Art on The Rock: Check your expectations at the door

Art on The Rock: Check your expectations at the door

Posted 11 January 2016 by Robert Chafe
Jeremiah Sparks, Starr Domingue, Neema Bickersteth, Alison Woolridge, Anderson Ryan Allen, and Petrina Bromley, in Artistic Fraud’s Oil and Water. Photo: Peter Bromley Jeremiah Sparks, Starr Domingue, Neema Bickersteth, Alison Woolridge, Anderson Ryan Allen, and Petrina Bromley, in Artistic Fraud’s Oil and Water. (Photo: Peter Bromley )

In July 2015, Canada Council Inter-Arts Office Coordinator Claude Schryer attended Liminus, a 4-day interdisciplinary festival in Woody Point, Newfoundland. Afterwards, he invited participant Robert Chafe to share his observations about the arts scene and cultural life on “the rock.”

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When my company, Artistic Fraud, first started touring in 1999, the common reaction from audiences and the media was: “You guys are really making this stuff in Newfoundland?”

There seemed to be a disconnect between what we were offering and what the nation had come to expect from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Certainly then – and even now – most Canadians knew Newfoundlanders from our massive presence in TV comedy. Codco, This Hour has 22 Minutes, The Rick Mercer Report, Jonny Harris: Newfoundland certainly punches above its weight with the laughs. My respect and love for these folks goes unchallenged. They are my colleagues, my friends, and their inspiring legacy is off the charts. But still, it really got under my skin when a panel on CBC Radio discussing theatre in each province skipped Newfoundland because “all of the theatre people there sensibly went into TV.” Not that the members of the panel are alone… After one of our shows, an audience member told me our play had been his first experience hearing the Newfoundland accent in a non-comedic context. The point is: The expectation of our art, at least the performing arts, is still that we bring the funny.

Changing the narrative

We are perhaps most often viewed as a hearty breed of island dwellers who can laugh our way through hardship. This is a narrative we have shaped ourselves. There is a cycle of healthy introspection at play here, one that I myself am guilty of building. The loss of countryhood, the loss of the fishery, the loss of our innocence (particularly surrounding WW1): these narratives are explored again and again as many of our storytellers try to come to grips with our, still, relatively new place in the world.


“(New artists’) work deftly weaves back and forth, tackling the contemporary, while effortlessly calling upon the ghosts of our past.” 


Our newest theatre writers happily seem to be digging deeper. The works of Megan Gail Coles and Meghan Greeley in particular, take more probing political stabs, and are about as far away from the expected Newfoundland comedy as one could get. A new generation of filmmakers (Sherry White, Adriana Maggs, Justin Simms, Stephen Dunn, Deanne Foley, Christian Sparkes) abandon the search for cultural identity and get more personal. They are shaping narratives that are more universal and varied, but still steeped in the flavour of the place. And charging the way are our fiction writers: Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Michael Winter, Kathleen Winter. Their work deftly weaves back and forth, tackling the contemporary, while effortlessly calling upon the ghosts of our past. 

Funding shapes the work… with an edge

In the past 20 years, much of the money for new art in Newfoundland has dovetailed with commemorations (Marconi, Vikings, WWI – you name it) and has been tailored to the burgeoning tourist market. The funding shapes the work. Did I ever see myself creating a show about Marconi? No, but that show got made, for better or worse.

Through the cultural tourism model, our history and legend are reflected back to the visitor in new art. That this work is often adventurous and forward thinking is a testament to the restless spirit of the artists here. They are not content to simply regurgitate for, ultimately, local audiences who want much more. St. John’s, specifically, has a history of lasting and deeply influential festivals. The Festival of New Dance and the Sound Symposium, for example, have both fostered an unparalleled sense of adventure and willingness for our small city audiences.


“Know that the cultural self -reckoning and the regionalist work that it inspires will continue. But know also that the modes of investigation are surprising subtle, innovative, dexterous.”


The complaint I hear again and again from national funders and support organizations is that, despite the reputation the place has for its plethora of artists, these organizations get small uptake and interest in their services from Newfoundlanders. Is it the island mentality? Partially.

What Newfoundland and Labrador artists crave more than anything is your interest and respect. Check your expectations at the door. Know that the cultural self -reckoning and the regionalist work that it inspires will continue. But know also that the modes of investigation are surprising subtle, innovative, dexterous. Some disciplines (film, literature, music, dance) are more contemporized than others (theatre most notably). But all are on their own path to self-actualization, unbound by expectation or traditional influence. 


Robert Chafe

About the Author: Robert Chafe

Robert Chafe is a playwright based in St. John’s, whose work has been seen across Canada, the UK, Australia and in the United States. He is the author of 17 stage scripts and co-author of another 8. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Drama for Tempting Providence and Butler’s Marsh in 2004, and won the award for Afterimage in 2010. His play Oil and Water, premiered in a sold out run in February 2011 in St. John’s and continues to tour Canada. Robert is Artistic Director and playwright for Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland.

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