Exporting Nova Scotia

Exporting Nova Scotia



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Audience watching City In Stereo, photo by Mel Hattie

I am eight floors up, sitting at a round banquet table adorned with white linen, eating a rustic-looking oat cake I was told is amazing.  It is.  In front of me is a placemat for my coffee cup, letter pressed with the words ‘East Coaster’. ‘You are all my winners,’ I overhear one of the project leaders say as we are about to get started.

Going around the room there are approximately a dozen other people including musicians, novelists, soap makers, crafts people, and fashion clothing producers. We are part of a focus group hosted by Nova Scotia Business Inc. in the World Trade Centre in downtown Halifax. All of us in the room were invited to give input on how this new 2 million dollar fund will be spent when it becomes public in March 2016.

Prior to the meeting we were all asked to imagine ourselves in the future.  ‘Please relax, and close your eyes’, was the instruction.  ‘Imagine you are at the end of 2025… about 10 years from now. You’re enjoying a conversation with a mentor, or a trusted business associate, or a close friend – someone you haven’t minded sharing your frustrations, dreams and goals for growing your business outside of Nova Scotia. You’re feeling pretty happy and satisfied, because you realize that over the last year you had actually arrived where you wanted to be a decade earlier. What is it that you’ve achieved?’

I pause to think for a moment.

Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI) is the private-sector led business development agency of Nova Scotia.  The Nova Scotia Government created a new fund for NSBI to focus on export development within sectors of the creative economy.  NSBI’s mandate is to attract global investment, to create new jobs across the province and to work with companies in all communities to be more successful exporters.

I came into working with NSBI last November when I participated in a Trade Mission to Belgium, Germany, and The Netherlands. That opportunity emerged from the work I was doing as Industry Producer with Magnetic North Theatre Festival in 2014 when it was in Halifax.  I oversaw the international export buyers program at Magnetic North, which was funded by The Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency (ACOA). ACOA along with NSBI lead a European trade mission every fall, and in our Magnetic North wrap up meetings with ACOA I proposed I go along for the experience. Rarely are non-profits invited, and almost never theatre makers.  So, I lucked into it you could say.

About ten years ago I was lucky to not be sued by the Beckett Estate.  My friend Elling Lien and I created a parody of Waiting For Godot using wind-up toys, which we called Winding Up Godot.  We performed it one night to a limited capacity of fifteen. It was a sort of dark joke on how unsustainable theatre is, and where we place the measures of success.  What emerged on a deeper level were questions about the commodification of the human experience, and privatization of public space.

The conversation in the World Trade room makes me think about the gap between art and business. It makes me think about the forces that compel us to become more entrepreneurial.

The facilitator is handing out some sheets of paper.  She asks us to turn our attention to the barriers we face getting us to that 2025 achievement we all envision for ourselves.  The sheet placed in front of me is filled with photo thumbnails like a menu and I am going to point to the thing I want. Some people in the room are choosing a photo of a bunch of surgeons working on a patient, some an open road, some a child eating a brownie, someone a menacing great white shark.  It’s all looking pretty good, and then I notice the image of the grim reaper.

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Chad Dembski in Farewell, photo by Tim Matheson

Recently, Nova Scotians were urged to choose an image for the future. Released in February 2014 by the OneNS commission, a document produced by Ray Ivany put out an urgent call to action under the title: ‘Now or Never’. Its conclusion: Nova Scotia must change its direction in a dynamic way or else it’s headed for irreparable harm based on present demographics and economic realities.

Nova Scotians need to be more optimistic, more united and therefore move away from outdated reliance on government.   “Without trying to raise panic bells, we are sounding a version of an alarm. We think we are teetering on the brink and it is that combination of demography and economy of potentially a long-term inexorable slide,” said Ray Ivany.

I take a look down at the page and I choose the picture of a landscape with two hands framing it as if it were a shot in a movie. I explain that for me the image I chose is about framing the authentic beauty of a place, about capturing a fleeting moment.

In the past four years I presented work as Secret Theatre in Wales, Scotland, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland and throughout Canada. Secret Theatre’s work is hyper-local in content and uses processes that are less conventional and more demanding. I believe exporting this work abroad is actualizing the deeper artistic goal to connect local conversations to global communities.

In 2025, I will be 48. Raised on a philosophy that you should go where the work is, friends who started families and some who have bought houses are talking about moving away. Some already have. What will I have achieved that enables me to stay?

We are now in a moment when Nova Scotia is seeking to redefine the roles artists by exploring forms that are not fixed in government, but instead take root in principles of production and distribution, which are more economically driven.

The inherent danger is cultivating a practice for the sake of consumption. The crucial issue is the manner in which art is commodified and how that changes the art and culture of this place. Could we be looking at the de-artificiation of art, or an industry that cheats its consumers of what it promises?   Authentic culture replaced by a culture of sameness.

As the meeting wraps up, business cards are exchanged, and I grab an oatcake for the road.