Interview with Ayla Lefkowitz of CANVAS Arts Action Programs

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This week, we talked with Ayla Lefkowitz who works with us at Mixed Company Theatre, and is also Co-Founder of CANVAS Arts Action Programs. Check out the interview below:


1) When did CANVAS begin? What was the impetus behind starting this organization?


My good friend Miriam Selick and I co-founded CANVAS Arts Action Programs (CANVAS) in September 2014  ( Back then it was just an idea. A small one actually. To run an after school arts-based program for middle school students that challenges gender norms and homophobia and educates on consent and positive relationships. Back then we didn’t picture creating non-profit organization. We now have over 10 facilitators and dozens of programs at different schools, camps and community centres, reaching over 1000 youth and over 900 youth workers/camp staff members in the first year.


While we definitely didn’t plan for it at the beginning, starting something like this was something I always dreamed of. In Undergrad, I became very passionate about combating sexual violence and discrimination based on gender and sexuality. I volunteered for the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Student Society, educating high school students on consent, sexual assault and supporting survivors of violence. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do as a career, though when I left school, it was clear that the kind of work I wanted to do and felt was essential did not exist.


My interest in arts-based learning grew through my training with Mixed Company Theatre (MCT). In summer 2015, I trained as a Facilitator/Joker during the Professional Development workshops at MCT, learning the creative strategies of Forum Theatre. Simon and Kristin from MCT continue to be amazing mentors to me in my development as an arts-educator and social entrepreneur.


2) How did you and your co-founder Miriam Selick meet?


Miriam was at my 4th birthday party. Yup. Though we weren’t friends back then. Our mom’s are in the same book club. We went to school together from kindergarten to grade 12, but only became friends in grade 9 when we coincidently switched to the same large public school outside of our area.


Now both of us in our mid-twenties, she is a teacher with experience in arts-based education and I have a Masters with a focus on health promotion, gender and sexuality. Our talents and interests complimented each other’s perfectly, and we share the same values and work ethic. I could not have found a better co-founder if I tried.


3) Tell us a little bit about your upcoming programs.


We have a lot happening this upcoming school year! We have received 2 grants from Ontario Trillium Foundation. Trillium’s Youth Opportunities Fund will be funding our two-year project called “Celebrate! Body Positive Storytelling”, which is a 10-week accessible arts and theatre program for youth with disabilities. Through the program, participants will creatively explore identity, body image, gender, sexuality, consent, and positive relationships. We will be running 7 of these programs at several different schools and community centres across the city.


We also recently received Seed funding from Trillium to run a 2.5 hour arts-based workshop called Speak OUT on gender and sexuality in middle and high schools in the Peel District School Board, which challenges homophobic and transphobic bullying. We also run a 6-week Photography program with queer and trans youth at The 519 and an 8-week Spoken Word Poetry program at Antibes Community Centre. Too many more things to write here!


4) Is there interest in adding new workshops on your horizon? In an ideal world what other programs would you delve deeper into or begin including?


Yes, definitely. We are always full of new ideas. We started offering our programs to youth workers and teachers as well and that has been going great. They seem to love the interactive nature of our programming and we would love to run more of programs like these. In an ideal world every teacher and youth worker would have a mandatory training on Consent Education and Gender & Sexuality, so that they can make sure that their students are celebrated for their diversity of gender and sexual identities and that they have the knowledge and passion to combat sexual violence.


5) What have been some challenges you’ve faced?


Though financially, like most non-profit start-ups, it’s very challenging to get enough money to do all the work you want to do, my biggest challenge is navigating how the work affects me. On top of it being pretty exhausting work, it can be very emotionally draining. It is also not uncommon during our consent workshops to have participants come up to me after to tell me that they were raped. In these situations, I make sure they have somewhere to go for support. As a facilitator, walking out of an emotionally taxing workshop, it can be hard to leave it all in the classroom. And I sometimes find it hard to not feel overwhelmed by the problem I’m working tirelessly to combat. But we have created a network among CANVAS facilitators to regroup and reflect together so we can support each other if needed.


6) Who are some of your mentors? Who inspires you?


While there are many amazing feminist change makers out there who inspire me, I think my mother inspires me most. It’s easy to idealize leaders I don’t know, but I connect with the complexity of what it means to be a leader that I see in my mother. She is an Endocrinologist and the Principle Investigator of several clinical trials. And she works HARD. To the outside world she is one of the leading physicians in the field of Diabetes in Pregnancy in the country, but I get to see her when she comes home and stresses and worries. And what makes her so amazing is that despite her inner worries, she always continues to challenge herself, overcome roadblocks, and work non-stop to achieve her goals. In some moments I worry and question myself too, but watching my mother inspires me to continue to challenge myself and dream big.


7) What’s your favourite aspect about the job?


I love that I’m constantly learning. Miriam and I have to do everything. Facilitation. Program development. Evaluation. Sales. Website design. Grant writing. Project management. Volunteer coordination. Partnership development. Finance. Human resources. I’ve learned more in the past 2 years than I ever have in school.
CANVAS has been a fast track to experience. And that experience helps me in my work at Mixed Company Theatre. I don’t think I would have been able to do the work at MCT as well as I do without experiencing trial and error learning with CANVAS.


8) Do you have any outstanding stories you would like to/are able to share with us since beginning your work with CANVAS?


At a consent workshop we ran for high school students from different schools in London, Ontario, the students were extremely engaged and had amazing ideas. Though this wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for our workshops, what stands out to me about this workshop is that during the wrap up of the workshop when we ask, “does anyone have any last questions or comments?”, two participants shared with the whole group that they had been raped and sexually assaulted, and then thanked us and the whole group for this work and believing survivors. Following this, one participant after another responded saying how strongly they now felt about fighting rape culture and spreading consent. I was completely blown away and couldn’t hide that I was becoming emotional by the incredible support and trust that was filling the room. Having such confirmation of our work from young survivors of sexual violence was the most affirming and motivating feedback I have ever received.


For more information on Canvas Programs, visit them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: @canvasprograms 

Herman Ellis of Scadding Court talks Inter-GEN

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Herman|Scadding Court|Inter-Gen|MCT

Scadding Court Community Centre (SC) has partnered and worked with Mixed Company Theatre (MCT) a number of times over the past 25 years. Herman Ellis, who is now a program manager at SC, started his relationship with SC as a young individual using the services at the community centre almost 30 years ago. Since then has worked his way up through the ranks. He first met Simon, the Artistic Director at MCT, when the company put on the SCAT Cabaret with SC. Herman later reconnected with Simon through a SC and Ryerson collaboration for an LGBTQ older adult program, which included a forum theatre piece that MCT facilitated. Later MCT would collaborate again with Ryerson to put on an older adult Aboriginal show in 2015 titled, ‘Out of the Illusion’. The summer of 2015 SC and MCT also developed a youth workshop and put together a performance for World Drama Day.


The Inter-Gen Project: Year One

Herman appreciates that through the Inter-Gen Project MCT is adding a variety of arts projects and programming to seniors and youth, something that SC didn’t previously have. In the first year of this project, MCT ran a number of workshops with older adult and youth SC community members. Together they were also able to develop a show. The older adult participants liked the experience of exploring what they enjoyed ex. ballroom dancing and playing instruments, which reminded them of their childhood. MCT’s process of working with community participants allowed them to incorporate all of their talent into the show.

Herman observed that the workshops had multiple levels of impact: (i) There was a lot of community and trust building in the rehearsal phase allowing participants to highlight their skills and interests; (ii) Participants learned what it took to put on a show and overcome obstacles; (iii) Participants were able to see how their work affect the audience, and they were able to share their stories. Herman believes that MCT’s partnership with SC is a unique one that came with the large challenge of a language barrier where 80% of older adult participants did not speak English. Through including interpreters and finding ways to communicate without speaking, MCT was able to overcome this barrier – an ability that Herman highly respects and admires.

No matter what challenges MCT faced they were able to adapt, anticipate changes, work through cultural assumptions, and assumptions about older adults. The Chinese older adult participants were very hesitant to talk about their experiences as immigrants, their histories, or personal stories. Despite this MCT was able to go with the flow and encouraged these participants to engage in whatever manner they were comfortable.

Some of Herman’s intentions for working with Mixed Company Theatre included: Providing an access point to the performing arts at SC; having a strong partnership with a professional organization that works well with and respects community participants and partners; being able to continue working with a trusted organization; working with an organization that communicates well. Scadding Court Community Centre is a very busy and dynamic centre that has many projects going on at once. Herman greatly appreciates that MCT is a strong, flexible, interdependent, and well-structured organization.


Has the Inter-Gen Project brought youth and older adults together in 2015?

MCT has facilitated separate workshops for youth and older adults building trust with each, but has yet to bring them together in 2016. Herman hopes that 2016 will see greater inter-generational work. He thinks that, in general, we underestimate youth and their interests in participating. AT SC youth readily participate in programming, but mainly sports after school programs and field trips. According to Herman getting youth to participate in the arts and life skills building after school programming has been more and more difficult in recent years. This has been an ongoing trend he has observed in the non-profit youth-serving sector. Community organizations are competing with so much more alternate programming, and the plethora of things to do on the internet that is taking up more and more of the time of students after school. Herman sees that some solutions to this drop in youth engagement are: offering tokens, honorariums, and food at each session.

One of the challenges for the Inter-Gen Project is finding or creating incentives to retain youth and older adult participants for a year, far less for all three years of the project. Herman sees a solution to retaining youth would be to reach out to the youth who already have an interest in the performing arts, e.g. theatre and dance students, as well as youth interested in the arts as a whole.

Herman sees himself as living proof of the benefits of doing theatre from a young age. As a young black youth that lived in the Projects being part of school and community theatre kept him busy and afforded him the opportunity to engage with a wider diversity of cultures and world views. He was far too busy rehearsing, developing relationships with the theatre community, and having fun, to be tempted by the drugs and alcohol that other young kids in his neighbourhood were experimenting with.

Joy of Lambton House on MCT and the Inter-Gen project.

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Lambton House is a registered charitable organization created twenty-five years ago interested in the local history, and saving the Lambton House site, which is the last remaining original historical building in the area. Historically the site was closely tied to the economies of the Humber River, the mill trade along the river, and is deeply rooted in the Aboriginal and European histories. The City of York gave Heritage York permission to acquire the Lambton House property for the purpose of running

Lambton House is a registered charitable organization created twenty-five years ago interested in the local history, and saving the Lambton House site, which is the last remaining original historical building in the area. Historically the site was closely tied to the economies of the Humber River, the mill trade along the river, and is deeply rooted in the Aboriginal and European histories. The City of York gave Heritage York permission to acquire the Lambton House property for the purpose of running programming.

In the 2011 City of Toronto Neighbourhood Profiles, Social Profile #1 for Lambton Baby Point, we can see the breakdown of people’s ages in the community. 56.8% being ages 25-64; 20.7% being children ages 0-14; 11.4% being seniors ages 65+; and 11.2% being youth ages 15-24. From this data we can see that the two groups in Lambton Baby Point with the same percentage of representation are youth and seniors. These two groups are the very participants that we hope to connect, work with, and foster more meaningful relationships with across the generational gap. Mixed Company Theatre and Lambton House are in their second year of a three-year Inter-Generational Project that will engage youth and older adults in workshops to share life stories; bridging the generational gap through the learning and understanding of each other’s perspectives. These workshops will culminate in the development and performance of community plays showcasing the stories of our inter-generational community members and participants.

A few years ago Mixed Company Theatre (MCT) toured their show Old Age Ain’t for Sissies and had a performance at the Lambton House. The show was sold out and the community gave it rave reviews. It used a unique style of theatre that engaged the audience regarding the issues raised in the show. More people became aware of the Lambton House, both as an organization and as a site thanks to the MCT show. Previously few people within the community or in nearby communities were aware of the rich history and location of Heritage York – Lambton House.old age

After Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, the Lambton House organization reached out to MCT to discuss further avenues of working together. This led to the development of the Inter-Generational Project. Lambton House has been trying to better connect to the diverse communities in their geographic area, especially those living in the social housing that surrounds the organization. Members of Lambton House are interested in representing the ethnic diversity and interests of residents in their community.

Over the years there has been difficulty getting residents of the community engaged with the programming at Lambton House. The organization has also found it challenging to interest younger audiences in the history of the site. The organization is keen on adapting their programming to cater to the contemporary issues that impact the residents they are trying to reach. This is why the three year partnerships with MCT to increase inter-generational bonds is so important.

In 2015, one year into the Inter-Gen Project, MCT and Lambton House had their first workshop and began developing a show exploring ways for seniors to connect with youth. In the second workshop that year, UrbanArts (another Inter-Gen Project partner) connected with Lambton to work on House, a show that their community was developing. Interestingly enough UrbanArts was focusing on how youth could better connect with seniors. UrbanArts was using public transit as the lens through which they explored the need for youth to be more respectful and empathetic of seniors. This has been the most common place of interactions between the generations on a daily basis. Inter-Gen participants from Lambton House were invited by UrbanArts to collaborate in workshops with Mount Dennis participants.

Members of Lambton House are very vocal about the fact that they do not see their organization as a seniors’ organization, but as an organization deeply interested in preserving the Aboriginal histories, issues, and culture of the heritage site.

Joy believes MCT has really made a difference in helping Lambton House develop their programming. They have helped them better interpret the heritage site history, while connecting to the contemporary audiences and interests of their neighbouring communities. The social goals and values of MCT really resonate with her. She has known the MCT playwright, director, actor, and facilitator, Rex Deverell for over forty years, and trusts that if he has worked with MCT for such a long time then it was worth having Lambton House as a partner for the Inter-Gen Project.

Lambton_House_PlaqueOver the five years that she has worked with and been a member of Lambton House, she has seen the organization slowly make more conscious efforts to accommodate the interests of their community and become more open to younger residents. She started gardening on the Lambton House property and invited neighbours to connect with the organization through sharing in gardening activities. Some students even approached them to fulfill their mandatory community service hours for school where they helped with gardening among other volunteer work with the organization.

She does not know what 2016 holds for the Inter-Gen Project but would encourage a stronger focus on the vast knowledge and teachings learned from the Aboriginal forefathers of the land upon which Lambton House is built. She is interested in exploring and honoring all the ways that Aboriginal peoples have helped Anglo-Europeans to settle on the land, including all the contributions to health, farming, hunting, and survival skills that they contributed.

Get to Know Us! MCT’s International Theatre and Facilitation Intern

Lambert has been shadowing the MCT staff for a few weeks, and participating in many aspects of our InterGEN project, including our recent video shoot and a series of workshops for seniors and youth.

We hope that at the end of his stay in Canada, Lambert will be fully prepared to take what he’s learned at MCT, combine it with his years of experience in theatre, and begin to create the positive change he desires.

1. Tell us about yourself.

I’m a 31-year-old actor from France. I was born in a little city in the middle of France called Boussac. I originally was studying law, but then decided to go to Paris to pursue theatre. I was especially interested in physical theatre, and learned about divised theatre in school (also called collaborative creation: a form of theatre where the script originates from improvisation by a group of people, rather than a playwright). I was a founding member of two theatre companies, and helped to create a number of productions.
I’ve been feeling distanced from the real world, so this year I decided to train as a dramatic arts facilitator at Sorbonne. Theatre, for me, is a medium through which I can speak out about the ills of a society. Theatre can’t change society, but it can open people’s minds and alter their perspective. I don’t practice theatre to change the world, but to be in touch with people.

2. How has your experience with MCT been so far?

I’ve been getting to know MCT for a little while now, and I feel really comfortable with this team. Everyone is really friendly, and I’ve felt welcomed since my first day. For the moment, I am observing how MCT works, and learning about the organization’s methodologies.
In MCT’s InteGEN workshop sessions with groups of Chinese seniors, I have been helping to plan the activities, and I’ve also helped document the sessions with a sound recorder. The shared stories I record will assist our playwright, Diana Tso, in creating the script for our upcoming InterGEN play.

3. What do you hope to gain from being an intern at MCT?

During this internship, I hope to learn how to facilitate and create workshops that explore social and personal issues. I’ve been interested in Forum Theatre for a long time – I remember reading Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal maybe seven years ago, and thinking: “That’s probably one of the best ways to do theatre if you want to change something in this society.” So, when I found MCT and understood the kind of theatre they practice, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with them, and learn from them.

4. What exactly drew you to MCT?

MCT practices theatre on a human scale. Many theatre companies speak about the place of humanity in the world, but they forget about humans. The work that MCT does brings them close to people, and makes them heavily involved in creating opportunities for social change. I recognized myself in the way MCT uses theatre. They are really curious about giving a voice to societal issues such as racism, harassment, or miscommunication. In the case of the InterGEN project, it’s miscommunication between generations, but that applies to so many situations. MCT lives inside the identified issues; they work with and learn from people, and don’t presume to know what the issues are.

5. Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

That’s a difficult question. I think I really want to spread my passion for theatre by working with both actors and non-actors. I want to mix socially engaged theatre and a more classic style of theatre, which is what MCT already does! I would like to work in a company where I can be a facilitator, actor, and director, and create work with diverse people such as actors, community members, dancers, visual artists, writers – the list goes on. This may seem like a lot, but I need to dream big.

6. Can you tell us three words you would use to describe yourself?

-Questioning: I question everything, all the time, especially myself.
-Curious: I wonder about everything.
-Dreamer: Sometimes I’m here, and sometimes I’m not… But don’t call me flighty!