As Artistic Producer at The Edmonton International Street Performers Festival, Shelley Switzer hasn’t always had to worry about pleasing the roughly quarter of a million people that swirled through Sir Winston Churchill Square during last year’s ten-days of street artistry. When she took over as producer in 1999 she had, what now seems like a modest, 180,000 attendees (give or take) to care for. But that number has grown. And so has the Festival.
As StreetFest welcomes more and more new fans downtown, the question becomes how do you guide 250,000 people through that growth? “I move mindfully and carefully, really, through anything,” explains Switzer. “I try to have enough time. That’s been really important. What have I learned? To identify what needs to be changed and then figure out the strategy behind changing that. And that happens at every level.”
“I’m alone in this office [for most of the year],” she continues, “and then I have to, boom! Get it out, get everybody going and empower every manager, every leader in our Festival—and every leader includes each volunteer—to do their job and to accept and adapt to any change. Because that’s the only constant that we do have…that there will be change.”
When Switzer took over juggling the ins and outs of this marathon funfest 14 years ago, she had already been volunteering at the Festival for 11 years straight. But what makes the feat even more impressive is that she didn’t even live in Edmonton at the time. Over those 11 years she lived in both Calgary and Toronto and took her two weeks vacation to experience life on the street.
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t get hired at Habourfront the first year because those two weeks were an absolute must,” she says, referring to the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. “They apparently couldn’t do without me for two weeks at Habourfront, so they didn’t hire me. The person that they did hire, she was gone by September. I was hired and they figured out how to do without me for two weeks.”
Demonstrating a seldom seen level of dedication, Switzer was handed the reins in 1999 from one of the co-founders of the Festival, Dick Finkel, who, along with Sheldon Wilner, established StreetFest in 1985. To have such consistent leadership in an organization is rare indeed, and in talking with Switzer, it’s easy to see she has great reverence for both what Finkel built and the man himself.
“This is really [Finkel’s} baby,” she’s quick to point out and, notably, you can still see him onsite every year at the Festival, surveying the street and maybe making a few suggestions. “For what he built, Dick should always be involved. He always definitely has an opinion as well and I always attempt to listen. At its philosophical value, it’s incredibly valuable. Absolutely.”
But what was once ‘Finkel-Fest’ is now firmly ‘Switzer-Land,’ as Switzer jokingly puts it. And while, as Artistic Producer, she takes great care to firmly adhere to the core values of the Festival, she’s also cemented some activities, like Troupe Du Jour and Be Your Own Busker, that at this point, you couldn’t imagine the Festival without, while, at the same time, expanding the scope of others, like Comedy Cares—an absolute staple of StreetFest.
Though Switzer is pretty sure she inherited the name Comedy Cares, under her leadership, the program has developed to include adults and seniors in care facilities she feels are completely under-served.
“My grandmother, my dad’s mom, lived in a nursing facility for 13 years and we were quite young but our family were regular visitors,” she explains. “I remember, as a young kid, going in and seeing people sitting in their wheelchairs or sitting at the front door on Sundays dressed and ready to go and we knew no one was coming. That had a profound impression.”
Performing for individuals in care can be overwhelming and not every performer is comfortable with it, so Switzer is careful to leave it up to each artist to decide whether they want to participate in Comedy Cares. Nevertheless, she is always searching for funding partners to help the program travel to communities further afield, in addition to providing professional development opportunities for artists who would like to help, but are looking for more training—hoping to learn to make people laugh in what is often very difficult situations.
“Laughter is part of every single human being’s everyday experience,” she says, “even if you’re the most bitter person on the planet, in the privacy of your own home, your cat might make you smile. To be a healthy human being, you have to laugh… in normal circumstances. When you’re in a hospital or a care facility, nothing’s normal. You’re not in charge of your day, so you have to exaggerate in order to find the place to laugh and that’s what Comedy Cares does.”
“I can tell you a million stories,” she continues, “but this woman in Canmore… we did a bedside visit. We walked in the door and I had Jan [Streader] and Dan the One Man Band [with me]. I walked in the door first and we were introduced to Ms. Grace and I said ‘hello, we’re here and we are bringing some music and some fun’ and she said ‘I’ve had a stroke. I don’t remember anything.’ She edited herself right out. And I said, ‘well, why don’t you and I sit together and we’ll enjoy the music.’ So we were holding hands and listening to the music and [Dan] started playing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ or whatever it was and before she even knew it, she was singing! And then she realized…and then the nurse and we were all singing our loudest and bawling.”
While Comedy Cares is definitely a highlight for those involved and, perhaps, the facet of StreetFest that gets the most love and affection, one aspect of StreetFest that has received little attention, but a great deal of Switzer’s time and consideration over her tenure is artist development. Though the Festival turns 29 this year, fresh and new are its watchwords. And for Switzer that can mean two things: who is new to the Festival and who is bringing something new.
“The list is really long of the artists to whom I’ve said, ‘do something new’,” she explains. “It is a prefect place for the support of Canadian artists to develop new street art.” Switzer believes artist need, and deserve, a proper commission for the development of new material and she has taken great strides to secure those funds.
“The first year I applied to Canada Council I really wrote them a diatribe, kind of challenging them as to their understanding of what theatre is and where it happens,” she says. “The first question Canada Council asks is ‘how many tickets do you sell,’ so that’s tricky at our Festival. So I wrote challenging them to really examine if that has to be the result? Or do you just support the artist?”
Support, accessibility and growth—these are the fundamentals that have directed the Festival over the last 14 years. Developing the art form and finding new ways to share it with as many people as possible is at the very heart of every change StreetFest has experienced. The addition of the Be Your Own Busker workshops in 2004 showed the uninitiated that they too could pick up juggling balls or mystify friends with a good magic trick. Whereas the 10 pm group show at the end of each night—which was only officially titled Troupe Du Jour in the last few years—gives the Festival the opportunity to fundraise onsite to create sustainable programming, as ‘the hat’ from each show goes directly to StreetFest.
As multifaceted as the Festival has become, it still comes down to one simple thing.
“We’re here to put smiles on people’s faces presenting the best street performers,” says Switzer. “Over the course of the years that I’ve been producer, it’s still, at it’s core, the absolute truth of what I do.”