It’s fair to say that the Saskatchewan art leadership landscape has undergone a sizable shift in the last three years or so. New leadership teams at both the Globe and Persephone, a changing of the guard at organizations like Common Weal, and now a new Artistic Director for Sum Theatre. For the Saskatoon company, founded in 2012, they got a headstart on a new direction. Thanks to a 2020 Creative Saskatchewan’s Business Capacity Grant, Sum was able to hire three artists to help reimagine their decision making structure.
That new team–which included longstanding Saskatchewan artists Mackenzie Dawson, Krystel Pederson, Judith Schulz, Yvette Nolan, and Laura Negraeff– was tasked with looking at how an organization that had previously only had enough funding to provide two staff positions (both part-time) could grow within a new model. In applying for the business capacity grant, founder and Artistic Director Joel Bernbaum sought to answer three questions:
How could Sum make space for a model that allowed enough funding for the leadership team to spend more time on planning and less time on the draining day to day tasks of keeping independent theatre company alive? How could the organization find someone (or some people) dedicated to managing the business aspects of the operation? And, lastly, how could Sum continue to develop and hold onto talented emerging theatre artists that still tend to find themselves working in bigger centres rather than staying home?
One of the artists who was hired with the funding provided by the grant, Mackenzie Dawson, has recently been named Bernbaum’s successor as he moves on to other opportunities. Dawson said in a press release announcing his new role that his history with the organization, starting as an assistant stage manager for the 2019 edition of Theatre in the Park, should serve him well in his new gig.
“I had to keep the children from running into the stage area and ‘borrowing’ the props. I thought ‘this is chaos’, it’s stuff you would never see at a regular stage show, but that experience really stuck with me.”
He added that his experience as an Artistic Associate has been integral to his development as both an artist and an arts administrator.
“The past two years have been the most intense professional development I’ve ever had, and for me it all comes down to nurturing relationships through theatre. I’m now in a position where I can take care of people; the ones I work with and the people we can reach with the work.”
For his part, Bernbaum who has led or co-led Sum Theatre—most notably alongside Heather Morrisson— since the company’s inception in 2012, is excited to see how Dawson will continue the mission of Sum Theatre: to bring theatre to audiences that may not typically experience the art form.
“To me art is about creativity, and a big part of creativity is change. I look forward to watching Sum Theatre grow and change with Mackenzie’s capable leadership.”
One of the programs Mackenzie is already helping to lead is the aforementioned Theatre in the Park. Now entering its eleventh season, the yearly program includes selecting or commissioning a play—usually created or adapted by the ensemble—producing and then performing it in Saskatoon and area parks.
This year’s play, Zero Gravity, is described by the company as “a Sci-Fi exploration of climate breakdown and what will happen if we don’t start changing the way we live on Mother Earth.” Over the years, Theatre in the Park has expanded its reach, much like the leadership team has expanded its horizons, and this year’s season now includes dates in Regina, Martensville, Warman, Davidson, Indian Head, Rosetown, Prince Albert, Stanley Mission, and La Ronge.
When he announced that he was moving on from his position, Bernbaum said that, although he was receiving plenty of feedback on his departure, this kind of change was one that would benefit all involved.
“It has been an honour to serve our community as a member of the Sum Theatre team since the beginning. I’ve received a lot of credit for our work, but Sum has always been a team effort. The Sum truly is greater than any one part.”
By John Loeppky
If you’d like to take a closer look at how Sum Theatre breaks down the barriers prospective audience members face, whether it’s by performing in a public space or creating a monthly showcase for new work, you can do so on a variety of platforms. Those include their website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.