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Performing arts takes centre stage in Hamilton

Hamilton’s performing arts scene has reach across the entire country

What happens when a former steel town wants a new way to shine? In recent years Hamilton has offered its spotlight to live performance, and the city’s arts scene has come alive as a result. With local performing arts businesses steadily growing and independent artists flocking into town to take advantage of new opportunities, Hamilton has become the perfect place for those in the performing arts to take centre stage.

“Because Hamilton is still developing its identity, with many emerging performing arts companies, it is an exciting place to take risks and be artistically adventurous,” says Hamilton Fringe Festival Executive Director, Heather Kanabe. “The Fringe is a perfect bridge between community and professional theatre, offering a chance to see both local artists and international shows that are entertaining and adventurous. The Hamilton Fringe Festival attracts audiences from across Southern Ontario and farther to experience the city’s offering over 12 days each summer. More than 35% of our audiences are non-local and that number continues to grow with our attendance figures.”

Like Hamilton’s performances, the performing arts scene itself attracts people from across Canada looking for a creative hub. P.E.I-born actor and comedian Justin Shaw made move to Hamilton two years ago.

“We moved one month before the lockdown,” says Shaw. “The key to comedy is all about the timing…except when the joke is on me.”

But despite the limitations of pandemic life, Shaw has already planted roots in the local performing arts community, thanks to the interconnected and supportive nature of the sector. Says Shaw, “I do plan on staying here long-term. I have been fortunate enough to build some great connections within the Hamilton community, such as through Hub of the Hammer Event Planning, Hamilton Fringe, CFMU radio through McMaster, and lots of talented and supportive comics in the city. They all made me feel super welcome and helped facilitate a lot of opportunities for me as a working artist.” 

It’s no surprise that Shaw and others like him are able to find footing in Hamilton, with 37% of Hamilton’s creative industries attributed to the performing arts subsector, according to a 2019 pre-pandemic Sector Profile. And, even during a time when live audiences weren’t an option, Hamilton’s performers and live performance businesses were able to – for the most part – successfully navigate the murky waters of unprecedented times with innovation to keep themselves and their industry afloat.

“We added Zoom shows, workshops, classes and get-togethers during the pandemic,” says internationally award-winning belly dancer, Eshe, who owns Mahasti Belly Dance Emporium. “We were able to connect our community with artists all over the world, from Thailand to the Netherlands. We created video projects. I tried to offer connection and community as much as possible because I knew how much folks were struggling.”

The Hamilton Fringe Festival, likewise, took a creative approach to keeping performance alive in the city: offering digital shows as well as delivering performances straight to audiences’ doorstep, like the UberEats of the art world.

“Hamilton has extremely supportive audiences and a long history of community theatre engagement,” says Kanabe, “Based on the Canadian Association of Fringe Festival model, the festival returns 100% of its box office to participating artists and companies, amounting to over $100,000 on an average year, and over $38,000 during the last pandemic year!”

Hamilton has continued to prove its passion for the performing arts sector with consistent audience enthusiasm, even through difficult times. That community support also extends to local media, with coverage from publications like Beyond James and the Hamilton Spectator offering helpful exposure to artists and performing arts businesses alike. This could very well account for the 524 businesses under the performing arts umbrella that are engaged in core creative functions, according to a pre-pandemic 2019 Sector Profile.

Regardless of what may be happening in the world at large, Hamilton has set the stage for a performing arts sector that continues to grow. “I do think the sky is the limit in Hamilton,” says Shaw. “It’s a great big city filled with hard-working people that are keen to carve out their own legacy, and I think people can expect even more great things to come from here in the future.”