About the artist: Karen Balcome
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
All my work is rooted in a desire to create new experiences for people, often through storytelling. I am continuously inspired by experimentation and collaboration. My ideal creative process is one that is challenging and playful.
What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I grew up supported, fueled and inspired by the arts, whether it was visual art, literature, music or film and later theatre, dance, and poetry. I was drawn to theatre for the way it is based in a sense of community while also being a vehicle to explore self-expression. Now it’s become the way my brain works – I can’t stop thinking critically and creatively about the world around me and the arts are my favourite vehicle to give expression to these ideas.
What are some recurring themes in your art practice?
I’m interested in how people can make connections with each other through my work. Often, this has meant connecting with an audience or community’s immediate and specific concerns and finding a link to a more universal experience that can be shared. Past projects have found connections across a sense of loss, home, purpose, identity, and community. A feeling of being an outsider or having an untold story is often a starting point. I am also interested in the form my work takes – when I am creating theatre, I like to explore how its conventions can be reinvestigated and what can be borrowed and remixed from other media and traditions to create new entry points for an audience or participant.
What are your most important influences?
My practice is constantly shaped by observations of and experiences with the people and world around me. New ideas are also sparked by art that I see and experience, whether it is theatre and storytelling or other media.
What is your experience in art projects engaging social practice?
I’ve led a variety of interdisciplinary arts and theatre programs either on site or in engagement with communities across the city, through the City of Ottawa’s Arts Animation, Arts Leadership and Special Needs programs; the Ottawa School of Speech & Drama’s Our Stories outreach program; and the Ottawa Children’s Theatre’s DramaWeavers program for children with autism. Though implemented in a variety of contexts and forms, all these projects have involved co-creation of an experience with a specific group of people with their own needs, strengths and goals.
What did you gain from your experience?
It has been a pleasure to share the process of empowerment, creativity and fun inherent in theatre with such a diversity of people through these experiences. By working with communities who often face barriers to professional arts experiences and education opportunities, I am able to learn new stories and new ways of being creative. This spirit of exchange influences my performance practice as well, inspiring me to meet each audience member where they are at and engage in a co-creation unique to each live event.
How long have you been active in the Ottawa arts community?
What interested you about working with AOE Arts Council?
I am inspired by the unique opportunity AOE Arts Council has created through Art Place. Through this relationship with the organization, I look forward to making connections and learning from a wider network of artists and arts supporters.
About the project
What made you want to participate in Art Place?
The proportion of people who get to experience professional theatre in Ottawa is extremely small. Yet the essence of the art form – expressing yourself, having your voice heard and listening to someone else’s story – is something that I think many individuals crave and holds such potential value for resolving our challenges as a society. In my experience as an educator and a performer, I’ve witnessed firsthand the empowering, comforting, emboldening and challenging impact that an opportunity to share your story or see it reflected on stage can provide. I am interested in facilitating this experience with as many different communities in Ottawa as possible, as I think it’s a key component to the diversity and health of our city at large. I was interested in the opportunity with Art Place to connect with a new community of participants and to expand my social practice. I am also excited to be part of a program that is engaging artists and the general public in the idea and value of social practice/community engaged art.
What inspired you to pursue this project with this community?
I believe storytelling and an embodied performance experience can empower a variety of individuals to articulate their challenges and gain experience and skills in working through these challenges with their community. Working with youth in particular, I have found that there are so many pressures and challenges that they can face from varying external expectations that surround them. In previous community projects, I have experienced firsthand how beginning a process with an exploration of individual voice can allow youth to tap into concerns, ideas and awareness that they would otherwise not have the space, support and confidence to address. I look forward to getting to know the group of youth at Somerset West and creating a space together where they can build on the creative impulses they already possess.
How would you describe the project you will be working on?
I will be leading a storytelling and theatre creation project with 13-18 year olds from the Somerset West Community Health Centre Youth Drop-In program. The process will be shaped by writing exercises, ensemble building and skill development and knowledge sharing in movement, rhythm and voice work. I will support them to identify a common theme of concern or interest, explore their individual viewpoints on that theme, and tease out the contrasting elements in their perspectives, both within themselves as individuals, and between them as community members. Based on the interests of the group, we will build from exploration to incorporating elements of a dynamic theatrical presentation that can allow them to envision new possibilities and perspectives around the theme. Throughout the process, the youth will be leaders in shaping the form and content of what we create.
As an artist, what do you hope to get out of this process?
I hope to gain new inspirations for how to approach a creative process or shape a creative work. As I meet this new group of people with different artistic experiences, I hope to learn more about what it is with theatre that touches people creatively, socially and imaginatively.
What do you hope participants will gain from this process?
I hope we can create an hour each week where the participants have the opportunity to be listened to, share in each others’ ideas, and have fun. Through this experience, I hope they can develop and build their self-confidence in their ideas, creativity and voice. I hope the participants can walk away with some tools to work through conflicts that might come up in their lives and create new opportunities for themselves.
How do you anticipate this work will have an impact on the community?
I hope the tools and self-confidence developed in class can be applied in their daily interactions within their community. As they develop their voices and ideas, these can become a valuable part of their community visioning and decision-making. As we share our ideas with each other and with the other Art Place projects, we will become part of each others’ community and expand a network of connections and creativity in Ottawa.
How will your project give voice or expression to the social issue(s) you will be exploring?
This project can create time and space for this community of youth to explore self-confidence and self-identity, as well as practice the experience of working with respect and empathy as a group. Particular issues of concern will be determined by the participants.
How will you know your project is a success?
The youth’s participation and dedication to the program and the creative process will be a strong indicator of success. I look forward to seeing the level of communication among the group at the beginning and seeing how we can develop our ability to give and take ideas from each other. Success will be tracked by the youth’s own standards by giving them a chance to identify what kind of experience they want early on in the process and checking in with them about those expectations and their experience and any developments as we go along.
More about Karen Balcome