Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
Person interviewed: Shaun Brodie, Artistic Director
Interview held: August 11, 2021
The Queer Songbook Orchestra (QSO) was formed in Toronto in 2014 as a 14-piece professional chamber pop ensemble dedicated to celebrating and sharing LGBTQ2+ stories and music. Until the pandemic, the QSO toured extensively throughout Canada and abroad, and had been featured at many performing arts festivals across the country. In 2020, QSO Artistic Director Shaun Brodie had to grapple with the new landscape of touring, and he started to imagine a different path forward for the ensemble. In his words:
When the lockdown and this great abyss appeared, it felt like it really wiped the slate clean, because all of what we were focusing on was no longer feasible for the foreseeable future. After a few months of feeling adrift and wondering if there was a future for the organization and how it was pre-COVID, and having the space and the quiet to reimagine things and rethink how we were doing things, a few ideas started to form. They all centred more on our community here: what we can do locally rather than thinking in that more international perspective that I had been fixated on prior.
At the beginning of 2021, the QSO incorporated as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to utilizing story and song to express, honour, and elevate LGBTQ2+ experience, including by providing opportunities for mentorship and other supports to queer, trans, questioning, and allied youth. While experiencing growing pains of the new not-for-profit structure and navigating the constant shifts of the pandemic, the QSO created a school program that generated a new revenue stream and has the potential for expansion across the country.
The Innovation: Collaborating with schools and learning how to livestream
The QSO forged a unique path as an LGBTQ2+ performing arts organization entering the young audience realm. Specifically, the QSO developed QSO Kids, a digital livestream show for elementary school students, which required the organization to learn how to create a show for livestream while navigating school requests and requirements.
The ensemble had been approached prior to the pandemic to develop material for children between 6 and 12 by festivals like the Harbourfront Centre’s Junior Fest in Toronto and ArtStarts in Vancouver. “We kind of had a concept and were starting to develop something in 2019, but we never had time to commit to doing it,” said Shaun. Just before the pandemic, a parent who had seen a QSO show asked Shaun if the ensemble would consider performing at McMurrich Junior Public School, where her daughter was a student and where she sat on the Parent Pride Committee.
In fall 2020, once the dust of initial school shutdowns had settled, Shaun heard from the Parent Pride Committee once again and started meeting with them regularly on Zoom to firm up the offering. Even without knowing what would come out of the meetings, Shaun appreciated the regular check-ins: “It was kind of like a social hour for me, it was great.” This level of involvement from the presenter was a first for the QSO. “Normally, I don’t really work with the presenter or the promoter to develop something,” said Shaun. “They have an idea of what we do, they invite us, and we do it.” But in this case, the QSO worked much more directly with the committee and the school. “It felt like we were more of a team. I enjoyed it.”
Shaun worked with the team of parents and consulted with educators through the development of the show to ensure that the content was appropriate for the students. According to Shaun:
We put a lot of thought into how we would adapt our material for this younger demographic. We ended up focusing on younger narratives that normalize queerness and difference and otherness. Our intent in this is to bring more visibility to the LGBTQ2+ experience, so kids have that to relate to, and the kids who aren’t queer have that broader understanding.
Beyond the shift in its creative process, the QSO also had to figure out the technological aspect of capturing the show and disseminating it to the students. “Doing an hour-long livestream – we hadn’t done that before,” noted Shaun. The QSO used its experience with short livestreams and pre-recorded shows to help put together its approach. With limited resources, the organization relied on skills that members of the organization had independently developed in their downtime during the pandemic. For example, the group’s sound technician undertook training to increase her skills as a livestream technician.
After the pilot performance of QSO Kids in May 2021, the organization was able to use the project as a proof-of-concept to promote and organize a much broader rollout in both livestream and pre-recorded formats for elementary-aged audiences across Canada. The QSO started working on this in August 2021 for the 2021-2022 school year and has secured two bookings to perform the show live and in person as a full ensemble, restrictions permitting, in 2022.
The Challenges: Potential pushback, no safety net
The QSO is an arts organization focused on queer rights, which can present challenges related to working with schools. The QSO had to grapple with the possibility of pushback from parents and administrators who might have different notions of what is appropriate for the target age range. Shaun recalled that, “before we did that livestream, I sent some of these stories to […] an elementary school teacher in Northern Manitoba. Her comment was, ‘the school you are doing this for must be a much more progressive school than the one where I teach.’” In the future, when developing the program for other schools across the country, the QSO may face continued challenges related to notions of appropriateness and progressiveness.
Until the pandemic, the QSO was an unincorporated collective with very little infrastructure that relied on one-off project grants and performance fees. In this context, Shaun and the other QSO members had to take other work while they tried to keep the momentum of the organization going through the pandemic’s uncertain times. The QSO was reimagined to help it weather the pandemic, including through its incorporation as a not-for-profit, which Shaun hopes will contribute to increased stability and resilience in the long run.
The Financials: A small pilot budget with the potential for significant new revenue streams
As a grassroots collective, the QSO was accustomed to working with limited resources. For the pilot project, the McMurrich Public School Parent Pride Committee offered the QSO a modest guarantee from its events budget, which the QSO was able to stretch to meet the project’s needs. “We were able to get a venue for free with all the livestream capabilities, so that was not an expense,” said Shaun. He focused as much of the budget as possible on paying other people. “Essentially everyone got paid from the fee we got, except me,” said Shaun.
Though the pilot didn’t bring in a lot of revenues, it opened the door to a completely new revenue stream for the QSO: performance fees from schools. In addition, when the QSO was starting to expand the idea after the pilot, it heard about a one-time grant that fit the project perfectly: the Canada Council for the Arts’s Digital Now program. Thanks to the success of that grant application, Shaun said, “we now have a budget to produce a more well done, well edited, and packaged pre-recorded show that will be available for schools over the coming year.” The funding will serve to pay all the artists and to provide some revenue to the organization over the next year. A bonus: the budget does not depend on being able to perform in person.
The Takeaways: Drawing on past challenges, finding flexibility and adaptability
To overcome the personal and professional challenges that he and the QSO faced through the pandemic, Shaun drew on his knowledge of the beauty that can emerge from adversity. “Fruitful ideas can come out of, essentially, hitting rock bottom. Originally the idea came out of my not really having any direction and not knowing where I was going to go with my career and with my life,” he said. “This idea started to form from the intersection of my ideas and my identity.”
His experience of resilience and perseverance through uncertainty served him well in 2020. He reflected that:
When the pandemic hit, we had some momentum behind us, we were figuring out what we were doing, we had a decent live show. When the bottom fell out of that, it really felt again like I didn’t know what I was going to do. Out of that time of wondering and being adrift, these new ideas formed.
The success of the QSO Kids project shows that flexibility and adaptability are key. In Shaun’s words, resilience is about “being able to find the opportunity when things don’t go as you planned, but then being able to look at it from a different perspective and see what can be made of where you are at.”