Arts Visionaries in Edmonton Part IV
Arts Visionaries in Edmonton is a mini-series of several interviews conducted with notable leaders in Edmonton’s arts community. By sharing these interviews, and the thoughts and opinions of some of the city’s strongest leaders, The Wanderer hopes to give Edmontonians a better idea of the strength of the arts in our community, and build relationships with local arts institutions.
It was 2008, I was sixteen-years-old, the curtain was about to go up in the Citadel’s Rice Theater (now called The Club). I was backstage and my hands trembled as I tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach by whispering a joke under my breath to a fellow castmate. I took a deep breath, the curtain went up, my mind went blank, and I became my character for an hour. This was one of the defining moments of my adolescence. The performance was the culmination of months rehearsing, reading lines, learning from some of the greatest artists in this city, and working in a world-class venue with a dozen or so tremendously talented youths with the Citadel’s Teen Acting Company.
For those who don’t often get involved with arts institutions, and more particularly, for those who don’t know very much about theater, it can be easy to forget how much work it takes to make a successful production, to fundraise, to get actors on stage, to get an appropriate space to perform in, to rally the support to begin rehearsals, and to give every encouragement for a production team to keep going. While my experience with theater, as limited as it is, was primarily in the role of “actor,” it gave me the chance to see that there are so many roles crucial to successful theatre that “acting” is like one piece in a one-thousand-piece puzzle. Penny Ritco knows all about this. As the Executive Director of the Citadel, Penny is one of the corner pieces of the puzzle that is the Citadel Theater, overseeing all that goes on under that beautiful glass roof that has become an icon in Edmontonian, Albertan, and Canadian arts and culture.
Over the course of two phone interviews, Penny took the time to shed some light on this arts and culture scene, and speak about her personal journey from being a high school drama student to being the Executive Director with Edmonton’s Citadel. “Leader” doesn’t adequately describe Ritco’s role with the Citadel and in Edmonton. She is a force to be reckoned with in our arts scene, as hard working and determined as the prairie winds that she grew up knowing in Saskatchewan, as a young girl. Having come to the position of “Executive Director” in the Citadel’s 2003-2004 season, she is now in her tenth season there, and after speaking with her, and looking at the Citadel today, it is clear she has overseen and been instrumental in a phenomenal transformation at the Citadel.
Ritco once said in an interview that when she and husband Brian Dooley first moved to Edmonton, they had only planned on staying “a year or two.” Fast-forward ten years and her impact on our community has been incredible. From her years as a student in the National Theatre School in Montréal, to her years working in various capacities on production teams across the country, not to mention her work with the National Film Board, Penny has clocked countless hours for the arts in Canada. When I had the chance to ask her what sort of advice she would give to aspiring artists in – and graduating from – university today, she remarked that “[being an artist] is a calling. It is something that, if you need to do it, you will find ways to do it. But there are all kinds of other ways to be engaged with the arts. You don’t need to be an actor on the stage, a director, or a stage manager. There are ways to participate whether you are making a living [from the arts] or not.”
While there may be many ways for people to be involved, in our first conversation it became clear that artistic promotion and gaining support for the theatre is proving to be an interesting challenge today, in a way that past generations of arts organizations could never have imagined. Ritco brought up the interesting point that in today’s generation of short attention spans, captivated by social media and technology, it can be difficult enough to not only get young people to come and sit down for a show, let alone invest in season tickets. This sentiment resonates with other arts leaders in this series, but all have found ways to adapt and are finding creative ways to draw our tech-enamored young consumers.
Our second conversation, transcribed below, shows that the arts in our city are as alive as ever and the Citadel has been an invaluable contributor to this. With a lot of hard work, dedication and passion, Penny Ritco has been an integral player not only at the Citadel and theatre scene, but in the arts in this country.
B: How are you today?
P: I’m good. Hard not to be good on a sunny day […] so far the wind’s not so bad. I don’t like it when it’s windy, […] I grew up in Saskatchewan and when I was little I can remember it being windy and trying to walk home from school, blowing around. I was smaller, I was light enough that the wind would just push me around, and to this day I just don’t like wind.
B: So picking up where we left off last time, I was just wondering what role it is you think students play in our arts community?
P: I hate to keep referring back to research but of late I’ve become really data-driven, and there’s a lot of research that says involvement in the arts leads to better marks. There [also] seems to be a correlation between people who are involved in the arts and volunteerism. We have a lot of successful festivals, like the Fringe and the Folk Fest and Playwrights, a bunch of [festivals where] you can both express yourself artistically in some of those things and you can be a volunteer, and you can work behind the scenes.
I was talking with [my daughters] Bevin and Quinn, because they grew up in a theatre family, and they both aspire to be involved in the arts. […] I watch my husband Brian, who’s an actor, a director, a dramaturge and runs a theatre, [and] in all the years we’ve been together, when he’s not employed, not being paid to do something, he is always active. Somebody will ask him to be in a reading of something and he’ll be reading, or he goes to see things, and he always tries to help and he’ll meet with people… so he remains [engaged].