Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Are the residents of Lowville looking for excitement? They’ll soon get it! On July 22, the usually quiet hamlet, nestled in a valley near Bronte Creek in the Niagara Escarpment, will again be transformed into a lively cultural hub. The Lowville Festival, the festival of all the arts “for the artist in all of us” is back for its second season!
True, there are summer festivals aplenty in Ontario. However, two features make this festival unique: opportunities to see local-area professional artists perform in intimate venues, and opportunities for the audience itself to participate, making the experience more interactive and less remote.
The very notion of a festival in Lowville was the brainchild of arts manager Barbara Anderson-Huget, actor Lorretta Bailey, and arts agent Robert Missen. Ms Bailey’s involvement originated with an invitation sent by Mr Missen to local-area performers “young and old” to showcase their talents at the then newly-built Burlington Performing Arts Centre. His intention, she recalls, was to avoid having the centre become a “roadhouse” for large-scale travelling productions “from everywhere else.” Instead, he felt it should be an arts home for local performers. Ms Bailey, a proud resident of Burlington, agreed to sing at the showcase. She envisioned a quick performance, where she would “run in and run out.” Instead, it turned into a 4-hour sojourn. She still marvels at the event, characterizing it as both defining and revelatory. Having previously focussed on performing everywhere but at home, she realized that this showcase marked the first time that she shared her art — a core aspect of herself — with her own community. What’s more, she admits to being “stunned” by the calibre and array of talent surrounding her: slam poets, spoken-word artists, classical pianists, opera singers, and, in particular, one young country singer-songwriter. The artistry was so compelling that she literally couldn’t tear herself away.
That powerful first impression catalyzed a longer conversation with Mr Missen about the fate of local-areas artists, and how to create opportunities to sustain their art. Their first collaboration was the development of Ms Bailey’s solo show “On My Own,” which she performed at various venues, including the Burlington Performing Arts Centre last year. However, since then, the Lowville Festival has eclipsed her own desires to perform in favour of a “greater mission”: to mentor and promote up-and-coming local young artists. As an educator as well as a performer, she sees the plethora of “massively talented kids” who are graduating from performing-arts programs . . . and the conversely diminishing opportunities to showcase those talents. A dynamic annual local festival seems an ideal response.
Prior to the inaugural Festival last year, Ms Bailey and Mr Missen considered various locations before agreeing on Lowville, a “jewel in the escarpment,” easily accessible to a range of communities such as Burlington, Milton and Kilbride. Though in just its second year, all three co-organizers consider the festival a grassroots opportunity that can be grown through sponsorships and partnerships. Not only do the artists gain a performance venue and an appreciative audience, Ms Bailey emphasizes, “they also receive payment, which is so important.”
Her co-organizers have deemed this year’s festival the “tiny, perfect festival,” Ms Bailey chuckles. The offerings are complementary, yet appeal to a broad range and age of audiences. And this year, in addition to performances during the festival weekend, audiences can enjoy some pre-festival fun on July 17 with an outdoor pay-what-you-can performance of The Taming of the Shrew by Driftwood Theatre. The July-22 launch is a gala evening concert by the Lowville Choir, conducted by Wayne Strongman and featuring classical, jazz, musical theatre, pop and crossover musicians from Burlington, Hamilton, Guelph and Toronto. Want to move from the audience to the stage? Festival organizers invite anyone who wishes to sing to attend a rehearsal on July 20. Then, on July 23, children get the chance to participate in a workshop with Dufflebag Theatre at the Old Lowville Schoolhouse, prior to an interactive performance of Robin Hood.
Finally, on July 24, this year’s festival will culminate in a performance of A. R. Gurney’s Pulitzer-Prize nominated Love Letters. In this epistolary play, two people begin a friendship as Kindergarten pen pals and remain friends into adulthood. They recount their lives entirely through letters which they read on stage. Since its debut at the New York Public Library in 1988, it’s been a long-running favourite on Broadway and worldwide, with translations into thirty languages, adaptations into various cultural contexts, and performances by fictional as well as real-life couples. The Lowville-Festival production is highly anticipated as Ms Bailey will perform it with her real-life partner, actor Eric Trask. Though both have performed together before (in fact, they first met while performing David French’s Salt Water Moon), this marks their first time performing together in their hometown, which itself makes it a draw to local audiences, and has already started a buzz.
And well it might. Though Mr Trask quips, “I’m doing it because Lorretta asked me to,” the truth is that the Festival’s fortuitous timing provided the window for them to work together, even at this time where he finds himself “overrun” with projects. Their on-stage partnership has come with a shared commitment to “do it right” and to their usual high standards. This means that they rehearse and they receive direction. Not “winging it” (despite this being a play where they literally read on stage) has yielded a rich series of conversations about portrayals and staging with Mr Missen and Ms Anderson-Huget, both of whom have an expert familiarity with the piece. And while their personal relationship and acting experience might contribute to an expeditious “shorthand,” Ms Bailey and Mr Trask nonetheless appreciate the crucial importance of preparation, especially since theirs will be a one-time-only performance. “Quite frankly, I am confident,” Mr Trask insists, “that on the day, it will be all that it was ever intended to be. The play will find its mark with the audience.”
Though this year’s festival might be tiny and perfect, the founders have their eyes fixed firmly on growth. In the future, they hope to expand opportunities for youth involvement, including the possibility of outdoor concerts featuring young local musicians. They will also expand their offerings through additional concert presentations over the fall and winter. “Oh, and dance,” sighs Ms Bailey wistfully. “We’d love to have dance.”
In the meantime, anticipate and be tantalized by 3 days of the arts in picturesque Lowville: a young – and altogether welcome – summer tradition that celebrates all of us local artists, everywhere.
News You Can Use
What: Lowville Festival
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: July 22-24, 2016
Where: Visit website for venues
FYI: Read here why the inaugural Lowville Festival was Sesaya’s surprise discovery of 2015.
Ⓒ2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya