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Programming priceless experiences

By Amy Kenny

When Michele Emslie looks at the crowd milling around the lobby of the Yukon Arts Centre before a show, she’s thinking less about who is there and more about who isn’t.

“We are a small enough community that you can walk around before a show and see who is there and who isn’t, so I think about those things,” she says. “Who haven’t we served? Who has not felt welcome in this building? Who have we not seen in this building? Especially now, coming into this position, that’s really on my mind a lot.”

This position is programming director, a role Emslie officially adopted May 1. Before that, she had been YAC’s director of community programming, a role that has been folded into her new responsibilities, partly to highlight the importance of community programming.

“We are the Yukon Arts Centre,” says Emslie. “Our mandate is to serve the whole territory.”

To do that, she says she looks for opportunities that will connect visiting artists with Yukon communities and with artists in those communities. At the same time, she aims to break down the silos within Yukon organizations.

To this end, YAC already has a handful of initiatives in motion: the Northwestel Hanging Sky Tour, a slate of programming that takes shows and sound techs to the communities, will continue in the 2019/2020 season. This spring, YAC partnered with the Adäka Cultural Festival to co-present, for the first time, a musical act – A Tribe Called Red. Another new initiative is rush seating, something Emslie is excited about. A certain number of tickets for each show will be held back and released as $10 a ticket. The hope is that these will be purchased by those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a performance at YAC.

That’s important to Emslie. She says she loves the challenge of coming up with creative ways to remove barriers for Yukoners to attend shows, such as utilizing a city grant to bus in children for several school shows and the first annual Midnight Sun Moppets Children’s Festival being free to the public.

 “We really have to be everything for everyone and that’s a hard line to walk. So maybe we’re not presenting as many of those ‘high-art’ activities, but I think we need to meet people where they’re at and we need to meet the needs of everybody.”

That includes artists. Right now, Emslie says YAC is doing this by way of its residency program. She’d been hearing for a while that artists occasionally had the funding to realize a project, but not the space or support to create it.

That’s when YAC CEO Casey Prescott looked at the stage calendar and suggested filling the empty spaces by way of a residency program that would give artists stage time, as well as the full support of YAC’s technical crew.

The Yukon’s own Gwaandak Theatre, Nakai Theatre and Borealis Soul have all participated in the program, as has Out Innerspace, a Vancouver dance company.

Emslie says bringing artists to the Yukon is another of the challenges she faces as a programmer. It’s one that’s been there since she started working in the field, first as a summer student with the then-Yukon Arts Council and then became the artistic director of the Yukon International Storytelling Festival, followed by programming Whitehorse Concerts while she raised her kids.

For a lot of artists, the time and cost of travelling to the North can be a barrier. Then there’s the misconceptions people have about the territory.

“I think sometimes we do have to educate people out there, that we have a really beautiful facility and you’re not coming to the end of nowhere. There’s still some misconceptions about where they’re coming.”

She says it’s changing and she keeps at it because she loves working with artists. She loves being able to be the one to step in and facilitate their coming here. Organizing arts and artists is a different thing than creating art, she says. It takes a different brain to manage logistics and write biographies and artist statements. She’s happy her skillset meets that need because she says it then helps meet an even greater need.

“My work brings artists to audiences and audiences to artists,” she says. “It is the common thread that connects us all. To have an experience as an audience is something that we don’t get by watching Netflix at home. It’s not anything that you will get anywhere else except that shared experience in this space. It can be transcendent and transformative. That, to me, is priceless.”

Photo by Alistair Maitland Photography