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InterMISSION Residency Program: Respond first, finetune later

Fredericton, New BrunswickFredericton (New Brunswick)

Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
People interviewed: Julie Friddell, Development Director and Lesandra Dodson, Director of Programming
Interview held: September 16, 2021

New Brunswick’s Fredericton Playhouse is a professional performing arts venue. Primarily a presenter, the Playhouse typically hosts local, national, and international artists and companies. The Playhouse also produces its own professional series and offers education and outreach programming.

In June 2020, with touring at a standstill and the venue sitting dark, Director of Programming Lesandra Dodson realized that the organization had an opportunity to focus on one of its non-public-facing strategic initiatives: to bridge gaps with New Brunswick artists and get more artists creating on the stage.

In the past, the residency program provided artists access to the theatre space and amenities, along with grant writing and administrative support for their projects. The idea to create a more expansive and formalized residency program was informed by Lesandra’s past experience as a choreographer who had done two ad hoc dance residencies at the Playhouse.

The new program, called InterMISSION, was designed to support artists and technicians by offering them paid opportunities to make use of the Playhouse facilities, in order to create and collaborate safely under pandemic restrictions. The Playhouse funded 13 artist development residency projects that animated the venue from September 2020 to March 2021. Residency topics included:

  • explorations of dance and theatre through film;
  • workshops of new musical compositions including public performances of a new musical;
  • filmed live rock performances with projection art; an exploration of musical improvisation through site-specific acoustics;
  • an audiovisual life story; and
  • the digitization of a wind ensemble.

“I felt like it was such a beautiful cross-section of everything in our artistic community,” Lesandra reflected. “Giving them a space to create in, especially in a time like this, was very special.”

The Innovations: Paying artists directly, a special campaign, and a digital focus

Though the Playhouse had hosted residencies before, they were typically informal – the result of an artist approaching the Director of Programming with a specific idea in mind. “Before the pandemic, it was sort of under the table, it was not known to the community,” said Lesandra. “COVID formalized everything for us.” The organization had never been directly involved in a structured artist residency program in which artists got paid directly from the project, but they had often helped artists secure funding and given them access to the Playhouse’s facilities for such projects.

Musician Krista Touesnard on stage with a mask during her residency at the Fredericton Playhouse. Photo credit: Sarah Kierstead

InterMISSION resulted in lots of opportunities for artists, as recounted by Development Director Julie Friddell: “we ended up hiring and paying over 50 artists – not only the artists doing the residencies in the building, but also the videographers doing digital documentation, as well as our own staff.” In addition to the artists engaged, the diverse residencies involved seven mentors, six videographers and sound experts, three full-time or contract technical personnel that the Playhouse was able to bring back after temporary layoffs.

Offering video documentation  as part of the artist residencies was an important added value in the context of the pandemic, both for the artists and for the Fredericton Playhouse. Artists came away from their residencies with valuable digital content that they could use to promote and share their work and to put together a press package. The Playhouse’s achievements with the residencies should help the venue raise money from donors and government funders.

The Challenge: Growing an auxiliary program without setting an impossible precedent

Lesandra noted that the Playhouse’s focus is normally on purchasing and presenting public-facing performing arts shows:

We are a presenter. We are a venue. We have to stay focused on what we are in the community and what we provide because we are the biggest presenter in the community. That is what we do, and no one else is really doing that here. We have to stay focused on who we are and what our mission is.

Despite the successes of the InterMISSION residency program, the Playhouse knew that, due to staff and venue capacity, they would not be able to replicate the program at the same scale once artists’ touring resumed at pre-pandemic levels.

While the 2020-2021 residencies allowed the Playhouse to keep technicians employed, Lesandra was mindful about not overloading them in the future with a large-scale residency program. “You don’t want people to then be burnt out,” said Lesandra. “Technicians’ hours are crazy.”

Regarding venue capacity, she noted the importance of striking a balance between maximizing the use of the space by programming residencies during quieter months like August and January, while also allowing for important repairs and work on the theatre that normally needs to happen during those periods. “I think it’s about finding a happy medium. If we can manage to do both well on a continual basis and not burn people out, great.”

As a presenter, the Playhouse would normally consider direct payments to artists to be out of scope. They opted to make an exception in the context of the pandemic because the InterMISSION project came together quickly, and there was no time to apply for and wait to hear back from grants. “Moving forward, we will have a greater lead time,” said Lesandra. “We won’t pay the $100/day but we will provide the space, professional technicians, and help if the artists want grant writing support and support letters.”

The Financials: A targeted fundraising campaign and emergency grants

The residency project was innovative for the Playhouse on the financial front, as it involved a dedicated private donation campaign. Beyond an annual donation drive, said Julie, “we had never done a separate, really targeted campaign. That was brand new.”

Julie was delighted to see the organization bring in $12,500 in private donations from this brand new revenue stream while increasing community goodwill toward the Playhouse via the InterMISSION initiative. Lesandra attributed the success of the campaign in part to an increase in community concern and support for the local arts community during the pandemic. Fredericton Playhouse patrons were also invited to reallocate their ticket refunds as a donation to the campaign, which many opted to do.

One of the projects hosted by the residency was led by a high-profile Broadway performer and included three public performances. The Playhouse let the artists manage and retain any revenues from these nearly sold-out performances. While the artists kept the box office revenue, the Playhouse itself benefited from $5,000 in additional donations from the community specifically as a result of those performances.

The Playhouse also secured emergency COVID-19 relief funding available in New Brunswick. They received a total of $25,000 in special one-time funding from the Fredericton Community Foundation, the City of Fredericton, and the Province of New Brunswick.

The Takeaway: Reconceptualizing the theatre’s role through an iterative approach

A key part of the Fredericton Playhouse’s pandemic response was to examine and redefine its role in the community. As a venue and presenter, the Playhouse would not typically hire artists for residencies. In the context of the pandemic, however, the team felt that it had a responsibility both to create work opportunities for local artists whose careers had been significantly affected and to help them navigate the ever-changing grant landscape. “Emerging artists aren’t applying for grants,” said Lesandra. “It was not just about them experiencing the Playhouse, working with our amazing tech team, and accessing the functionality and capabilities of our building. Supporting artists is also very important when it comes to those very basic career skills.”

The InterMISSION program exemplified an iterative innovation model: the idea started modestly and grew as available resources, artist demand, and community support increased. “We weren’t sure how big we were going to be able to make it,” said Julie. As the project went along and more money came in, “we were able to fund more and more residencies”. The residencies served as a pilot project that helped the Playhouse envision how residencies could fit into a regular season and align with its mission as a presenter. In the future, said Julie, “it is clear we can’t have 10 or 13 residencies every year, but we can certainly do a few.”

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A cloud-like filter applied through digital manipulation. Photo credit_ Luke Garwood.Logo of the IPAA Tech Bundle program