In the wake of the Magnetic North cancellation last week, (to say nothing of the hopefully non-permanent Puppets Up cancellation) I’ve been thinking a lot about the way momentum works in the theatrical ecosystem.

Festivals of all kinds are effective because they create an environment where many different creators can come together, and do the administrative work of building momentum around the festival itself that gets people to pay attention. This leaves more time for the artists to focus on their work. They bring their distinct audience bases together, and a sort of cross-pollination happens that is much harder to facilitate when you’re on your own.

This is why a performer can sell out their run at a Fringe Festival, and still struggle to draw a crowd if they mount the production on their own; it’s much easier to redirect people already in motion than to get them out of their houses in the first place. The festival has a sort of critical mass or gravity that draws people to it, and that the artist can subsequently access and direct to their particular ends.

Just for example, (and principally because I have these stats readily available), the NOC’s web traffic during the Ottawa Fringe Festival is nearly half of our total traffic for the year. That’s partially due to the large number of productions that we see in a short period of time, but definitely not entirely. During Fringe, we write about 2 times the number of posts as during another busy period, like, undercurrents Festival, but our traffic is more than 3 times higher. The principal reason has to be the volume and diversity of patrons the Fringe generates. We can’t do that on our own. And neither can the performing artists at the festival.

Now, let’s back this up to momentum.

dilbert momentum

If we look at the MagNorth context, the festival itself had been running for 13 years, but due to its transient nature, every second year it had to accomplish what amounts to a complete reset of it’s momentum. Finding venues and local promoters and word of mouth traction and other key players in a different city every second year. And then, in alternate years, return to Ottawa following what amounts to a 2-year hiatus. It’s hard to build momentum like that. And when you don’t have momentum, everything has to go right for the venture to be a success, for that momentum to build.

People are really upset by the cancellation; MagNorth has made a huge difference in people’s artistic careers. Here are just a few quotations I’ve gleaned from social media and elsewhere this week:

“Fringe taught me how to make a show, but MagNorth taught me how to package it” (Nancy Kenny, Artistic Director of Broken Turtle Productions);

“This is devastating. I have been a part of 12 of the 15 festivals… the growth of the Canadian theatre community as it is, exists in part because of this festival,” (Louisa Adamson, Production Manager of 2b Theatre);

“The Magnetic North Theatre Festival lit a fire in me as a young’un and introduced me to how big bold and beautiful theatre across a country as big bold and beautiful as ours can be, and I’ll miss it dearly” (Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, Outreach Coordinator of Fresh Meat Theatre Festival, and Centaur Theatre)

MagNorth was a fantastic venue for artists and industry professionals, and by all accounts they were doing the work needed in the attendance department as well. It’s unfortunate that they experienced a granting shortfall (join the club), but the lack of momentum in their physical patronage, not to mention in the coveted mental space of the public certainly didn’t help matters.

There’s something indescribable about events like festivals- but, perhaps ironically, I’m now going to try to describe it anyways. I think the thing that makes a festival feel like a certain kind of magic is the willingness of people to be surprised and be open to discovering new things.The same sort of thing happens at conferences, or intensive workshops, or retreats. What all of these things have in common is that they establish themselves at a remove from “everyday” reality. The festival is a period of time where the normal rules don’t apply.

Its disappointing that this major theatre festival has been cancelled. But it doesn’t mean that we have an excuse not to build the world around us into a sort of permanent festival. We can. We just need to make a commitment to the work. Because it’s not actually magic; it’s work.

So here’s my question: why? Why do we choose to separate these bright spots from the day-to-day of our lives,? Maybe I’m naive, but it seems like instead of relegating these special times to the margins of our life, we might do better by building more brightness-supporting structures that we can inhabit daily. If I live in a glow of art and conversation and optimism during the Fringe (or MagNorth), why can’t we imagine and build that brightness for the other fifty-and-a-half weeks of the year?

The answer is quite simple. We can. But the pre-existing structure of the festival isn’t in place to support us. We have to work to make it for ourselves. You know, bring our friends to the theatre with us, talk about it together, make new friends with other people after the show and talk about it with them. It’s a question of priority. Making time to do the work that makes the connections and openness of festival time easier in the rest of our lives

If you decide that it’s actually more important to go to the theatre (or whatever it is that makes you happy) you’ll finish that whatsit that you need to get done when you have the chance. You’ll do it now, rather than scrolling facebook for an hour and doing it later. And here’s the part where momentum comes back into it: once you start changing your behaviour, it’s easier to do it differently again next time; the people around you will notice, and want to join the party; the work of building that structure is spread out a little; it’s easier to do it again next time.

The costs of getting started on something are always steeper than the costs of keeping it going. I think this is true in all facets of life. Web design, writing, acting, investing, knitting. Momentum again. So if we stop stopping, and start starting, (and keep them started) things will move. So let’s get going.


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