Carla Stephenson of Ymir was an invited speaker at the Canadian Arts Summit in Toronto in April. She says she was overwhelmed by the calibre of the people she met there. She participated in a round table discussion that included the president of the National Ballet of Canada, the head of the Harbourfront Centre, people from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and someone from Theatre Calgary.
“People were ignoring me until they heard the story of the Tiny Lights Festival,” she says. “Then they were super engaged.”
She told them the story of how an arts festival can enliven the economy and the community spirit of a very small town.
Stephenson has been invited to tell the same story to a national conference of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation in Prince Edward Island in the fall.
The festival is the town
At Tiny Lights, the festival is the whole town. The four main performance venues—the schoolhouse (no longer used as a school) the church (actually a private residence), the hotel, the community hall—are scattered around the few blocks of Ymir, population 230.
“During the festival there is no getting away from the festival,” says Stephenson. “There is not really a festival grounds, so there is lots of conversation and room for accidental collaboration. It is in every single venue of the town and by having people come into these old buildings that are in disrepair, it has sparked interest in rehabilitating them. The town has become interested in developing its assets.”
CR Avery performs at the schoolhouse. Photo by Jody Ponto.
A different attitude to performers
When musicians apply to perform at Tiny Lights, the application form asks them what non-musical skills they could contribute to the festival.
“There is not really a backstage at the festival, so we do not want people there who are treated like high-end musicians,” says Stephenson. “I want them to be taking part in the community, and in fact many musicians have told us that their experience here has been as enlightening for them as their performance was.”
For example, the Vancouver performer Erin Sage Sharpe used funding that Tiny Lights got from Fortis BC to create a bike powered stage where audience members pedal a stationary bike to charge a battery that runs the sound and lights. Sharpe has since spun this into a business called Green Powered Events. He also contributes his screen printing skills to the festival, as well as performing as a musician.
At left: Wax Mannequin performs at the church. Carla Stephenson photo.
Stephenson says some performers donate carpentry or other skills to the festival. Why would out of town musicians on a festival circuit want to do this?
“Because they have told us being involved with this community is like a retreat for them,” says Stephenson, “because the community is so welcoming, and the environment is so inspiring.”
Local population is engaged
The level of involvement of local people is very high also.
“I’d say 60 per cent of the population is involved, running concessions, planning, assisting,” says Hans Cunningham, the elected representative for the area on the board of the Regional District of Central Kootenay.
“It pulls the community together,” he says, “and if a community works together it can do all sorts of things, like the new skatepark. That money was raised right within the community.”
Cunningham says Ymir has always had good community spirit, but Tiny Lights has enhanced it.
Stephenson says some members of the community have been brought into the festival as helpers or vendors and in turn the festival has helped them get started in independent business ventures. Shawn Stephenson (Carla’s husband) has started a recording studio in Ymir as a result of the festival and has just recorded a new album for Vancouver performer Carolyn Mark, who has performed twice in Ymir in the past.
Stephenson also talks about Ymir residents who have turned festival activities into businesses or courses, such as courses in carpentry and chain saw operation for women. The Kootenay Country Craft Distillery credits a Tiny Lights showcase of their products with giving them a leg up when their business was just starting.
Geoff Berner and Carolyn Mark at the Ymir Hotel. Photo by Jodie Ponto
Local youth became ambassadors
A few years ago the festival took on local youth and taught them how to look after sound, lighting, and staging.
‘They also wrote and recorded all the PSAs and commercials for the festival, so this population of kids became engaged ambassadors for us.”
A CBT youth grant led to a five-day songwriting workshop where a group of youth wrote, recorded, and performed. This year that workshop and performance is part of the festival.
“A planner from Vernon came in and talked with the community and with the kids and they said they wanted a skatepark. They were bonded from their success with the festival and that made them think they can do things within their own town. A lot of youth in Ymir have been disengaged— they feel they are from somewhere bad, from Ymir and not from Nelson. That is a stigma.”
Stephenson says the success of the development of Ymir’s skatepark, for which young people raised thousands of dollars, is partly a result of the engagement of young people through the Tiny Lights Festival.
Sustainable economic development
At Tiny Lights, sustainability starts with the fact that the festival produced only one bag of garbage last summer, helped out by the microorganisms in their bokashi composing system.
And the infrastructure issues are simple. “Using buildings that already exist, instead of those crazy stages with all those extras, means that on the Monday after the festival you could not tell that anything had happened, which to me is astonishing.”
Wooing the Nelson audience
The festival’s most mysterious problem, Stephenson says, is attracting people from Nelson. Only 20 per cent of the audience are Nelsonites.
“I don’t know why. We have a big following from Kimberley, Rossland, all the outlying areas. We are trying to deeply appeal to Nelson audiences, but it has been a tough nut to crack. It is only 20 minutes away.”
So this year the festival will be running a free shuttle back and forth between Nelson and Ymir.
“If you drive by Ymir, I can really understand it looks like a bunch of shacks, and because of Ymir’s biker history, maybe that is why Nelson has difficulty with coming to the festival. There is a stigma attached to Ymir, but it should not exist any more. There is a revitalization happening that you can not see from the highway.”
This year’s Tiny Lights Festival runs June 12-14.