All the World’s a Stage

Local festival offers kids a chance to showcase their talents, and learn in the process.

To Beverly Chalk, no matter what kids go on to do in life, an early exposure to the performing arts is a huge gift.

Chalk, recently appointed president of the North Island Festival of Performing Arts (NIFPA), sees first-hand how beneficial the arts can be. “If gives self-confidence, they have to find their strength and inner core and young people do that intuitively when they engage in learning a piece of prose, a hip-hop routine, a tune—whatever it is,” she says. “The sooner they start the better. If fine arts are introduced later in life, too often teenagers are blocked from their creativity because of self-consciousness, a feeling that it’s not ‘cool’, which isn’t there in young children.

“I see the positive attitude that all these young people have, the huge sense of accomplishment they feel after their performances,” adds Chalk. “I think performing arts can help a young person form their ideas of who they are, before something else comes along to do that.”

The North Island Festival of Performing Arts provides an ideal opportunity for kids to get their feet wet performing in front of audiences and adjudicators. A non-profit society, NIFPA has been dedicated to providing this annual festival for students of the Comox Valley and surrounding communities for more than 30 years. Last year 17 students were chosen to represent NIFPA at the Provincials. The adjudicating portion of the festival takes place in February; following this are two grand finales—an Honors Concert, which will be held February 26, and the Dance Gala, to be held February 27.  These concerts also act as fund-raisers for NIFPA bursaries and scholarships.

NIFPA’s goal is to advance, promote and develop the performing arts in its various forms, and to encourage performing arts as an adjunct to community life.   Performing arts include Ballet, Stage Dance, Modern Dance, Brass, Woodwinds, Strings, Ensemble, Speech Arts, Choral Speech, Piano, Voice, Choirs and Fiddle.
Chalk, along with fellow board members—including Carol Martin, who recently took on the role of education and publicity—are keen to have more local involvement in NIFPA. “We want to get the word out that it’s a friendly, supportive festival, open to anyone who has the desire to perform a piece of prose or poetry, tell a story, play an instrument or dance,” says Chalk. “That includes adults too! Anyone is welcome to enter and it’s not necessary to be given a mark; a few adults enter just to have the benefit of the critique from the adjudicator.”

Small wonder, as there are many highly experienced and qualified actors, musicians and dancers sitting in as adjudicators, offering a wealth of knowledge. Jonathan Love is a stage and screen actor who has also dubbed for cartoons. Professional ballerina Erica Trivett, who has recently returned to Vancouver after years in Europe as a soloist and choreographer, will be sharing her insights with young dancers.

So You Think You Can Dance, the popular TV show, is possibly the biggest spur dance has had since the days of big bands, when everyone went out dancing. Sherrie Scherger, assistant choreographer to Sean Cheesman—who gives the dancers their moves for the show—will also be in Courtenay as the adjudicator for Stage, along with hip-hop professional Kim Sato. Sato likewise has a long list of credits to her name, both live and in movies and videos.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for any performer, particularly if there’s a desire to go on and be a professional,” says Chalk. “These adjudicators are living proof that it is possible to make a living in the performing arts. We want to encourage anyone at all to enter and get the benefits of both performing, then having a critique afterwards. We want to encourage performing arts as an adjunct to community life.”

Participants come from as far north as Port Hardy, south to Parksville and east to Port Alberni. In February the Sid Williams will be buzzing with Festival performances. Speech Arts begins on February 1; the following week is strings, guitar and piano; the third week ballet and modern dance, with stage and hip hop the fourth week.

Audience drop-ins are invited throughout the Festival with the understanding that they will be seeing a series of performers who will be adjudicated—different from a show, with lights and non-stop performance.

Well established in the Comox Valley, The North Island Festival of Music was formed in 1977 by piano teachers from the Comox Valley and Campbell River. The name was changed to North Island Festival of Performing Arts in 1992, to better reflect all the disciplines involved. The organization is part of a not-for-profit charity under the umbrella of Performing Arts BC, which was established in 1964.

Many families are involved with parents and children attending the Festival, keen to participate and display their talents. One family travels from Campbell River weekly to receive coaching from someone who has been instrumental in the high standards and success of the Festival.

Eleanor Philips, despite being in her 80s, is still a dedicated teacher in speech arts. “The success of our children in competition has to be shared with Eleanor,” says parent Loreen Johnson. “She’s been marvelous.” All Johnson’s four children are currently involved in performing arts and are keen Festival goers. Carter is 13 years old and won the piano prize in the BC Provincial Festival last year; brothers Spencer 11, and Caleb, 5, and sister Sophia, 8 all compete in the speech arts, with the two oldest boys competing musically as well. This year, Spencer is part of a guitar group ensemble and is also playing two solo pieces. He has been playing for four years and thoroughly enjoys both practicing and competing. “I like being on stage,” he says simply. “I like performing in front of my parents and grandparents and all the other kids.”

Caleb is working on two poems, as well as a piece of prose and a monologue for this year’s Festival. “They’re funny, and I like making people laugh,” he says.
Their mom is enthusiastic about the benefits of performance at a young age. “It really imbues young people with a sense of confidence,” she says. “I think public speaking is the best gift to give kids. As well as building their confidence, it enhances their verbal skills.” The Johnson family is perhaps the most prolific in terms of entries and this year the Johnson children will participate in 21 categories at the Festival. Last year they carried off 15 firsts out of the 17 categories they entered in.

“The Festival isn’t just about picking the best though,” Chalk points out. “Sometimes a child may not be chosen for first place, yet the adjudicators recommend they go on to participate in the BC Provincial Festival. If they believe that the child will benefit from wider exposure to the artistic world, then that child goes on to the next level of competition.

This indirect education is an important part of the Festival, Chalk adds. “It’s not just about choosing the best. I like to see children given opportunities and I’ve been battling this in the schools systems. Too often the same children are given lead roles, time and again—why? It should be a place for encouraging and grooming children’s desires to do well and participate in the arts. How is little Janey or Jimmy to know whether or not they like being on stage—and most children do—if they’re not given the opportunity?”

As one might expect, Chalk’s own children all participate in the performing arts. Kaitlin, now 16 years old, and a past performer in dance, is a volunteer at this year’s event, time-keeping being one of her tasks. Her younger sisters Courtney, 14, and Cassidy, 8, will be dancing.

Chalk herself grew up in a family that sang and played devotional music. Her dad was a band teacher with the Salvation Army and as a young girl Chalk was more than happy and willing to go to band boarding school for three weeks in her summer holidays. “I began playing an instrument in Kindergarten and music was always a part of my upbringing,” says Chalk, who performed in her first musical when she was six years old.

“If young people aren’t ever exposed to piano playing, singing, dancing, whatever, how can they know they have a desire to do it? If they’re lucky enough to have a music teacher in primary school they can be part of a show or a concert, but that’s a bit hit and miss. Sparking that creativity at an early age is crucial, I think.”
President of NIFPA for a year, Chalk recognizes that she is able to build on a strong foundation built up by past president Collette Marshall, known to all as Sam. “Sam was the president for 12 years and she and the board have established the Festival of Performing Arts as an organization with high standards of excellence. I’m pushing the envelope a little further, by reaching out to the wider community of the North Island to participate and support this Festival. I could not be enjoying what I’m doing right now if things had not been brought along to this stage.”

To that end, Chalk and the board are changing things slightly this year. “There is a re-definition of the categories—musical, vocal and speech arts are no longer lumped together; they each have a separate category. With the adjudication, we’re getting the word out to participants through their teachers that it is only one person’s opinion—we all have our pet likes and adjudicators are no different.

“We’re seeing this as an interpretation of a performance piece, and marks are never publicly announced on stage. I sensed that the public was a little intimidated by the process, and we don’t want that. We want to be seen as the organic, approachable living organism we are, rather than a staid and rigid body. The adjudication process is that after the performances in a particular class, all the kids are called back to the stage and the professionals in their field will give feedback to them all. The classes are broken into age categories as well, and professionals are not eligible for grants or bursaries. Placements will also not be announced at that time. We want to change the focus of the kids from being first to participation. Too often they don’t hear any of the remarks made by the adjudicators once they’ve been told their mark,” says Chalk.

“Dance is generally a group activity, but more often the music and speech are individuals. There is now going to be a grouping of kids who don’t want to be graded or given a mark on their efforts, but only receive adjudication. It’s all about the kids and educating them. I don’t want to water down the competitive aspect—I believe competition to be healthy and a growth process—but I realized that within the scope of where we live, we want everyone to get up and compete. This innovation allows for that, and it will be completely unknown to the other participants.”

All the marks of the competitors will be online as well as posted in the lobby of The Sid, but not announced publicly.
Most entrants to the Festival are part of a studio, or a group. Dancers have to be part of a studio to enter because of insurance liability, but individuals can participate in the other disciplines. Quite a few home-educating families take advantage of the Festival with its opportunities to learn from highly experienced professionals. Two of the Johnson children are home-educated in fact.

“Most of the teachers in the Valley are familiar with the Festival, and without their hard work that has been going on for years, we certainly wouldn’t have the high standards we do. Kymme Patrick does wonderful work with young people in the dramatic arts, as do the drama teachers in the high schools,” Chalk says.
Chalk, too, continues to learn in her role with NIFPA. “One of the most surprising things to me has been how much I’ve enjoyed hearing and seeing players in disciplines that didn’t interest me before, particularly,” she says. “I hadn’t paid much attention to strings and vocal in the classical field, so it’s been a delight for me learning more about that. The adjudicators can demystify areas of the arts that perhaps we aren’t so familiar with.”

The winners, as well as other participants recommended by the adjudicators, go on from the North Island Festival here in Courtenay to the BC Provincial Festival. This year it is to be held in Duncan, and it moves around the province each year.

One of the participants last year was John Rim, a 14 year old whose family now lives in Comox. Rim moved here in 2005 from South Korea and has been a violin player since he was four. He took the strings award and went on to the BC Provincial Festival. Rim also plays clarinet and Korean drums in the Mark Isfeld school band. His particular favorite composer is Vivaldi, whom he likes because his works can be played quickly and energetically. Rim has been chosen as an adjudicator this year in the strings section. As well as a classical strings component, there is also a fiddle section.

“We’re hoping to expand the repertoire of the Festival locally to include things like jazz and rock-a-billy,” notes Chalk. “They may remain outside of the National Festival scope, but they could be adjudicated within our own local region.”

As fine arts are now under severe threat financially in our school, and the position of fine arts coordinator may be chopped by the school board due to lack of provincial funding, the Festival of Performing Arts may take on even more significance. But it’s obvious that under the direction of Beverly Chalk and the board of NIFPA, there is a dedicated commitment to educating and encouraging young local performing artists.

For more information go to Admission to each adjudicated session is $2, or $10 for the month. The Festival Variety Showcase will take place Friday, February 26 at 7:00pm and the Festival Dance Gala on Saturday, February 27 at 7:00pm.