I realized with a shock this week that the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has been part of my life for almost 45 years.
I was 17 when I first came here to a United Church Young People’s conference, although my boyfriend and I spent more time exploring each other than we did learning to be upright Christian teens.Years later, a friend invited me to visit her at the Centre during her music residency. She then made me wait two hours to go to dinner with her while she fought over the phone with her boyfriend in Montreal. I’ve downed many glasses of wine with educational colleagues at conferences here, heard funky spoken word poets perform, and been charmed by Christopher Plummer reading Shakespeare excerpts, accompanied by a string quartet.
So, when I had the chance during a recent conference to go on a behind the scenes tour of the Centre, I jumped at the opportunity to see and hear about its inner workings.
Turns out the Banff Centre has been open a whole lot longer than 45 years. As an offshoot of the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension, it first opened a drama program in the town of Banff in 1933. By the mid-1940s, it had added other fine arts programs, and then moved to its present location above the Banff town site when one of its Directors talked the federal government out of 44 acres of national park land. The leadership program came next, and then the conference division. About 350 conferences are held here annually, with most of the revenue generated going directly back to fund the 3000 artists who come here from across Canada and around the globe with aspirations of stepping onto the world stage.
Our tour took us inside several of the shops that support drama and music productions at the Centre and other venues across Canada. The costume shop was one of my favorites.
We watched summer practicum students hard at work creating paper models of costumes for two operas that will be held at the Centre this summer. Unfortunately, I can’t share those pictures with you, because the Centre wants to keep them under wraps to preserve the element of audience surprise.
We then visited the Eric Harvie Theater, where crews were using the huge stage to assemble parts of the scaffolding for the operas’ outdoor amphitheatre. This too was part of the Centre’s educational mandate. The safety training the crews were receiving would help to ensure that some of the accidents that have occurred at other outdoor venues in Canada don’t happen here.
Our next stop was the carpentry shop, where crews build backdrops and large props. We carefully stepped around equipment we couldn’t identify and the wooden skeletons of who-knows-what laid out on the floor.
Smaller items for onstage use are manufactured in the prop shop. It was fun to speculate on what the prototypes might eventually look like and how they’d be used by the actors during a performance.
We finished up the tour with a visit to the Leighton Artists’ Studio, where musicians, writers, and other artists find space to create and practice, by themselves or collaboratively. It wasn’t hard to see how innovation could happen within the small cluster of cabins, surrounded by the solitude of the sun-dappled forest.
And if you needed a bit of whimsy to feed your creative muse, you could find that too, among the deer herd that grazed in the forest or inside the decommissioned fishing boat that now serves as a writer’s studio.
On the way back to our rooms, my educational colleagues and I remarked on how happy and engaged with their work everyone we’d met had seemed to be. In an era where politicians are slashing funding for the arts, I’m glad the Banff Centre is providing a small refuge for the type of creative practice that enriches our lives in so many ways.
BTW, if you want to stay at the Banff Centre but aren’t an artist or a conference participant, give them a call anyway. Although their primary mandate is educational, if they have space, they’ll be happy to provide you with room and board, often for less than you’ll find it elsewhere in Banff, and for sure in more inspiring surroundings.