A Q&A with Kate Elman-Wilcott, bringing theatre to Saint John youth
This story is the final story in a nine-part series on innovation and resiliency in Saint John, published by Enterprise Saint John in advance of the Walrus Talks, an evening of artful conversation on innovation with eight leading thinkers and doers taking place in Saint John on October 26th. For more information, or for tickets, visit the Walrus Talks website. For more information on Enterprise Saint John initiatives, check out the True Growth website.
Kate Elman-Wilcott was born in Saint John, but spent much of her early life outside of the city, largely in Halifax where she studied theatre at Dalhousie University, then went on to work in youth theatre sections of professional theatre companies. When her family moved back to Saint John temporarily, she put together a theatre show with some children, and InterAction was born. 15 years later, the organization is providing theatre, dance and music to youth of all ages, skill levels, and economic backgrounds. Elman-Wilcott grabbed a coffee with me at Second Cup and we chatted about theatre, innovation, and Saint John.
Can you tell me a little about how InterAction started?
We started it in 2001. My mother had a children’s theatre company for about 20 years. It was a very grassroots theatre company, but very involved in the community and she’d worked with hundreds of kids over the years. So when we were home for 9 months, she was at the point where she was about 75 and she was about ready to retire, so I said “well, I’m here for the year, because I’m just home with the babies while my husbands in school, why don’t I do a show?” So that was what InterAction was just going to be, just a 9 month long project where I put together a group of kids and we did a show in the atrium of Market Square. That same week, my husband was offered full time work here. And our plan wasn’t to stay in Saint John; there was no way we were going to stay in Saint John. Our plan was to either go back to Halifax or go to Calgary or Toronto. So it was almost 15 years ago, this is our 15th season.
Can you tell me a little more about what InterAction does?
It’s a performing arts school run on an extracurricular basis, so the kids come to us after school or on the weekends, but we also do a lot of community outreach where we go into schools and we do programming. We have the theatre department, we have a dance department, and we have a music department. We also have two venues that we use for our own productions. Within the theatre department, we teach recreational theatre, which is a lot of theatre games and creative drama. We also have a conservatory level program, which is a little more in depth in terms of character development and monologues. We have an advanced performance company, which is for the kids that want to come more often and are quite serious about what they’re doing, and then new this year we have a young actors company, which is a pre-professional level program for kids that either want to do theatre or performing arts when they get out to university, or they’re just very passionate about it. Our music department, which is run by Chuck Teed, has the same basic structure except it’s music based, so he has a recreation level program and then we also have an advanced level for kids who have been doing music for a while and are ready to write and record, and then we also have individual lessons. In the dance department, it’s the same sort of thing. We have levels for kids who just want to try it out and we have levels for kids who are a little more focused and want to possibly study it after high school.
What are the effects of having a place like this in the community, where young people can go if they’re interested in the arts?
Well it’s interesting, at the end of that original 9 months, we were trying to decide whether or not to stay, and I remember talking to a woman whose child was in my program. She said, “well, why don’t you stay in Saint John?” And I said, “I don’t know, there’s not a whole lot going on here for young people.” And she said, “why don’t you stay and make something?” and I thought, “whoa, that makes perfect sense. Let’s do that”. And that’s what’s important: it’s giving young people a place to be creative, a place to feel safe, because you have to feel safe in order to freely do creativity, and a place to learn not just performing arts skills, but life skills in an innovative and creative thinking environment, where they’re mentored by performing arts professionals who are all dedicated to being here in Saint John.
Growing up, my theatre experience was that it was very elitist. To what level is InterAction accessible to everyone?
It’s completely accessible to everyone, and that’s extremely important for us. When I first started InterAction, I noticed that we went from 25 to 75 to 150 kids in three years. There was a definite interest and a need for it, but I noticed at the time that there was a demographic missing from the community. For whatever reason, be it economic or social, there were certain kids that weren’t coming to us. So I spent a long time looking into the makeup of the city and where the kids were coming from and I started calling the schools and saying “I want to give you free programming, find me the kids that for whatever reason aren’t doing the arts and I’ll do outreach programs with them.” So we started going into the schools and doing it that way, we started finding businesses and individuals in the community that could sponsor kids to come and take our classes. So that was very important to us to make it very accessible. We do audition to go into our advanced performance company, they call it APCO, the kids who go into APCO do the same audition process as they would if they went to national theatre school, where they have to learn a classical monologue, a modern monologue and a song, but it’s not based as much on their audition as it’s based on their commitment to learning two monologues and a song and going into a room and doing that for me.
What do you feel is the role of innovation in Saint John?
I think that it’s easy for people to compare Saint John to other communities and other cities, especially bigger cities, and say well Halifax has this or Toronto has this, and why don’t we have that? What I’m finding in terms of the innovators in Saint John is they see what’s going on in other communities, but rather than saying “let’s cookie cutter that, let’s bring what is there here”, we’re very good at knowing what Saint John could use, and Saint Johners are very different than other communities. I think it’s about knowing what Saint John’s all about, and we’re edgy, we’re industrial, we’re very creative, and finding what fits for the people here.
Do you have advice for people who are interested in solving a problem in the community in a new way?
I think that it’s very easy to sit in a room full of people and talk about what we don’t have and why we don’t have it and commiserate about the fact that nothing’s going to change, but it’s also not that difficult to leave that room and say I’m going to try something, I’m going to do something. I come from a background of artists and innovators and when I went to theatre school I had fantastic mentors that said to us, you’re working in the arts, people are constantly going to be telling you reasons why you can’t do something, but if you listened to them all, there’d never be any art. There’d never be any change, there’d never be anything happening, so from an early age, I saw from people in my world and from my parents that if you want to do something you just have to do it and find a community of people that will support you, not necessarily financially, but just support you in terms of saying hey, I’m on board. We’ll help you out; we’ll find a way for this to happen. So I think that’s my main advice.