By: Evangeline Mann, GAC Volunteer Writer 

Many arts organizations in Guelph significantly altered their programming throughout 2020 and 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, to comply with public health regulations and guidelines. While lockdown periods last year often led to the cancellation or postponement of events, restrictions on audience capacity levels for gatherings also changed the ways events were organized and hosted.

Arborienteering, a program organized by the Guelph Jazz Festival at the Arboretum in Guelph, provided audiences with an opportunity to listen to live music while remaining physically distant from others. Musicians performed pieces of their choosing under trees in July 2021, and audiences walked through the Arboretum to listen to various performances. Fifteen musicians each performed solo pieces that were 10 minutes, and the performances also had staggered start times to ensure musical pieces overlapped with one another to create a unique experience of live music. 

Artistic and General Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival Scott Thomson highlighted that Arborienteering was intended to help audiences engage with live musical performances in ways that felt comfortable and safe for them outside. 

While the 2020 Guelph Jazz Festival that was initially scheduled for September of that year was cancelled, the Guelph Jazz Festival in September 2021 hosted live music performances in various parks and smaller venues throughout Guelph. There were fewer indoor concerts for this festival, and Thomson highlighted that hosting it in several locations throughout Guelph helped to serve and connect with audiences. The Autumn Echoes Series at the Royal City Mission presented live musical performances throughout November 2021, with an audience limit of 50 people as well as proof of vaccination and mandatory mask-wearing policies to help visitors feel comfortable attending performances.

Thomson noted that these programs are intended to “…normalize live music,” which can generate both “…optimism and hope” for the future. While these unique and innovative programs support local musicians and the performance of live music in Guelph, they also create environments where visitors feel safe and comfortable attending performances again.

Guelph Little Theatre is another arts organization that adapted their programming in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health guidelines. They have been a vital part of the production and promotion of live theatre in the city for over eight decades. While the lockdown that began in March 2020 disrupted many scheduled in-person performances, President Cathy Goudie explained that Guelph Little Theatre was able to develop a digital performance of the novel The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans in December 2020. Performers read sections of the story individually on a set with a chair and lamp, and these readings were filmed and made available for viewers to access online.

Guelph Little Theatre has started to showcase live theatre performances again. Swordfish, written by Tom Reidel and directed by Tom Reidel and Cathy Goudie was performed from November 4 to 21, 2021 as the first live show this year at Guelph Little Theatre. An Inappropriate Claus, written by Roxanne Thornton and directed by Cathy Goudie and Ken Cameron, will also be performed from December 3 to 12, 2021. Mandatory vaccination, mask and distancing policies were also put in place to ensure the safety of visitors, and to create an environment where they felt comfortable attending a live theatre performance again.

Goudie highlighted that the audience and their energy are both crucial components of live theatre performances, and that these components are often missing when performances are virtual. The live shows that have been performed in late 2021 have helped Guelph Little Theatre form connections with audiences, as well as helped audiences support local theatre productions.

Bumaroo, an organization that is dedicated to organizing and promoting live music and interdisciplinary art projects, also adapted their programming in 2020 and 2021. Their fall festival was live-streamed in September 2020 and can be viewed on their website, and they also worked with Brothers Brewing Company to present Falcon Jane’s musical performance that was live streamed from Otherwise Studios. Carson Morrison, Bumaroo’s merch, music bookings and design coordinator, noted live streaming helps people continue to hear musical performances from their homes. Bumaroo has also supported the gradual return of live, in-person musical performances in Guelph at Brothers Brewing Company in early October 2021.

Bumaroo and Otherwise Studios additionally developed the Co-Create Collaboration Residency in 2020 and 2021. This virtual residency program paired artists to develop collaborative creative projects that often combined visual art, musical performances, and video. Residents’ creative projects can be viewed here

Other arts programs hosted virtually in Guelph have also been designed to help participants connect with one another, as well as creatively explore the relationships between art, wellbeing and community advocacy. Art Not Shame’s Executive Director Michelle Peek noted that while Art Not Shame has altered the format of their programming throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 to organize and host virtual events, their core emphasis on wellbeing, community initiatives, creativity and social justice remains the same. Programs such as F*ck Perfect and Rest and Resilience provided opportunities for those who identify as LGBTQ2+, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), and those with disabilities, to engage in creative projects and connect with one another throughout October, November and December 2021. 

Peek also highlighted that The Mural Project: Art in Hard Times, was another innovative project of 2020 that reflected participants’ unique responses to the pandemic. Artist Melanie Schambach led the project alongside local social support workers and other artists, and over 65 people were part of this program to create the digital mural. Participants, artists and social support workers collaborated with one another to determine the themes of the mural and its overall appearance. Participants also selected portions and corresponding themes of the mural for which they would create a work. Artist Buddies facilitated various workshops with different artistic media, such as watercolour and acrylic painting and digital art, for participants and community members, and photographs of participants’ works were included in the mural. Local musician Joni NehRita also created songs for the mural project, and participants included descriptions of and reflections about their works in the mural. 

Many local arts organizations in Guelph have modified and transformed the ways they deliver their programs and connect with audiences. Developing and hosting virtual events and small events indoors and outdoors, as well as live streaming performances has helped organizations such as the Guelph Jazz Festival, Guelph Little Theatre, Bumaroo and Art Not Shame continue to help audiences enjoy and engage with local music, theatre, and interdisciplinary community-based art projects.

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