In conversation with Mariah Horner: SPAF, Neighbourhood, and the Macarena

Kemi King and Mariah Horner emceeing the 2022 Skeleton Park Arts Festival.
Images by Jason Middaugh.

This year, the Skeleton Park Arts Festival returned for the first time since the pandemic and Mariah Horner and I were happy to emcee the festival. The two of us felt that there were many learnings we gained from bringing in the summer solstice; join us as we share some of our feelings along with how the knowledge gained may be applied in other situations. 

The interview transcript has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Full audio can be heard in the link above. 

Hello, this is Kemi King, I am here with Mariah Horner. Say “hi” Mo.

 Hi Mo!

This is, what? A week after Mo and I had just finished working on SPAF–Skeleton Arts Park Festival–and it was lovely. 

My first ever arts job when I was still a Queen’s Drama student in my undergrad–my first job in the community–was with SPAF. And it was their 10th anniversary. So it was six years ago.


I credit Greg Tilson and Skeleton Park Arts Festival for really turning my gaze out away from Queen’s and towards the rest of the city. I wonder if it’s the same for you, right? You’ve been a theatre artist in town for a long time, and also a graduate of Queen’s Drama. And I wonder how SPAF fits into your understanding, or has changed your understanding of Kingston? 

I would say that I didn’t really get involved with SPAF until last year. That’s something that’s really pivotal–if you are an art student, or a student at Queen’s generally, and you actually want to be focused in the community, you do need the one thing that’s going to bring you out of it! For me, that was working with the City of Kingston. Because I was really immersed with the people, and then doing a lot of programming for different organizations. But I think that a lot of these festivals have been in the summer and some kids either aren’t staying or, you know, have other things that they want to do in the summer which isn’t necessarily community based.

Yeah, and I feel like—six years ago, and this year—I feel like I was met with real open arms. I wonder how you feel. But it was like, when I told Greg I was around, and we started talking about you. Many of the arts organizations who’ve been around town for a long time want young, like ‘shake-up-the-vibe’ voices. They really want it, I felt like that with SPAF. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but the way that Greg gave us the space that he gave us was like, “Heck, yeah!” There’s a return and reward I would say for Queen’s students walking north of Princess and seeing what else has already been happening in Kingston, and how their vibrancy as young people can amplify, and challenge, and continue the work of these long standing orgs. 

And also Kemi like, this is a blog. This is a recording for a theatre blog, and you and I are both, quote unquote, “theatre people” . But I would say this summer, I’m not so keen on going back to the theatre community in Kingston. I’d rather stay with Skeleton Park!

I’ve been away from the theatre community in Kingston for, say, a year. As I’m staying in town and writing for the KTA, I’ll get to know some more. I think about the question of theatre institutions as we know it, and then this arts orgs. It’s like, why? Why are these things so different? When we’re in a theatre festival, it’s such a high stress environment. But this festival, for the both of us, is something that was very calming and rewarding. And we felt very taken care of and cared for. 

It’s so strange to me, because I think that in many theatre festivals or theatre organizations, it’s kind of that thing that they say: “We’re here for you”. Oh, no, I’m just realizing theatre is like “We’re a family!” When you hear that in the workplace, you run, but in the theatre, maybe it’s okay. [We just] need space, you know, space to breathe, or like space to like, lay down rest, if you need to. 

If I hear another friggin’ theatre thing where someone tells me that we’re all family, I will just run, turn the other way and run. The interesting thing: I was not met with that kind of language with SPAF, but I was definitely met with the actual feeling of being a part of the family. The amount of people that lived around the park that actually offered me their actual bed to rest in during the festival, or their bathroom to use, or food to make like—I have never been a part of an arts event, a theatre event, that extended that kind of awareness of neighborhood. For a lot of reasons. 

One: obviously Skeleton Park Arts Festival, the weekend that is the festival is a product. You know, they apply for grants and they put on the festival. But really, the project of the Skeleton Park Arts Festival is a long term neighborhood Growth Project, which also has its own critiques, right? There’s a lot of really valid critiques about SPAF’s play in gentrifying. I think SPAF is aware of that, and it’s trying to think about ways to address that. But when you think about a play, or a theatre festival that’s happening in like, the Grand or something like that, there isn’t the same kind of actual mandate to look deeply at neighborhood, and provide food and free art. I think one of the things that’s so interesting about SPAF is, it’s an arts festival, but its mandate is support the neighborhood.

Yeah, to support the community.

Whereas I don’t think—theatre festivals, that I’m aware of their mandate is like, “Further theatre in Kingston.” or, like, “Make theatre blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s not actually anything to do about community—

 It has nothing to do with the people. 

 No, and they’re like, manipulating the story so it looks like community.

Yeah. As you’re speaking, something that I thought of is the Kingston Fringe. The Kingston Storefront Fringe when I first encountered it–what, maybe three or four years ago now—I was like, “That is actually a really interesting idea.” If we’re going to have these shows in storefronts that are empty, so we’re using the space… I feel like there is really big potential to actually speak back into the community. I know that when I go to a restaurant that closes and the new one opens up, it’s very interesting to me to see how the space is transformed. For that transformation to happen in a theatrical context, it’s very interesting. I’m sure that there are possibilities there as to where we can amplify community or space or even–oh, I don’t know–address the problems of the turnaround with how many stores open and close? I mean, I don’t know anything about–

Yeah, I mean, it’s really true. I think that there’s a lot of potential. You’re right. Specifically for a festival like the Fringe who is investing in public space in that way. There’s a lot of potential to participate in a conversation beyond just, “What is this play and what is it doing?” I remember when I used to work with the Fringe in 2017, 2018. The second year we ran it–I want to give some credit to Jeff McGilton, I think this was his brilliant idea–but the second year we ran it, we were like, “Oh, why don’t we get some local artists to outfit the Fringes? Oh, local musicians to busk outside the door!” Then all of a sudden, this festival that really started from like, “Oh, let’s just make theatre” became ”Oh, let’s fill up these storefronts with local artists beyond just, “I buy a ticket to a show”. Oh my gosh, now you’re just walking down Princess and you can hear an amazing musician you’ve never heard cover your mom’s favorite song. 

I think that was why I loved the Fringe when I worked there. I really would challenge more of the theatre artists in Kingston to apply the same kind of awareness of place and space when they’re making their work, because the Grand Theatre also has a history. I saw today there were some unhoused folks that were sitting outside selling art at the Grand Theatre. You can have an interesting, more nuanced conversation about the things that are happening behind the fourth wall in theatre. Have that conversation, you just need to remember that, you know, it’s just a play. 

Yeah. (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

There’s more context about it. And I think again, that’s why I love SPAF, it’s all these musicians. There are musicians putting on a show, but also go take a walk and learn about CFRC or go take a walk and larn about the Elizabeth Fry Society. The fact that you can listen to Chris Derkson play while you’re talking, like literally at the same time as talking to a representative from the E. Fry Society—oh my god, is that not what? Like it’s not not kind of like the power of community engaged art. 


 You and I talked about this, when we first talked about addressing land acknowledgments and addressing the fact that this is one of the first times in a few years that SPAF has gathered, one of the things that we talked about was like, “Oh gosh, what a gift to actually be here and now together.” And of course, there are critiques about what together means, and who’s left out, and who’s not welcome. But theatre has a great opportunity to acknowledge the power of relational gathering—more than music, more than museums, more than fine art I would say. Live performance depends upon you and me, here, now, together. 

I really don’t think that theatre in Kingston right now has their eyes on that prize. I think theatre in Kingston has their eyes on: get a grant, do the show, finish the show.

To be bigger than Toronto.

Right? One of the last experiences that I had in Kingston that was really like, “Oh, gosh, what a gift of gathering together.” You worked on it–it was the work of Erin Ball, Jane Kriby, and Tracy Guptill—Uncovering. That show, I was so aware of like, “Oh, what a beautiful show, but also, oh my gosh, look at all of us together.” And I don’t feel like many theatres in Kingston right now are looking at that larger question of the opportunity to gift that live performance like brings necessarily. 

Kemi King dancing in a circle with several children and other attendants at SPAF 2022. Images by Jason Middaugh.

Yeah, and especially in this time that we are—I’m not going to say post-COVID because I think that’s a lie. In this time that we’re gathering or even being super close to one another, something that’s super important is if we’re going to actively invite people into our spaces, how do we:

one, try to center the people that are already here;

And then in that invitation, allow people to get to know a little bit more about the city, about the space?

I feel like SPAF is able to do that because we had so many different artists come into the space, and also, a lot of different local artists. Where I think the getting to know the space, getting to know the people, not only were we in Skeleton Park, but the feeling of community and care came through being in the space and being together. That was something that was really apparent. I think, honestly, that was because of the kids and the families that were just around in the space.

Kemi King, the brilliant queen of segues. That was the greatest segue ever. How easy is it to remember to be present when you see little shoeless children doing the macarena? Oh my god, there was this really special moment where it was on Friday night—Tedwin, DJ Tedwin, Ted Sama Webster was playing a set, and it was all—I don’t wanna say house music, but it was a lot of hip hop and rap, and, like, ‘party town’ music. And I look and there’s a bunch of little kids that are in a conga line to friggin’ Kayne West! 

You’re totally right. The kids and the way that they were just fully joyful, and also like fully in a meltdown, but fully present. Fully guided by desire, right? These kids, all of a sudden, nobody’s worried about behaving well or looking cute. The kids are running around playing Man-Hunt in volunteer t-shirts that go to their ankles. All of a sudden, it was very easy. You’re totally right to be kind of amazed and grateful for like, “Oh, gosh, look at all of us doing this together.” 

Kemi, can I ask you a question? 


If you had to articulate one thing that you learned, or witnessed, or saw at SPAF, that you want to bring back to your theatrical work, what would it be?

I’m really trying to figure out what ‘theatre of critical care’ can look like? And then with that, I think something that I want to bring back from SPAF is… there’s a carelessness in the best of ways. If something were to go wrong, we would have a conversation and then we fix it, or we do something else, or we’d improvise. Like with the carelessness, I mean that there was space for movement. There was space for breath. That’s something that I think within my practice would be so helpful to, one, figure out how it can work. 

In the theatre, it’s like, “We want to make sure we get this grant. If perchance you’ve gotten this grant, we need to make sure this happens at this time, at this date. We need all these people—” And it’s like, can we take a breath? Can we slow this down? Can we slow down the process? If we’re going to remove ourselves so that our art isn’t just a product—so I’m not only putting this out because someone has given me money to do so–how do I, in a way, balance what these granting bodies are expecting of me? And the ability and freedom of whichever artists I’m working with so that they are able to actually be in the work. 

Can I toss the question back to you? 

What would I do? I would, honestly, I would be more conscious about kids. I’ve had an interesting year in that I got lucky and got some opportunities through the Agnes Etherington Art Center that were really cool opportunities for creation. When I arrived there, I was like, “Oh, crap, what am I going to make?” I wasn’t feeling very inspired, or attached, or driven to make any theatre. Through my relationships with Skeleton Park, I was talking to a mom that I knew and she was like, “Why don’t you try to get a class there on a field trip?” I ended up bringing a grade three or four class into square dance in the house at the Agnes Etherington Art Center. 

Could I apply for a grant for that? No. Does that look like a classic theatrical intervention? No. Was there a director? No. All of these things that I thought live performance was, didn’t happen there. But that was one of the best interventions as a theatre person, I think, that I’ve ever been a part of. 

I really think I’m not necessarily as interested in classic theatre for young audiences. But I feel like I’m more interested in this kind of durational, or installation-based work, where kids are welcome. And where we learn from kids and we play with kids. I think we’re similar in that we don’t want to be out here making puppet shows entirely, but I want my work to be engaged with, with playful hands. And kids got those, right? 

What did you say the other day? The kids are alright?

The kids are alright. 

 All right, baby. I agree with you. 

Thank you so much. Mariah. This was Mariah Horner, the best ever. 

Mariah Horner is a theatre creator and PhD Student based in Kingston, Ontario who’s research surrounds investigation of abolitionist dramaturgies. She is the co-founder of site-specific theatre company Cellar Door Project and is currently an Associate Producer at SpiderWebShow.