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The Condo Project Or: How the F*@k Are We Relevant?

May 11, 2018

In October 2017, Alexis started working at the Theatre Centre on the Condo Project. As part of the reporting process, Alexis is writing about her experience. Check out this piece from earlier in the project where Alexis wrestles with the question “how the fuck are we relevant?”

Since The Theatre Centre moved to this building a few years ago, thousands of folks of all ages and backgrounds have moved into condos and started living out their lives all around us. Every day when we come into work, we’re taken out of focusing only on art, theatre, Equity fees and contracts and are reminded that lots of people are living around us and might not really care about what is going on in the mainspace, but they do need coffee and probably a place to hang out. It made us wonder: “sure, we hold a place in the arts community but what do we mean to our literal neighbours?”

The time when we could simply invite the masses to our offerings has passed. This practice of show-invite-as-outreach serves only to reinforce this idea of art and the cultural space belonging to the artist as ‘other’. It separates what goes on in that space from the lives of the folks who live beside it and says “the privilege of being invited to join us is enough art for you.”

It is our job to embrace the individuals who live around us and find a way to be a part of their everydays; we can’t just endlessly lament their lack of engagement from our meeting tables. Lyn Gardner states in her The Stage UK opinion piece—“It follows that if art embraces the community and is part of everyday lives, then the community will embrace art, and fight for it when it is under threat.” As a publicly funded cultural space, do we not kinda belong directly to our communities and doesn’t this mean we’re mandated to be responding to their ideas, passions and interests?

The ramifications of years of this PUBLIC AS AUDIENCE ONLY mindset means that people seem scared of engaging with art and artists. There is an intangible tension from the public upon entering artistic/cultural spaces—a fear of misstep, failure, embarrassment and that any mistake will ultimately reveal them as the “non-artists” they are. Our neighbours hesitate to grab a coffee at The Theatre Centre café and instead go across the street because of the art connected to us. “It didn’t feel like it belonged to me” said one of our neighbours, when I asked if they had ever come to the café before. “BUT IT DOES!!!” I wanted to shout back.

So how the f*@k do we become part of their everyday lives?

That question has a unique answer for each company, artist and practice but the first step for us is The Condo Project. The Condo Project is a partnership between The Theatre Centre and Bohemian Embassy condos just down the street. We asked them, essentially, to allow us to try and become vital to them. To let us into their lives to experiment with community-interest led initiatives and events and be a sounding board for what works and what doesn’t in new forms of cultural engagement.

So far, so wild.

In early October, Aislinn and Franco met with a few residents to start a discussion about what the project could be. The story has nearly become legend in the short weeks we’ve been telling it but the story goes there was only one idea that everyone not only agreed upon, but was excited for; celebrating the Bohemian concierge staff Bill & Joey.

Cut to a few weeks later, and I’m standing alone in the condo lobby with a bowl of candy and some postcards to invite residents to the Concierge Appreciation Party. I didn’t take it personally when many people seemed to spot me through the window and carefully avoided eye contact while hugging the opposite wall. Honestly, that probably would’ve been me. Many people said thanks and walked away quickly. A few stopped to chat. Even fewer were brave enough to reach for a candy. I’ve encountered a lot of fear and skepticism and it’s easy to be empathetic when one considers how much we’ve all been burned by things that perhaps sound similar; you know, those things claiming to be about community but are really thinly veiled sales opportunities for hawking branded water bottles?

As I stood there making people uncomfortable, I reflected on how much we each long to be connected but are unsure of how to connect. Even when empowered by this project, The Theatre Centre, and my personal passion, I struggled to find ways to reach out of myself.

More than answers right now, are questions.

The party was a great success—Bill and Joey (pictured below) were celebrated by over 40 residents from the condo alongside Theatre Centre staff and we turned the Incubator into an arcade complete with a piñata. But it wasn’t enough, not even when combined with a newsletter, a social media page, promo codes, live music and free coffees. All of these efforts have been a good way to get started, but those things aren’t communicating the permission, agency and ownership that The Condo Project is looking to provide. Finding the implicit permissions that make folks feel like they can drop their guard and join a community seems like the true challenge.

So what the f*@k now?

Phase one taught us that we’ve gotta throw out all our old tools and invent something totally new. Phase two is about finding answers to those questions by sharing the process of art, not the product. We’re focusing on giving programming choices to residents and increasing straight up face-to-face interaction.

So far we’ve got Wanderings; a resident curated night of readings coming up on March 13 and plans for workshops, meals and garage sales. Will folks actually come out and join us? Who knows. But we’ll learn more about what works and what doesn’t and get one step closer to reimagining cultural spaces as vital epicenters of their community. Cause as Lyn says “…culture binds communities together… and those that don’t [recognize that] will end up making themselves obsolete.