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On the Ground

In the Political Theatre

Sarah Lochhead, former staff and board member of The Dance Current, on her campaign during the federal election and why we need artists in politics By Kallee Lins
  • Sarah Lochhead / Photo courtesy of Lochhead

On Sept. 20, Canada went to the polls following a five-week snap election campaign. Despite the brevity and the ongoing pandemic, candidates across the country poured themselves into appealing to voters in their communities.

In the Ontario riding of Barrie–Springwater–Oro-Medonte, one of those candidates was Sarah Lochhead, the founder of Simcoe Contemporary Dancers, a dance instructor, researcher and administrator who has worked with a number of organizations including The Dance Current. Despite not receiving the election results she hoped for – incumbent Doug Shipley won the riding for the Conservatives with 45 per cent of the vote – Lochhead seized the opportunity to put a spotlight on issues she cares about and defend the value of artists holding political roles.

The Dance Current’s publisher, Kallee Lins, caught up with Lochhead over Zoom to ask about her experience being a dancer seeking public office.

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Kallee Lins: What drove your decision to put yourself forward during this election cycle?

Sarah Lochhead: I got asked this a lot during the campaign, actually. So, I had my baby and then six weeks later, we were in our first lockdown. I’ve spent the past 20 months, like throughout this pandemic, with my world being very small and feeling very powerless while I watched the news cycle and watched other people who I didn’t feel represented me. I didn’t see myself in the makeup of government. And I found myself getting more and more frustrated the more I read the news. And I watched people, like at all levels of government, making decisions that impact my life and impact my loved ones.

I received a correspondence from the NDP, [sent] to everyone in our electoral district who is an NDP member, to ask if anyone was interested in putting your name forward. This was shortly after the writ dropped. And I just had this feeling of, well, why not me? And at least then I can say that I’ve done everything in my power to try and make a difference. Especially for the life of my son, I would just say that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to show up, to be seen and heard. When you’re in a postpartum space, and also just being in lockdown as well, being seen and heard doesn’t feel like what’s happening, right? Your world is very small. So that’s why I put my name forward. Also, in part, because it was a snap election, because I knew, OK, this is a short, condensed period of time. I can put my name forward; I’m not committing to, like, one and a half years of campaigning. I’m committing to the next five weeks, basically. And I will do my best in those five weeks and go from there.

KL: Well, I don’t doubt that it was an intense five weeks. Campaigns are complex systems involving lots of people. And the public often only sees a very small piece of that. Can you describe, Sarah, what it was like being on the inside of a campaign? And maybe what a typical day was like for you as a political candidate?

SL: A lot of it felt like being inside of a creation period. You know that space of time when you’re like halfway done the creation, but you’re already doing the production elements? When you have a box of 3,000 postcards and you’re like, ‘OK, I need a plan to get these out the door. I have 10 people coming forward to say they want to volunteer; how do I best mobilize them so that they feel fulfilled but we get the things done that we need to get done?’ So there was that kind administrative aspect of organizing volunteers and co-ordinating different events, like small publicity events, just distribution of postcards, distribution of signs, pickup of signs, all that kind of stuff.

But then there was also the more creative aspect where I’d be answering media requests, usually on a really short turnaround, with questions about policy and platform. And then there was debate, which is not dissimilar to being on a panel, right? Where you’re presenting your ideas and presenting your platform in response to constituent questions. It really felt similar, that world.

KL: It was so lovely to hear you say that you found creative moments in that too. [Creativity is] not the first word I think of when I think of all the things that you just have to knock off the list [in a campaign], but that you could find space for that was fantastic.

SL: It definitely is. Think about it this way: you’re obviously working from the party platform. And if you’re a candidate, most of your values, if not all of them, align with that party platform, so it doesn’t feel out of step. But you’re answering questions that aren’t always, you know, word for word what’s laid out in the platform. So it’s up to you to dig into that material and find the way to put it together and make it your own.

So in that respect, it really felt very much creative. It didn’t feel that different than if you’re given a set of movement material and it was choreographed for a small stage, and then you’re performing it outdoors in a big space, and you have to adapt and make it your own and be authentic about how you’re making it your own as opposed to just reading or doing steps or reading the platform word for word, right?

KL: Compositional is the word that was coming up. Very compositional.

SL: Very much, yeah. Structured improv in a way too because sometimes you’re asked on the fly or you’re out at a meet-and-greet event and someone will say, ‘What is your party going to do about this particular issue?’ And in that case, it might be a very specific municipal issue, not a federal issue. And then you have to think about, well, what are the federal implications? Or what are the ways that the federal policies [relate to] that issue that I could speak to, right? So it definitely was flexible in that way.

KL: You’re the founder of Simcoe Contemporary Dancers, and you’ve invested so much of your professional life into supporting the arts community. Did your background in the arts, and dance in particular, support your political experience in any way?

SL: Well, what I haven’t spoken to yet, of course, is the performative aspect. So the public speaking, the being in front of crowds and engaging people in that way. It requires an awareness of how you’re presenting yourself in terms of body language and posture and all of those details. Not that you want to choreograph how you’re sitting, but it’s just an awareness of the presence in the space.

And one thing I spoke to a lot is I felt like inside of the campaign, with respect to editorials that were written in our local newspapers or questions I received at debates about my background and how it related to the role I was applying for – it’s really a job interview, in a sense – was how my background played into that. I felt myself having to defend my arts education and arts experience a lot in that context. And one of the things that kept coming up for me is how every day in the arts, you witness people start with an idea that sounds too big to even be possible. You watch them do it, right? You watch them bring that idea into fruition. And that, to me, is very much like policy. You start with a big vision, you get people on board, you make a plan, you connect with your stakeholders or collaborators, right? You make a plan, you make a timeline, you make a budget, you chip away at it. Maybe something comes up; you can’t do it exactly the way you thought you could, so you find another way. And then you review how, you put it out into the world. You review it, you make changes, you gather the impact statistics. Like, all of these things are what we do as artmakers all the time. And so that, to me, was a really big connecting point.

Also, it’s the fact that as artists we’re always, always, always looking at the interconnected relationship of things. When you’re making a project, it’s never insular, right? We’re always juggling a lot of moving parts to make something happen. And I think that type of critical thinking gives us the ability to also understand that complex issues with respect to policy are not siloed. You can’t solve the issue of affordable housing without also addressing green energy and public transit and, you know, developments on our wetlands. You can’t see them as individual issues. And so I think that there’s a really beautiful skill that artists have of being able to see those different threads and how they connect in order to create solutions that are as intricate as the problems. Yeah, so those are the things that, I think, really position artists to make a difference in politics.

The other thing I’d say is that artists are often the canaries in the coal mine, with respect to these issues. We have been working in the precarity of the gig economy work for decades. So in terms of understanding some of these issues, artists are uniquely positioned because of that trend of it happening in our sector first. A lot of the questions in our campaign regionally were around affordability. There are a lot of questions around homelessness and how to end homelessness. And I just kept thinking back to this one month where I was so short on rent because I had pink eye. And I couldn’t teach kids through it. [These were] full 12-hour teaching days, right? Like, I was in the studio all the time. And I couldn’t go because I had pink eye. I didn’t have a family doctor at the time, so I had to find a way to get that and I had to find a way to pay for my medication. I didn’t have sick days at any of my jobs. I didn’t have enough saved because of the cost of living. We understand the precarity; we understand some of the issues because they’ve already impacted the art sector. And now they’re impacting broader sectors.

KL: There was a number of really urgent issues at the forefront of this pandemic election – public health measures, affordability, the climate crisis and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, to name a few. What do you think are the top issues of concern for artists right now?

SL: The key issues that I’m hearing again, and again, are affordability, mental health care – I would include the opioid crisis in that context as well – and climate change. But affordability, in particular. Thinking to even the recent article that The Dance Current published about artists leaving major city centres, right? Why is that? They’re getting priced out of the communities where they live. And that’s happening across the country.

In terms of mental health care, with the pandemic, I think people who haven’t experienced issues of needing support for mental health maybe found themselves needing those supports for the first time. And so that seemed to be at the forefront of conversations as well. And in the climate crisis, you know, it’s gone from a feeling of existential dread to existential panic. With the wildfires that happened in the summer – and even here locally in Barrie, we’ve had some rare extreme weather events, in terms of tornadoes and strong storms – I think people are finally realizing like, ‘Oh, we have to act on this.’ Now there’s an urgency that maybe hasn’t been felt in a while, even though I know there are people hard at work, shouting it every day. And I think, too, with respect to the arts, you know, even thinking about our carbon footprint as we create work and maybe how the opportunity to work remotely or train remotely has impacted that, whether it’s minimizing the carbon footprint or not. How are these new modes of working impacting our own personal carbon footprint? And what are the things that we would need if we do need to be in this space physically together? Can we do that in a way that’s better for the environment?

KL: Why is it important to have artists at the political table?

SL: I think it’s important to have artists at the political table. And, you know, with respect, I think that I was wearing two hats in terms of running and thinking that, like, ‘I don’t see a lot of artists at the table, but I don’t see a lot of caregivers either, right?’ And so definitely the caregiving aspect was the part that I was really kind of attuned to when I put my name forward. But I think there needs to be more artists at the table because of those reasons I said before about, like, the ability to understand, to be critical thinkers, to understand complex issues, to see the various intersections, to be able to think globally, act locally. I think artists do that all the time, with respect to how we’re thinking about inspiration for our work. And also, I’ll just say, to have people who are, and I think I’m speaking primarily about dance artists with respect to this, but who have like an embodied empathy towards other human beings because we are trained to have an awareness of our own bodies in space and to react and respond to other bodies in space. And I think that a lot of the political theatre I see when I tune in to the news cycle is not the type of peer-to-peer work and attitudes and, like, work ethic that I want to see. I want to see collaboration. I think artists understand that more deeply than perhaps some of the more common transitions to professions in politics. But definitely empathetic understanding and critical issues and able to see complex problems.

KL: I’m sure you’ll inspire everyone reading this to get involved in their communities a little bit more. How can the dance community get involved in politics? Where should someone start if they’re interested?

SL: So, fun fact: when I applied for university, I was also accepted into poli sci at York. And it was actually a harder decision than I expected, whether or not to choose to go into dance or political science. Part of me always had an inkling towards this or a curiosity about getting involved in this way. But I do remember making the decision to go into dance because, as we know, unfortunately, it’s still very much a young person’s art form. So I thought, ‘Well, I could do this first. And I can always move into politics later.’ But also because, at the time, I really felt the thing that I could do that was the most political was to keep moving my body in space and create art, and teach mostly young girls how to be confident in their own bodies. Nothing felt more political than that. So I think that … sorry, I get emotional about it. I miss my kids, I miss teaching. It’s been a long time. But I really think there’s nothing more political than that.

And I think that the artmaking that we’re doing, the amazing events that have transpired even during this pandemic, like the Dance Together Festival, initiatives like that are political. They’re using public spaces. They’re bringing people together to have a shared experience. In that respect, I think that artmakers and dancemakers are already doing this work in their own way. And there’s no need to feel like you need to do something completely different in order to be engaged.

One thing I would say is that if there’s a specific political party whose platform you’re interested in, you could look to get involved in your local riding association. They’re almost always looking for members, and creative thinkers would be great additions to the team. I also think there’s a lot of small acts and small gestures at the community level that are very political. I’ve met some amazing people in my community who do amazing things, like the founders of Ryan’s Hope. These two parents lost their son to the toxic drug supply, in terms of opioids, and they started a breakfast program for people who are experiencing homelessness in our community. And there’s another organization called Bridget’s Run. They’ve developed these different kits for people who’ve experienced child loss at different ages, or stages of their pregnancy, in order to feel supported through that transition. So there are lots of small community organizations and initiatives that need powerhouse people and people who bring a certain skill set.

I would also say that often in the arts, and in dance, we tend to be a bit insular. And our audiences tend to be a bit insular in terms of other dancers, other dancemakers. And I think the way to get out of that cycle is to surround ourselves with and be inspired by people outside of the arts, people who are doing these amazing creative projects. I think there’s also an obligation on the part of artists to look for where that need is in your community. What causes or organizations could benefit from the unique skills that you have so that your work feels fulfilling and it’s helping push these other issues forward?

KL: And how great is that in terms of circling back and supporting one’s artistic creation as well – to have a better understanding of one’s community and the world that we’re in? That’s all my questions, Sarah. Thank you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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