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At In the Soil Arts Festival, process is everything

iPhoto caption: For In the Soil Arts Festival: Karen Hines, Deanna Jones, Yolanda Bonnell.
/By / May 30, 2024

Have you looked in the soil in St. Catharines?

If you do, you’ll find a blend of Canadian artists from different disciplines, showing off their work at various stages of development. In the Soil Arts Festival nurtures new work and offers opportunities for local youth to learn about literary, musical, and performing arts up close. With roots in nearby Brock University, the festival, founded in 2009, attracts artists from across Canada, and this year’s programming looks to be some of the festival’s best.

This year, In the Soil will feature work from over 30 artists and collectives. Three of them — Karen Hines, Yolanda Bonnell, and Deanna Jones, also co-founder and artistic director of Suitcase in Point, which produces In the Soil — sat down with Intermission for a deep dive into their projects.

Calgary-based playwright and performer Hines brings Pochsy IV: Lost You For a Second to In the Soil 2024. Billed as “part stand-up comedy, part consumeristic night terror,” the performance follows Pochsy as she bids capitalism goodbye in search of something more fulfilling.

This is the fourth complete Pochsy show,” said Hines. “I originally designed Pochsy as a microcosm of North American consumer culture. She’s a lens through which I get to look at the world — Pochsy shows are definitely satire, and they definitely take the piss out of all of us. I include myself in that.

“It’s meant to provide catharsis,” she continued. “It’s very dark in its undertones and overtones, but it’s meant to offer the audience a chance to laugh…we walk around with so much anxiety, and so much of the time, we’re like frogs being boiled, and we’re not even aware of it…One of my aims is to unite the room.”

Pochsy isn’t the only character at In the Soil feeling a little fatalistic. 

This year in the festival, Jones will share the next iteration of her work-in-development, A Brief History of Smoking Cigarettes, described by the festival as “a ridiculous glimpse into the life of the last smoker on earth.”

“I made this character almost like a crutch, as a way to explore my own personal connection and history with smoking cigarettes,” said Jones. “I developed this kind of clownish character who’s set in the future, hiding from the RCMP. There’s a chorus of cigarettes and puppets that give a breakdown of what’s going down, and there are some death metal tunes. This is a really local, personal story, that I think also brings out themes around capitalism and colonialism.

“It’s a workshop,” she continued. “It’s an iteration. I’ve shared a few smaller versions of it. I’m really excited to be able to see how it flies at this festival.”

For Jones, sharing work in progress is a crucial part of a healthy performing arts ecosystem — she says that audiences having access to various parts of a development process can “demystify” how art gets made.

“We have the Shaw Festival right here,” she said, “and it’s very polished, with lots of bells and whistles. You sit down and lights come on. But there’s something so alive about experimentation. It always changes. As people are developing work, whether it’s music or a media project of theatre, there’s just an electricity in being able to put it out there and take risks while it’s still in process, whatever it is.

“A lot of the work we do is outside of the regular ‘theatre’ walls,” she continued. “So part of that process is being able to try things in unassuming places.”

Bonnell, too, is showing off a work in progress at this year’s festival. Per In the Soil’s marketing materials, The Eighth Fire is “an epic play in two parts about Anishinaabeg migration, resistance, and love.” In the Soil will present a staged reading of the play, which since its inception has been supported by a swathe of companies across the country, including Nightwood Theatre, Native Earth Performing Arts, and the Banff Playwrights Lab.

“Along the course of developing The Eighth Fire, I realized it needed to be two plays because there’s too much to fit in,” said Bonnell. “I’m tracing this 500-year migration of the Anishinaabe people, and I’m going years into the future. So I’m now at a point in the process where the first play is pretty tight, and pretty much ready to go. I’m typing up the last bit of writing for the second part, which has had less work. I’m excited about it — I haven’t heard some of this stuff aloud before, which is so helpful for me as a creator to work through.”

The Eighth Fire uses a smorgasbord of storytelling techniques, including puppetry, movement, and choral poetry. “A lot of our ceremonies take place with dance,” said Bonnell, “so there’s a lot of movement. I want to emulate that sort of dancing for ceremony idea. I’m picking up the history as I go, and I don’t know how much of it is true. I’m filling in gaps. I know what’s been told to me from elders and teachers, and things I’ve learned along the way and picked up. I’m reading books from Indigenous authors and Anishinaabeg teachers and elders. But because so much of our information was taken, and a lot of it is in the Vatican, we have to fill those gaps. So that’s what I’m doing.”

“There’s an electricity in the air when presenting work in progress,” said Hines. “There are thrills and spills. It’s exhilarating seeing things that aren’t finished yet. You don’t know where it’s gonna go, but that’s not even the point of the evening. The point of the exercise is theatre, and there’s nothing more alive than something that will never happen exactly that way again.”

In the Soil Festival runs June 13-16. You can learn more about the festival here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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