Backstage: Oak Bay embraces College’s community spirit

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid reports on the District of Oak Bay’s recent presentation of the Acorn Arts Award to the College.

When Nils Jensen passed away last weekend after a brief battle with cancer, it inevitably prompted fond memories of the former Oak Bay Mayor’s accomplishments.

One that has had a profound impact on the students, staff, faculty and supporters of the Canadian College of Performing Arts was Jensen’s desire to promote the municipality’s artistic potential, inspired in part by his lasting affection for the College at 1701 Elgin Rd.

“You know what we really need in Oak Bay? An arts laureate,” Barbara Adams recalled Jensen telling her five years ago before appointing her to that position.

The appointment would set the stage for a vital development that complements initiatives such as the District of Oak Bay’s Arts Alive – establishment of the Acorn Arts Award, in honor of a person, group or institution’s contribution to the arts in Oak Bay.

Adjudicated by the Arts Laureate’s Public Art Advisory Committee, the award categories include visual arts, crafts, design, film, new media, theatre arts, philanthropy, business supporting the arts, volunteerism in the arts, culinary arts, landscape and architecture.

“An arts laureate? What’s an arts laureate?” laughed the retired Monterey school teacher who ran an artist’s program there and taught Jensen’s children. It was after some University of Victoria students said they wanted to interview her about public art Adams realized that, while there is permanent art on the school grounds, there was precious little public art in Oak Bay, inspiring formation of the public art committee.

Adams delivered a welcoming address at the award presentation on April 4 at the College, this year’s recipient of the Acorn Arts Award. She was among dozens of supporters, students, faculty and donors who toasted the College as it earned a particularly meaningful accolade in the town it has called home for 20 years.

A notable attendee, accompanied by artist and local art critic Robert Amos, was Pat Martin Bates, the distinguished printmaker who received the inaugural award in 2017.

“The College is so unique to this community,” said Adams during a reception preceding the presentation in the Performance Hall. It was followed by an opportunity to watch Year I and II students perform during an open rehearsal for West Side Story, the final production of the season that opens April 19 at the McPherson Playhouse.

Key members of the production’s creative team – director Matthew Howe, choreographer Sara-Jeanne Hosie, music director Heather Burns and artistic consultant Mercedes Bátiz-Benét– were on hand to support students through previews of numbers including Cool and the Tonight Quintet early during the show’s rehearsal process.

“To have a national college of performing arts here is really special,” said Adams. “They contribute so much to the community. They support businesses here for Arts Alive. They have come and performed at our public piano events, and also to be able to come and see live theatre right here in our own community is such a great thing.”

Jacques Lemay and Janis Dunning beamed with pride at the praise lavished on the artistic labour of love that they co-founded and is housed in St. Mary’s Anglican Church.

“I think it’s fantastic that you’ve got all these seniors who go to the church, a lot of middle-aged people who are teaching here, and a lot of young adults who come from all across Canada and are striving and learning and working so doggone hard, and then you have this pre-school here,” said Dunning, looking around.

“You have all the generations and so many regions represented in this building, and it is so welcomed by Oak Bay and always has been.”

Acting Mayor and council liaison to the District of Oak Bay’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Commission Hazel Braithwaite said given the College’s performing arts stature she was tempted to sing her speech before reassuring the crowd she was only joking.

“I can dance, do acting and I used to do standup comedy,” Braithwaite quipped.

Before presenting the award to managing artistic director Caleb Marshall, she described the College as a “world-class” anchor in the community. She also praised live theatre, noting it promotes social discourse, dialogue and potential for social change.

“Theatre is a cultural phenomenon that demands society examine itself in the mirror,” she said. “We put ourselves into emotional and intellectual situations that may never arrive in our personal lives, to give power to truth and advocate for new and diverse voices. And theatre reminds us we’re not alone. It’s the only space where people will make you lock the door, turn off the lights and make you sit in the dark with strangers.”

A recurring theme in remarks on and off stage was the College’s community spirit.

“It’s an honour and a privilege to accept this meaningful award honouring the College’s commitment and contribution to not just the arts but the community as a whole,” said Marshall.

He applauded what he termed the lifeblood of the College – its hardworking students, staff and faculty whose passion, tenacity and love of the community has combined to prove that their artistic prowess can thrive off Oak Bay Avenue as much as Broadway.

As the students would demonstrate moments later, Marshall noted they have become active contributors to the cultural hub of an inclusive community. He said that while College alumni have enjoyed success internationally, there are a significant number whose dedication to this region have contributed substantially to its artistic growth.

He said their artistic development brought to mind the ancient proverb that the title of the Acorn Awards brings to mind: “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”

Marshall thanked St. Mary’s Anglican Church for its cherished partnership, inaugural board president Jim Griffith for nominating the College, and TELUS Victoria Community Board chairman Mel Cooper and director Glynis Leyshon for their heartfelt letters of support.

“It’s through champions like these that organizations like ours are able to flourish and prosper,” he said, also thanking the community for its support.

“Oak Bay creates an environment that is welcoming, calm and safe,” he said.

“It really takes a village – in this case Oak Bay Village – to create the next generation of cultural leaders.”