Why and how we celebrate

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, May 2014

On the eve of the Royal McPherson’s Centennial Festival, the meaning of performance is pondered.

An open fire has majestic, mysterious powers. It calls us immediately into the present with its heat; its crackling and spitting intensity; its ever-changing, hypnotic visuals. 

At the same time, it carries us far away from the present to a moment, common with all our many ancestors, where time and place seem to disappear. A fire creates a second kind of hypnosis that transports us both deep inside ourselves and, at the same time, way back somewhere to a human source. We are, after all, the only species who messes with flames.

Now imagine our ancestor around the fire, full of food and contentment after the day’s hunt. He looks around at his clan, feeling kinship, maybe even love. He asks her what happened at the camp today. She is so damn funny. She does not simply tell the story. She stands up, imitating animals and humans, giggling, embellishing, whooping and jumping about.

Everyone can see the spark in her eyes, fire reflected, her energy amply shared. They love it. Soon they are all laughing and what could have been a mundane recitation of the day’s events has turned into a lovely and loving performance. She continues.

From the shadows, her daughter arrives, quick to catch what is going on. She starts to hum a tune that others sort-of know and this becomes a kind of fumbling, but enthusiastic, back chorus. Suddenly, mother and daughter burst into a pitch perfect song over top of all this sound and movement. It is so inspirational that the whole group starts to clap in rhythm.

Et voilà, the art of performance is born!

Now quickly back in the time machine as we rush forward to the 20th century. Set the dial for 1913. We are stopping in Lekwungen territory, known by the recent settlers as Victoria, British Columbia. Crews are busy building two remarkable theatres—these days known as the Royal Theatre and the McPherson Playhouse. 

And remarkably, 100 years later, they are both still functioning. Yes, there are debates both in and outside the arts community about the utility, compatibility and sustainability of both these venues. 

Yet, whatever their futures, it is critical to honour their histories over the last century. To that end, the Royal and McPherson Theatre Society (RMTS) is celebrating with its own Centennial Festival, a week long series of one-time-only concerts and performances that runs from May 18 to 25. Headliners include jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, dancer Crystal Pite, childern’s entertainer Raffi, plus whole evenings devoted to local “roots” performers (see page 26) and rockers. 

The RMTS hopes that appreciating this Victoria-specific history of arts impresarios mixed in with local cultural communities that have sprouted over the decades will cause a pause—a moment to recall, to celebrate and to envision “What’s next?”

Here in 2014, how can we understand the history of presenting performances? For insight I turned to Josh Keller, who is the Centennial Festival producer.

“Humans are still very interested in the gathering,” he offered, “...we still love to gather—to share stories, to share imaginations with each other.” He then added with a slight chuckle, “Except now, instead of fires, we have stage lighting.” 

Why do some performances work wonderfully and others are not so successful? Josh responds thoughtfully, “Well, there are lots of factors. Whether the audience and the performers can get in sync. It is intangible sometimes.” 

Then he gets more practical: “There are things that presenters can consider though. Choosing the right venue. Considering the financial—how much you can make—in relation to the artistic—how much you can keep your reputation and your connection to artists, ensuring that the performers will enjoy being in that space.”

Over the years Josh has presented artists from all over the world. This is often tricky to do. How do you show performers in their cultural context when they are obviously out of context onstage? “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he ventures with a wry smile. “I have heard people say, ‘I went to the performance but really I liked the recording better!’ A lot depends on the performer. They are the ones who can explain the roots from their own artistic experience. Sometimes by their great storytelling or by their cross cultural jokes we can understand where the music or dance comes from. The artist has to bring it.” 

I ask Josh about the future, say in 20 years, what will performance look like? He surprises me with his answer, “I think the real question is whether we will even have any new theatres in 20 years. The star system is still there, of course, but it is eroding. There is a shrinking A-list of performers. And these days, more and more people are creative, with artistic output.”

Add in the DIY art movement; performers working more and more in interdisciplinary ways; artists working out of doors or in other non-mainstream venues, involving new communities, sometimes persons who are not trained artists. All of this deconstructs the idea of performer as someone special. Does this mean that anyone can be an artist now?

Josh concludes, “Consumers are looking for a more authentic experience. There is a giant underground of artists and performers, each working with a smallish, niche audience. You can have a serious fan base in Germany without even speaking German, without ever going there! What all this means for the future of performance is, I think, an open question.”

It is true that some folks are looking for a more intimate, “authentic” experience? Small venues are constantly heralded. Home concerts, many with no technology at all, are making a comeback. But it is also true that immense, big screen techno-spectacles are popular. It seems that a craving to be part of the tribe, not unlike mega sporting events, persists. Can performance spectacle co-exist with the idea of performance intimacy?  

This column is refusing to end all tidied up, with concrete answers. Instead I am left with two critical, wide ranging questions and maybe a couple of clues on where to go for tentative answers. 

First question: If authenticity is somehow bound up with intimacy—meander back to the “memory” of that first ever performance around the fire—and if today’s idea of spectacle is somehow bound up with technology, can authenticity be created when technology is present? Clue: Check out how artists explore this issue as they use technology, both high and low.

Second question: If everybody—OK, not everybody, but more people than ever before—are creative, thereby de-centering the authority of the special, genius artist, then who is an artist today? Who decides and by what criteria? Clue: Check out what artists themselves are speaking, writing and performing about this contemporary dilemma. 

Sorry not to have provided answers. But I have given you something. Two more reasons to pay attention to living artists. Two more reasons to check out their queries, their parcours, their aesthetics. Two more reasons to appreciate why the arts are pathways to complex ideas that spill over into all aspects of our society.

The collective fire of performance is still our light in the night, our warmth in the cold. 

It still provides the cultural container for our rituals. It conjures up only-a-partly-yet-imagined vision of who we could be. Yet performance, like fire, can do that in a way that makes us feel good, both in our tired, restless bodies and in our ever questing souls. 

Staring deep into the flames, many folks know that warm feeling as hope.


The Royal McPherson Centennial Festival takes place at both 100-year-old theatres, from May 18-25. Please check Focus’ calendar for more info; also see www.rm100.ca.

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. He has just begun writing a book on the Canadian art system.