC Ecosocialists. B.C. voters need to at least have the choice to be able to vote for people who will actually stand up against LNG, Site C, legislated poverty, colonialism and the war on drugs.
Heart of the City festival participants. (photo by David Cooper)
Community is at the heart of what Ruth Howard, Maggie Winston and Sharon Kravitz do, so it is no wonder they are participating in the Heart of the City Festival, which features more than 100 events at more than 40 locations throughout the Downtown Eastside Oct. 26-Nov. 6.
One of the projects is Realms of Refuge, which Howard (of Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre) describes as “an episode of Jumblies’ Four Lands national tour, which itself grew out of our 2015 west-to-east-coast tour, Train of Thought, for which Vancouver Moving Theatre was a key partner.” VMT is the main presenter of Heart of the City, and Howard has known VMT’s co-founder and artistic director Savannah Walling since 2003.
Realms of Refuge’s “four lands” concern senses, memory, history and dreams, explained Howard. “Over the course of the [two-week] residency, artists and community members create and bring to life these lands, through drawing, miniature models, words, music, movement and conversation. There will be drop-in art-making sessions at the Interurban Gallery (the project’s home-base), as well as some workshops in other locations with community groups and partners…. An open-ended number of people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities can take part in the activities and come to enjoy the evolving artwork.”
The intent of the project, said Howard, is “to spark thought and conversation and promote curiosity and understanding about the lives and experiences of people living on the same land.
“The ‘evolving gallery’ form, which I first invented and started to play with at Jumblies in 2009, involves setting up the framework for artistic creation in a gallery, studio or other suitable public venue, launching the starting point and facilitating its growth over a period of time. Generally, it starts with visual arts activities and then moves on to include words and simple performance. The idea is, rather than opening a gallery exhibition to be viewed in its finished state … we set the context for something that can’t happen unless diverse people come and take part; the nature and specifics are determined by those participating people, and we celebrate its closing state.”
Howard founded Jumblies in 2001. “I was always seeking ways to combine esthetic and social values and impact, and to blur distinctions between process and product; audience and participant; story and history; ritual and theatre; art and life,” she said.
“In 1990, I encountered the British ‘community play’ form, brought to Canada by writer Dale Hamilton, in a production in the Guelph area called The Spirit of Shivaree. This was for me a life-changing experience: I found a form of art-making that combined epic-scale theatre with wholehearted social inclusion and an astonishing capacity for social change.”
Howard wants to make art in ways “that don’t fit into standard disciplinary delineations,” to collaborate with others who have skills and perspectives she doesn’t, to learn “from people, places and stories that have tended to be left out of our cultural mainstream” and to “bring people together across real and perceived differences and remove restrictive delineations,” such as “youth” or “marginalized people.” She wants to “create an exciting, accepting and nourishing home and creative/social worlds in which my children – and also my friends, family, neighbors, colleagues and co-inhabitors of the land – can grow up and live,” as well as “have quirky ideas large and small and have the freedom to explore, develop and realize them.” She would like for art to be “at the heart of life.”
When asked if Judaism or Jewish culture has influenced her, Howard said, “My mother was a German Jewish refugee, whose immediate family escaped to England in 1938, just after Kristallnacht. Her father was a businessman and excellent amateur violinist, and her mother was a painter, well established in the Hamburg avant-garde arts scene before the war. I was brought up with a strong non-religious Jewish identity. As an adult, I joined a Toronto secular leftist Jewish organization (the United Jewish People’s Order and their summer community, Camp Naivelt), in which community I brought up my three children.
“Altogether my Jewish sensibility is hugely relevant to my life and work,” she said. “I was brought up with art as an essential part of life – both doing it … and witnessing it…. I was also brought up absorbing that it is important never to leave anyone out; not to support, tolerate or ignore separation of people into exclusive groups; always to have space at the table for unexpected guests; to welcome everyone; that ‘never again’ means ‘never for anyone.’”
Through her association with UJPO, Howard “learned to interpret and celebrate Jewish holidays for their social and cultural relevance to struggles of all humanity for survival, freedom and dignity.” She has created an oral history/theatre project with Camp Naivelt and, more recently, adapted a series of Passover seders to include the telling of other vital stories, such as Toronto’s indigenous history.
“When I first heard the word genocide used in relation to the treatment by European settlers of Canada’s indigenous people, I was stopped in my tracks; it was something that I couldn’t put aside…. Since then, I have made it a priority to learn and form relationships so that the work of Jumblies could support First Nations recovery, justice, equity, and new awareness for all of us who live here…. My ongoing artistic preoccupations include inherited memories of and present relationships with eradicated places, and the interplay and relative merits of remembering and forgetting. These themes are woven into the Four Lands/Realms of Refuge project. It isn’t particularly a Jewish project, but it springs from my particular Jewish mind … and the Vancouver iteration, with its focus on places of refuge, happens aptly to take place during Sukkot.”
Jewish culture has also influenced Winston, who grew up in a secular family.
“My upbringing in a family that is very engaged in politics, culture and the arts has definitely influenced who I am and how I approach the world,” said Winston. “I do believe that being culturally Jewish has contributed to my sense of being an advocate for others, of being confident in my ability to ask questions and explore ideas, and in feeling as though I am part of a greater community. Growing up in the United States in a suburb of Baltimore that was pretty white and Christian, I did feel different from my peers even though Baltimore has a huge Jewish population. Enjoying that feeling of differentness has led me to being a creative professional.
“Jewish folklore is a great source of inspiration and I would love to learn more,” she added. “My solo puppet and clown show Just Enough is based on the Yiddish folktale Joseph’s Overcoat, in which something is made from nothing and then passed down through family. In my version, it features a grandmother (a puppet) and her granddaughter (me, as a clown). The grandmother makes a quilt out of her old clothes for her baby granddaughter and, as she grows up, the grandmother cuts and sews it into other things for her until all that is left is a button.
“As a theatre artist,” she said, “I am drawn to ritual and tradition in many forms. I have always found support for my work in the Jewish community, not only in Vancouver (through the JCC and the Chutzpah! Festival), but in other places around the world. I have started to make a few connections in the Jewish community in Montreal and am excited to see what evolves there.”
Winston only recently moved to Montreal, where her mother and grandparents grew up there. “Every summer of my life has been spent at our family cottage in Morin Heights, Que., just one hour from Montreal,” said Winston.
When she graduated in 2005 with a BA in puppetry performance from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she wanted to move to Canada and, in the end, chose Vancouver “because I knew I could get to know people in the arts community easily through my relatives. Actually, it was through my aunt that I was originally connected to Terry [Hunter] and Savannah [Walling] of VMT back in 2008 when I got to be involved in We’re All in This Together, a shadow project in the DTES.”
However, “the pang of Montreal called me more and more,” so, this past January, she made the move. “The reason why I’m back in Vancouver right now is because of some other projects I had already planned last year…. Right now, in addition to working for Heart of the City, I’m collaborating on a music and puppetry project with Laura Barron (Instruments of Change), facilitating students in a Vancouver elementary school and then repeating the same project with students at a school in India. We did a similar program two years ago, and had already decided it would happen again this year.”
With Heart of the City, Winston is both an artist liaison, as well as a performer. She’ll be in It’s a Joke! – which has the theme “‘Stand-up for mental health” – with the Assembly, a group she’s been with about four years. “We are a playful and lofty collective of process-oriented, performance-driven, self-identifying women clowns, producing shows two to three times a year,” she said.
“Our performances at Gallery Gachet [on Oct. 28] will feature a few of the regular members of the Assembly doing short solo or duo acts from some of our previous shows,” she said. “In terms of the theme of the event … I can’t speak for stand-up comedy, as I’ve never done that before, but I can say that my mental health has been significantly affected for the better by my experience with clown. I know many other people who are similarly influenced. I hope the audience who attends this evening will get a taste of the deep psychological and spiritual power this art form has.”
Winston was in the festival last year with her solo show Just Enough and she has participated for several years – and will again this year – with Healthy Aging for the Arts, a program at Strathcona Community Centre. The group started in 2005, and it “consists of Cantonese-speaking women between the ages of 70 and 95. Every year, we explore a different style of puppetry with a theme that resonates with the members of the group. Sharon Bayly and myself have been the lead facilitators for the last five years.”
Winston noted that most of the seniors have been together since the beginning. “We all have aged together,” she said, “and I’ve been able to see the direct positive effect that art-making has on the well-being of these women.”
Despite the obvious importance of community in her work, Winston said, “I didn’t know that I was a community-engaged artist until other people started to identify me as such and until I started understanding the language of and paradigms of the art form.”
She said, “I always just did the kind of work that interested me and I got involved in whatever projects I could. I came to Vancouver with the intention of being a professional puppeteer and quickly discovered that, if I wanted to make puppet shows, I had to educate everyone around me, collaborate with artists of other disciplines and be as inclusive as possible…. Community engagement to me is simply sharing what I love to do with others. It’s about creating something together from scratch – from the ideas of those involved in the project…. I was never interested in being a traditional theatre artist, going to auditions, headshots, taking directions without having a say in them; I just wanted to tell stories and perform them creatively. Community engagement became an avenue for doing that.”
Community, in particular the DTES, is a focal point for Kravitz.
“I felt a connection to the Downtown Eastside and particularly the Carnegie Centre almost immediately upon moving to Vancouver. I volunteered at Carnegie and then, the following year, I proposed a community public art project on the corner of Main and Hastings. My first night in the Carnegie in the winter of 1993 and my first summer on the corner are moments I will never forget. Coming there helped me become more of the person I wanted to be and so it will always have a very special place in my heart.”
Kravitz will come to Heart of the City with We Can’t Afford Poverty, “a participatory project that highlights the widening gap between rich and poor through community-driven art.”
“We will be making several appearances throughout the festival,” she said. “We’ll be co-hosting a print-making workshop with WePress, we’ll be taking part in the documentary night, we’re having an exhibit of kids’ art in the third floor gallery and we’ll be popping up throughout the festival with our mobile video soapbox.”
The arts play countless roles in individual and community health, she said. “The act of making art together and the bonding that happens through that process, the ability individually to respond to external and internal issues creatively helps us feel less powerless. It changes how we think, and it can change how others think.”
For Kravitz, in Judaism, “like all faiths, there is the common belief in how we treat others, and the knowledge that there is something in the world greater than all of us, who and whatever that is to someone. I grew up knowing that we needed to help each other, and it’s why were all here – to make things better for each other.”