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Eastern Front Theatre: Micro digitals, macro impact

Dartmouth, Nova ScotiaDartmouth (Nova Scotia)

Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
Person interviewed: Kat McCormack, Artistic Director and General Manager
Interview held: July 27, 2021

Eastern Front Theatre (EFT) is a small theatre company in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia founded in 1993 to support the work of Atlantic Canadian playwrights. At the height of the pandemic, EFT developed three short-term goals: to help theatre artists get paid, to seize the opportunity to work on theatre in the digital realm, and to create content that was free and accessible to everyone. To accomplish these goals, EFT created and implemented the Micro Digitals project, through which 36 theatre artists from across Atlantic Canada attempted to translate the essence of live theatre into 60-second micro digital experiences. Projects included audio, video, text, song, puppetry, comedy, poetry, animation, and hologram.

The Innovation: Prioritizing accessibility at every stage

Access was a core value of EFT’s Micro Digitals project at both the creation and dissemination stages. Through the initiative, EFT was able to work with more theatre artists from across Atlantic Canada than ever before, explore a new, more accessible and compact creation and dissemination format, and give artists more agency to build accessibility supports into their creative process.

To ensure that artists could make the most of the program during a difficult time, EFT designed an application process that required just a two- to three-sentence description of the proposed theatre project. “We didn’t want anyone to feel like they wasted their time or were asked to do too much,” said Artistic Director and General Manager Kat McCormack. EFT accepted applications from any kind of theatre artist, not just from playwrights. “The impetus was very much to get creators creating – to put money in their hands, and to let theatre artists work on whatever they wanted to,” she noted. “The focus was on the artists.”

Digital Set Model Hologram by Renate Pohl.

The response was, as Kat put it, “kind of huge for us”: 75 applications from actors, playwrights, sound designers, costume and set designers, and other theatre-adjacent artists from across Atlantic Canada, with 60-70% self-identifying as artists from communities that are currently underrepresented in Canadian theatre, including artists who are Deaf or disabled; identify as Indigenous, Black, or people of colour; live with mental health disorders or chronic illnesses; are immigrants; or identify as transgender or queer.

EFT also saw the Micro Digitals project as an opportunity to increase its own accessibility and reach, thereby meeting a significant organizational challenge: to work with theatre artists from across Atlantic Canada, which spans four provinces across more than 500,000 km². Kat and her team met with each of the 75 applicants to learn about their projects and explore potential future collaborations. “This was a great opportunity to reach out and […] meet the people we were meant to be serving – even if we couldn’t commission them, we could make connections and hopefully try to give people something no matter what.” If synergies became apparent, connections were facilitated between artists through what Kat called the “Atlantic Canadian buddy system – putting people together who had never met before who seemed to have complementary ways of working” in order to encourage collaboration on certain projects.

Twenty projects involving a total of 36 artists were retained for production. In terms of out-of-pocket costs beyond staff time, Kat indicated that it was “a really cheap way to have a high impact in the community at large.”

At the dissemination stage, EFT wanted to ensure that the works themselves were accessible and approachable to all kinds of audiences. The ultra-compact format was disseminated for free on EFT’s website and social media accounts. “One minute was a good size for that — some social media platforms have one-minute limits,” Kat pointed out. Access for Deaf and disabled audiences was a key focus, with one artist overseeing accessibility efforts. EFT worked with the artists to make sure that every work had accessibility elements, such as captions and described audio. Like many arts organizations, Eastern Front does not have metrics on the audiences who viewed the works.

The Challenges: Adapting to new ways of working, juggling multiple commissions

Working with different types of artists and managing so many commissioned works at once was a learning curve for Kat and her team. As a dramaturgy-focused company, EFT typically develops the work of playwrights and presents just one or two full productions per year. “We were not just working with one artist on one script. We had twenty projects on the go; everything had to happen much quicker. The projects were smaller, but because there were so many of them, it required a lot on our end, on the administrative side…. This was such a new way of working for us,” said Kat.

Kat was new in her role as Artistic Director and General Manager, a position that had gone unfilled at EFT for more than six months. “It was weird for me, because it was my very first project with EFT,” she noted. This meant that she spent a lot of time figuring out creative processes and working closely with the artists.

With artists’ well-being a central consideration, EFT adapted to each artist’s preferred way of working, even inviting them to set their own deadlines. It was eye-opening for Kat to see artists who faced roadblocks apologize and assume that the company would not want to accommodate their needs. “At least twice, there were artists with disabilities who said, ‘I can’t do this right now. If you don’t want to work with me because of my disability, I understand.’” Kat made a point of accommodating as many different ways of working as possible: “I never wanted anyone to be stressed out over what should be a thrilling and fun little project.”

The Financials: Opening up possibilities for future revenues

The Micro Digitals project was designed to embody EFT’s mission of supporting Atlantic Canadian creators, not to create a new revenue stream for the company. “We just happened to have money lying around, which was enough for a $500 honorarium for 20 projects.” EFT didn’t necessarily maximize every funding opportunity, because the time and effort to do so would have significantly delayed the project. “With the announcement I had gotten the job, we announced the [Micro Digitals] project,” said Kat. “If we had been on top of things, we would have had a sponsor, written some grants. But we didn’t have much of a chance to do much.”

Nevertheless, the success of the Micro Digitals project has led to the development of a new but related initiative called Macro Digitals. For Kat, “the goal is to do it again, but to do four projects with five co-collaborators each that would be longer or larger in scope.” The rich digital content that emerged from the Micro Digitals project will serve as a strong proof-of-concept for grant and sponsorship applications for this upcoming initiative.

The Takeaways: Greater impact on artists, transferable lessons

Through the Micro Digitals project, EFT found an effective way to support the work of Atlantic Canadian theatre artists. “We were able to consider how we could boost the careers of so many more people, rather than just one playwright a year,” said Kat. EFT significantly expanded its contacts in each of the Atlantic provinces.

EFT played a new and valuable role as matchmaker, setting artists up to meet and explore collaborations with each other based on complementary ways of working. According to Kat, “small things can have a larger impact in terms of being able to show off the talent and the ingenuity of Atlantic Canadian artists. Those opportunities don’t come around that often on the East Coast.”

The digital exploration involved in producing the Micro Digitals project helped the company adjust to an unexpected change in plans. With restrictions easing in Nova Scotia, EFT’s annual Stages Theatre Festival was set to go ahead with in-person shows until an unexpected lockdown was announced at the end of April. Thanks to EFT’s experience with the Micro Digitals project, said Kat, “we already had a better idea of how people were going to engage with online content. One of the things we took away from [the Micro Digitals project] was that people would watch things on their own timeline.” EFT incorporated this learning into the design of the Stages Theatre Festival, making content available on demand rather than in a livestream format.

EFT’s biggest learning was how to create accessible content for online consumption. “If you commission something that is going to be online, you have to ask for a transcript from the artist,” cautioned Kat. An artist’s transcript can be used to pull image descriptions, captions, and descriptive text. A transcript can also increase the faithfulness of the accessibility supports that accompany creative works. “It would have saved me a lot of time if we had done that.” Without the artist’s input, the administrative team had to perform a lot of time-consuming tasks and engage in some guesswork.

The Micro Digitals project helped EFT develop as an organization during a challenging time. Kat summed it up this way: “It was ultimately uplifting and really inspirational, for me even. It has helped us now look forward in a new way.”

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Photos of six Asian artists. Source: Kiran Ambwani.