We sat down with Ruth Howard, founder and artistic director of Jumblies Theatre, to learn more about her work and approach to her artistic life.
How does it feel to be nominated for the Celebration of Cultural Life Awards?
It’s lovely. It’s gratifying. People always use the word humbling. I’m very aware of all the people that have been a part of my work and what my work represents. I feel pleased on behalf of the type of work and the collection of people that I represent.
Your organization moved to the Ground Floor location in 2014. How has the location influenced the work and reach of Jumblies Theatre?
Well, thanks to the Toronto Arts Council [Toronto Arts Council is our landlord!] we’ve been there for just over 4 years now. We’ve always been in great spots but moving there gave us a dedicated place that’s ours without the fear of being bumped out. Having a dedicated space increases our capacity to develop work, offer workshops and to use it as a bit of a hub for community arts and artists. Before, we had to lug things around to each site we worked at. Our own place increases our artistic, social and collegial capacity. It also put us in the middle of a new neighbourhood that was being developed, and that was a privilege and a fun experience to be able to chronical the development of the neighbourhood. We really are “In on the ground floor,’ both figuratively and literally. It’s an old saying – it means we were there right at the beginning.
Jumblies’ Talking Treaties production is being fully remounted in 2018. Can you talk about why you feel this production and sharing of Indigenous knowledge is so vital?
We were ‘in on the ground floor’ of that kind of collaborative work too. We were drawn to the text, and acknowledging the land we were on. It was quite a lot of years of work. It became quite evident to me a while ago that there was a big gap in understanding the Indigenous history of the place. It became an increasing theme and question for our work, which we brought to the Ground Floor. For over four years it became our focus to ask questions such as: Who are we? Where are we from? Who can we ask? Who can we partner with? Who can we connect with and share and learn more information? That led to a lot of paths – both through Toronto, across Ontario and throughout the country.
Somewhere in there, we started working with Ange Loft, a Mohawk and Indigenous artist. Out of that work, the Talking Treaties project came out. It became a project that Ange would become a lead on. The Touching Ground Festival brought together all the work from the 3-4 years. It got performed twice, and 200 audience members got to witness it. It was a wonderful show that shared these stories in a fun and meaningful way. It was meaningful to do it, and to continue doing it and share it with more audiences. There is more awareness about it now – a lot has happened since we started that work, but it’s a story that still needs telling over and over again. This show does it in an accessible, but direct and hard-hitting way. It’s a good way for people who have thought about it, or not, to start looking at it through an arts experience.
Education is a big part of the organization’s work. Why is arts education so important to you?
I saw that question and I thought, 'well, we don’t define ourselves as an arts education company,' but a thread of our company is about mentorship and professional development. So, working with other artists, emerging producers, to do art that is inclusive and engaging for communities and diverse cultures, is at the heart of our work. That part of our work is about developing new leadership and new self-reliance in artists, so that they can pick up [community] engaging work and bring it to new people. It’s important because I believe in the kind of work we do. It connects artmaking with people and places beyond specialized arts places [like a theatre]. And we [Jumblies] can’t do it all. It’s work worth proliferating, and artists aren’t often given the means or the tools, or guidance to do so. So we mentor these artists. It’s about proliferating and infiltrating the practise with this kind of community engaged work – because that is the kind of work I believe in. Our artmaking in the community has a level of learning – because we’re always working with people of different abilities and levels. There’s always a learning side, but it’s not arts education for its own self. We are a production company. For example, we might teach someone to walk on stilts so that they can stilt walk in our show.
Why is your life a celebration of life through the arts?
Life and art are very intertwined for me. In my own personal life and history, art has always been how I’ve experienced the world: made and found meaning, dealt with and responded to the extraordinary and ordinary things - grief, celebration, questioning. It’s in my bones. It's a sense of the importance of hospitality and not having or creating barriers or eliminating categories between people. This is an awareness of the risks of creating separations between people [like violence or bullying does]. To counteract that – the sense of people being in the same place and doing things together – creatively, with a sense of hospitality. So art that engages people: part of the potency of it is not just the theme of the art, but the form of the engagement. Extending that sense of hospitality and welcome. Fending off what’s dangerous in life, and having serious fun and pleasure while doing that. There are other ways to accomplish the same thing – but art is a good one to do it.