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Inside the Whistler Children's Arts Festival

Trials, tribulations and tireless commitment have marked Whistler's longest ongoing festival

Listening to Joan Richoz, Doti Niedermayer, Kelly Clarke and Allegra Geller you get the idea that putting on the Whistler Children’s Art Festival has definitely had its moments.

There have been performers with formidable body odour and a preference for enclosed spaces. An act called Matt the Safety Guy proved to be an insurance-challenging axe-juggler who plied his trade on a tight rope. A workshop dedicated to plaster mask making revealed the claustrophobics among Whistler’s younger set. In addition, murmurs still reverberate about a particular dedicated volunteer taking time for a good sob in the art supply room. Welcome to the Whistler Children’s Art Festival, the Whistler Arts Council’s (WAC) premiere event, which this year takes place July 15-16.

At 23, it is the longest, continuously running festival in Whistler. Initially created as way to supplement a lack of arts education at the local school, the homegrown affair held at the first Myrtle Philip elementary school really was for the kids of Whistler. Initially held within current village boundaries, the old school was situated where the Cascade Hotel now stands. When the school moved to its current location on Lorimer Road, the festival followed.

Last year, thanks to a move from Myrtle Philip Community School to Creekside, the festival attendance topped 3,000. What started as curriculum support has grown into an event that draws annual return visitors from the city and is well attended by families vacationing in Whistler.

"In 1983 was our first children’s festival," says WAC board member Joan Richoz. "Margaret Long and Sandra McCarthy – Sandra still lives here –were the coordinators and I got sort of roped in doing gopher kind of tasks. The main reason for starting it was there were no fine arts being taught in the school. The school, of course, at that time was fairly small. There were maybe 120 students? I had a daughter in school and those of us who believed strongly in the arts said, ‘let’s put on a festival for kids.’"

Richoz, the recently retired head of the Whistler library, recalls that artists from the Lower Mainland had to be invited to attend as there were very few artists in Whistler. Although other children’s festivals existed at the time, the closest one, The Vancouver Children’s Festival, was not suitable as either a model or a resource.

"They were always focused on performance," says Richoz. "Ours was really focused on arts, the majority of time was programmed for workshops."

That first year there was an art show at the Blackcomb Lodge that featured the works of the artists cum workshop leaders. The workshop instructors were artists whose work was represented by internationally recognized Vancouver galleries such as the Baux Xi, among them, multi-media artist Pat O’Hara.

Then a recent grad from Emily Carr College of Art and Design, O’Hara was among the artists asked to donate their work to the Whistler Arts Council. Surprisingly, and perhaps in the spirit of the time, many did. It was a more grass roots time in the community – and perhaps in history. The generation with the ethos of the ’60s was now coming into positions of influence with much of their early idealism intact.

It is impossible to imagine a major event today culminating in what Richoz describes as "an incredible potluck dinner for everyone involved." Today, post-event celebrations are more likely to require corporate booze donations, catering by one of Whistler’s Big Five restaurants and an event company to design and implement rave décor modified to satisfy a corporate audience. Vegetarian lasagna and endless tabouleh just aren’t enough anymore.

In those nascent years of the festival, entertainment played more of a role in marketing the event.

"There was entertainment in the Village Square," recalls Richoz. "At that time the WRA, which is now Tourism Whistler, had this big tent that we used. We used the entertainment to let people in the square know that there was something happening at the school."

That first year, 30 workshops were held over the two days with almost every kid in the community taking part in one or two workshops.

Rick Scott, who is still active within children’s entertainment, was among the handful of performers booked at the premiere WCAF. Along with Shari Ulrich and Joe Mock, Scott made up the event’s first "headliner" concert, an evening with Pied Pear. The concert cost $6 for adults, $2 for kids.

"Workshops were probably a dollar, maybe $2, we always tried to keep it as affordable as we could," says Richoz.

Artists – both performers and workshop leaders – received nominal honorariums supplemented with donated accommodation.

"Today, that’s still really the case," confirms Doti Niedermayer, WAC executive director.

Kelly Clarke, events manager for the WAC, concurs with Niedermayer. Clarke clearly believes that accessibility is fundamental.

Nearly 25 years later, most of the workshop costs remain in the $3-$5 range, with plenty of no-cost activities also available.

"We have a lot of free activities this year. While the art workshops will still always be the focus of it, there’s lots of free things for kids and their families," says Clarke. "Last year we had three activities, this year we have closer to 30."

As well, 15 street entertainers will patrol the walkways of Creekside entertaining kids and adults, while the main stage will feature entertainment throughout the entire day.

In total, more than 30 performers will complement the 35 different workshops that fill the 80 available time slots over the two-day festival.

Clarke sees the biggest change to the festival being its venue, a cluster of streets and walkways around a venerable local institution: Dusty’s in Creekside.

"Being able to take the festival outside (of the school) took it from being a series of workshops to really being a festival," says Clarke.

Moving to the location of Whistler’s first neighbourhood means that the festival can now be in one contained area. At Myrtle Philip the gym was the key location for the workshops; parents stayed in the adjacent café waiting for the work.

"Lots of community groups are helping out. The museum, for example, will be putting together a scavenger hunt for kids. That raises awareness of community groups like WAG, the museum and Soul Funktion," says Geller, event assistant.

Richoz remembers that initially both community groups, of which there were few, and local businesses were less than enthusiastic to support the festival.

"A children’s festival is really a motherhood issue," she states. "It took some convincing, but soon everyone was on board, particularly businesses with lots of in-kind donations."

Niedermayer points out that many of those donations come from places that WAC ordinarily doesn’t deal with, such as building supply companies. Today attracting donations to WCAF is one of the easier aspects of WAC’s fundraising work.

All the women agree that without the support of the business community the festival would be impossible to produce, even with performers and artists working well below regular rates.

As well, there are the literally hundreds of volunteers who annually give of their time to ensure the event’s success.

"Of all our events this is the one that uses the most volunteers. We have slots for 250 volunteers over the course of the festival," says Geller.

And that’s just the onsite volunteers. Others work behind the scenes to ensure success, sometimes months in advance of the event.

"We have one guy who works at Clydesdale Maintenance who spends all winter making our wood paddles. Just one guy who cuts out every single paddle in his spare time. We could never afford to pay the labour on that," says Clarke.

As it is, the festival has yet to break even, with other WAC events having to subsidize the shortfall. But that could be seen as the cost of fostering an appreciation for the arts among the area’s youngest residents. Furthermore, the festival helps to highlight the local arts community.

"Doing workshops with local artists and seeing entertainers from within the community, I think that’s really great," Niedermayer says.

An emphasis on local talent has also meant an increase in diversity. She points out that one of the unexpected hits of last year’s festival was a troupe of belly dancers. While not necessarily the type of programming that instantly says "kids fest", the belly dancers were well received by kids and parents alike.

"The move to Creekside has given us a space that is enclosed. You’re surrounded by the festival. You really know where you are. You know when you’re on site it’s the Children’s Festival, you really know what’s going on," says WAC’s executive director.

Richoz agrees, pointing out that with the numerous street performers and clusters of balloons in the area, as well as the sights and sounds of kids having fun, it’s impossible to not figure out what’s going on. Each of the women speak so enthusiastically about the festival it’s hard not to wonder if the new space has created a renewed energy for members of the board and staff. After all, this is an event for which planning is year-round.

"We’re already working on next year’s festival," states Clarke.

However, when they tell stories of past festivals the level of their affection for the event becomes evident. This is clearly an ongoing passion for everyone involved.

Depending on your point of view, here are some of the highlights or lowlights of the festival:

The plaster mask-making workshop incident

"One of the kids got really freaked out once the plaster went on, he went totally claustrophobic," recalls Richoz.

However, a little claustrophobia didn’t mean an end to the immensely popular workshop. It was repeated the following year and is still on the roster.

Safety First 1

"A couple of years ago we had a carving workshop, with actual carving tools – serious stuff. One kid cut his finger and we realized we didn’t have a First Aid kit when we were running around looking for a Band-Aid," remembers Niedermayer.

Basic onsite First Aid is now always available. That said, there has never been a serious accident at the festival.

Safety First 2

In a case of what could be the ultimate misnomer, a performer named Matt the Safety Guy showed up and within seconds was juggling not only axes, but also fire sticks while walking across a tightrope. Ironically, a local Whistler insurance company sponsored the performance. A misstep could have been a PR disaster for the festival. While the organizers held their breath, the so-called Safety Guy held the audience’s rapt attention.

"The kids loved it," recalls Niedermayer.

"He’s supposed to instill lessons about safety in a fun way. He wears a helmet, but he’s juggling things like chainsaws."

However, that wasn’t quite perilous enough for the self-proclaimed safety guy.

"And the tightrope he was walking on was tied to a lamp post with the other end being held by four or five people," recalls Geller, herself a onetime fest attendee.

The performer who stank… literally.

"There was a guy who performed in (a prefabricated enclosed space). He wasn’t a bad story teller, but I don’t think he ever bathed," Richoz says. "And he perspired all day long. It was so smelly inside, I don’t know how the kids survived."

Gallery Parents, a subsidiary of Stage Parents Inc.

"Adults are supposed to go into workshops with their kids. And you’re allowed to work beside your kids. But sometimes there are parents who try to take over. We’ve had workshop leaders have to say, ‘This is a workshop for children,'" says Niedermayer.

If you played a significant part in creating your child’s Confederation diorama ("Honey, look it’s a shrunken apple head of John A. Macdonald!), consider having your spouse or a family friend take your kid.

Bukowski for kids? The fest’s most surprising performer…

"That’s Stephen Vogler for me, in that he’s much more adult-oriented. I think he’s a great writer and storyteller. When we brought him in for children’s stuff I was really surprised at how he switched gears," say Niedermayer.

And of course, there were the aforementioned, crowd-pleasing belly dancers.

Supply closet breakdown…

The woman who allegedly sobbed among the poster paints and drop cloths will remain anonymous. But should she decide to go public, there are undoubtedly primary school teachers, daycare workers and nannies willing to join a support group. Five hundred kids? Dozens of "artistic" temperaments? No glue sticks? Rest assured that lesser women – and men – would have crumbled completely under those circumstances.

But what of the creepy clowns that haunt kids’ events?

Happily, and to the relief of many Clarabell-a-phobes, WCAF has never had a complaint about any of its clowns.

"We’ve never heard that our clowns are creepy," says Clarke.

"Maybe that’s something we could aspire, to," suggests Niedermayer, tongue firmly in cheek.

The look in her eye, suggests a herd of white-faced figures sporting fright wigs running down Franz’s Trail seltzering anyone in their way. Now that would be frightening!

If this sounds like a festival for you and your family – and you’d have to be a grouch not to like it – take this week to plan ahead. A pre-registration wristband program is in effect for the event. While some seats for workshops may be available on site. Niedermayer advises people to pre-register to avoid disappointment.

"Most people elect to pre-register, that way they can be assured to get the workshops their kids want to go to," says Niedermayer.

Another piece of advice is to dress appropriately. A simple rule of thumb: if it can’t be covered in paint, don’t wear it.

"Kelly and I were just running supplies to workshops and we came out covered in glue and paint and glitter… you just never know what you’ll get on you," says the always sparkling Geller.

For more information and programming specifics, click on the Whistler’s Children’s Art Festival icon on the WAC website: www.whistlerartscouncil.comor look for hard copy programs around town. The festival runs July 15 and 16 at Creekside.