We’re back! Last year, we spent a great weekend covering the theatrical side of St. Catharines’ In The Soil Arts Festival. This year we’re at it again – along with two more DART critics, Alex and Elizabeth – and we’re not restricting ourselves to just one theatre festival. All summer long, we will be providing coverage of the best mainstream and fringe theatre Ontario has to offer. Some of our future destinations include the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Festival, and the Hamilton Fringe.

The criticism won’t just be written, either. After the birth of the DARTCritics YouTube channel, we’ll be uploading vlogs and recorded reviews in addition to our traditional coverage.

To kick off the summer, though, it only felt right to return to where we started last April: In The Soil. Co-editor Nick Leno and I crashed Artistic Producer Annie Wilison’s meeting with Visuals Collaborator Brittany Brooks and Volunteer Coordinator Anah Shabbar – busy at work putting the final touches on this season’s event schedule – to get their insights into the festival this year.

Here are the highlights from our conversation with some of the minds behind In The Soil.

From left to right: Brittany, Annie with In The Soil dog-in-residence Loopy, and Anah

From left to right: Brittany, Annie with In The Soil dog-in-residence Loopy, and Anah


Nick: What are you most excited for about In The Soil this year?

Annie: In The Soil is this crazy thing that keeps getting bigger every year, so if I focus on anything I get excited about everything. It’s amazing thinking there are over 150 acts/instillations this year!

Off the top of my head, I am excited for Zuppa theatre coming in from Halifax for POP UP LOVE PARTY. Deanna and I saw a workshop performance at the Magnetic North Festival last year and absolutely fell in love with it. It’s a neat collaboration with the culinary arts that people will get excited about.

It’s also our second year of RHIZOMES. We were inspired by a Magnetic North instillation called SUBDIVSION which is based on an instillation called THE HIVE at the Vancouver culture center, where you go on chose your own art adventures. Last year was our first attempt working with seven artists, this year we have 12 in CorBloc [on 80 King Street]. They are various music and visual experiences for specific numbers of audiences. Brittany’s been working on a larger incarnation of another project called…

Brittany: The Fire Side Book of Fictional Folk Songs.

Annie: Each one is going to be special in its own way. The idea of people going on an adventure, taking risks, and surprising themselves is going to be really cool.

Nick: Must be a lot running 12 art instillation.

Annie: Yeah. And that’s just one thing.

I’m really proud of all the theatre this year. We’re bringing in our friends from Play It Again & Theatre Smith Gilmour for DEATH MARRIED MY DAUGHTER. It’s a crazy Buffon show, that’s a little bit on the edge of what’s Niagara is used to.

Hayley: Is pushing the edge of Niagara’s boundaries an important aspect to your programming?

Annie: Yes. We definitely want to provide access programing where people are comfortable, but then we want to lead people outside of their comfort zones as well and encourage them to explore different art forms, genres, and contents.

We’re also happy to have Brock student Mark Harrigan’s production of MARRED BLISS. We love giving opportunities to emerging companies who are trying to put work up in a professional context.

I’m excited for the dance party at Radio Radio. That’s all I’m sayin.

Hayley: On the idea of emerging artists, what do you think draws them to In The Soil?

Annie: Our festival really is about putting the artists first. It is about a great audience experience, but for that to happen we want the artist to feel comfortable and feel our love and support. We take special care to make our emerging artists feel that way too. We provide professional marketing, professional technical expertise to support their productions, and pay them an artist fee. It’s hard to self-produce work, especially in the beginning, so we provide a nice atmosphere for artists to try things out while developing their craft.

Hayley: So it’s not just exposure you’re offering emerging artists, it’s a chance to get paid for their work as artists.

Annie: Exactly. We pay participating fees to each one of our artists.

Brittany: I played the festival for the first time in high school, in a band called Howler, it was our first professional gig. Not only was it great to be part of a professional experience, but the network that we created made many more connections for years to come. It’s a really nurturing festival that encourages new artists to just go for it.

Hayley: Speaking of the past few years, what different about In the Soil this year?

Nick: No Ferris wheel this year?

Annie: No Ferris wheel, but we always have an out of the box, wild, outdoor hub. This year it’s on James Street. So just wait. We partnered with Brain Kite Artistic Solutions, artists from Niagara falls, who are doing the art direction for our hub and signage. We put a lot of care into getting larger tents, and heat, so our hub feels like a giant warm hug.

Hayley: Is the outdoor component of the festival important for you?  

Annie: It is. We want the festival to feel accessible, so the hub is free. That way people who don’t dip their toes in the arts of Niagara as deeply still have a place to hangout. The hub is the place where we meet, there’s so much going on, so the hub acts as an access point for people to get their feet wet then adventure more as they move further on.

Nick: Could you talk a bit about the history of the festival?

Annie: It started over seven years ago when Joe Lapinski, Sara Palmieri, and I talked during the intermission of a Centre for the Arts show. Later we invited Deanna Jones, Jordy Yack, and Natasha Pedros for a beer at the merch to say ‘what if…’. It blows my mind as we lead up to the festival and see how big it’s getting. Sometimes I’m in tears. It’s evolving and getting bigger because people are supporting it.

Hayley: Do you think the festival helps shape the trajectory of arts in Niagara?

Annie: It’s hard to tell when you’re in the eye of the storm. The core of our mandate is to contribute to a Niagara that is self-determining and culturally distinct. We chose those words very carefully. Deanna and I were on tour out west at the High Performance Rodeo, where our mentors (One Yellow Rabbit) have taken to calling us The Baby Rabbits. They see the work we are doing here to create a buzz around our community, where people want to come and support independent and original voices.  

Hayley: What are three tips for Festival goers, to get the most out of the festival?

Brittany: Go to something you don’t know. Just pick something you’ve never seen or heard, because it’s only going to happen here.

Anah: Ask the volunteers! They are pros on the schedules. They’re also super friendly, so maybe you’ll get to make a new friend.

Annie: Dig in. We have a 50 page schedule this year, 23 restaurants are doing deals with us, and a website that is super mobile friendly. So come out and see everything we have to offer. And, don’t get too drunk in the afternoon.

Good advice! We can’t wait to get the summer of criticism started – stay tuned for our coverage, and make sure to dig in!

Read more of Nick here
Read more of Hayley here
Read more of Elizabeth here
Read more of Alex here


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