The Professional Development Challenge

by Cheryl Ewing, Ontario Presents / Ontario Contact Event Manager

I don’t expect that I am much different from many working in the arts whether as a professional or a volunteer – there is not enough time! So, how to squeeze in those opportunities for professional development? Is it worth it?

I attend a minimum of three conferences besides my own on an annual basis and each time I am sitting in the airport waiting for my flight I find myself trying to deal with work issues via email and wondering what on earth I am doing. This time would be better spent in the office trying to catch up, even though I know that is never going to happen.

This feeling lives with me through to arrival in the conference city, checking in and through registration. I attend the first event and I know why I am there. I come to feed my soul, to re-experience the work of favourite artists/companies, to discover new interesting work and to know that I am truly not alone – there is a whole world out there sharing my passion and despair. I return home exhausted but reinvigorated, with new ideas and excitement about what I might be able to do to change my community for the better and to contribute to the arts sector. Deeper relationships are built with others and opening up even more opportunities.

My understanding of the performing arts sector and what is quality work is a direct result of the number of performances I watch each year. I can appreciate a work that I don’t like, knowing that it may not speak to me but it is good work nonetheless. I have had that conversation with other audience members, admitting that I did not personally like the work we had just seen that they loved.  It may have been a style of theatre that I don’t like but that I could appreciate it because I recognized the quality of the production and the actors. This ability to recognize good work I don’t personally like allows me to better consider whether a piece will be of interest if presented in my community. Curators of the performing arts must have this ability to see beyond their own personal preferences and there is no better way to develop your aesthetics than seeing lots of work. Conferences offer a short cut with a lot of options in a short period of time.

The opportunities for networking are endless and limited only by our own reluctance to approach strangers. Meeting new people makes me feel physically ill but to talk about a performance eliminates that dread and has lead to some wonderful new friendships and the ability to then have deeper conversations. So much happens on an informal basis as we walk from venue to venue or wait in lobbies for the theatre to open.

The more formal professional development opportunities are increasingly informal, providing an opportunity to share ideas, and to begin to understand the viewpoint of others involved in the booking of artists. Harder to quantify and easier to ignore, I believe that these are the opportunities that really open doors. Recently I attended IPAY where I was asked to facilitate some of their kindling sessions. We arrived at one of the venues to discover that it would not physically support the approach that had been planned. Johan De Smet, artistic director of KOPERGIETERY, suggested that we have a discussion about fear and led that discussion with a personal story. We then asked the attendees to talk to someone they did not know, ideally mixing artists, presenters and agents. The following 90 minutes was an intense sharing about the fears that drive or accompany us as we try to bring the best work possible to our communities. The discussion provided us with an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of how we all must work together for success; and to work through our fears. This opportunity to speak frankly with each other breaks down some of those transactional barriers that seem to put us on opposing sides. It opened doors to further discussions about how we can best manage the financial and audience concerns that we all share that may be preventing us from presenting a show that we know needs to be seen. It gave us courage to continue.

I realize I should put a reminder in my office that these moments away from my work and the rest of my life, make it possible for me to be better at what I do. It provides me with resources that I can draw on as I try something new, remembering the person I talked to at that conference had some good ideas I may be able to incorporate into a current problem. Or, to know that others will be cheering me on as I stumble through my next idea! Our conferences are about building a sense of community and finding our own place within that community and are an essential element of our success. 


Photo: Ontario Contact 2014, Midland Ontario