Over the course of our nearly 25-year history, Common Weal has grown from a grassroots collective to a professional non-profit arts organization.
Common Weal emerged onto the Saskatchewan arts scene in 1992 with the production of Ka’ma’mo’pi’cik, a community play developed, researched, produced, and performed by Qu’Appelle Valley residents under the guidance of theatre professionals. The development of this play sought to draw out site-specific histories with careful attention paid to include alternative, revisionist, perspectives from people traditionally marginalized in mainstream representations of prairie-settler culture. The process was influenced heavily by Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which articulated that an outcome cannot be predetermined, but that social change emerges from a process of dialogue and reflection in which the lived experience and knowledge of participants are prioritized. The principals, values, artistry, and community development processes employed through this project provided the basis for the organization to develop into a unique socially-engaged and community-minded professional arts organization.
In 1993, Common Weal Community Plays incorporated as a non-profit. Founding artists Rachael Van Fossen, Darrel Wildcat, Ruth Howard, Jo Dibb, and Richard Agecoutay became the first Board of Directors, based out of Regina. The organization partnered with the Saskatchewan Cultural Exchange Society who supported administrative development and a new province-wide programming scope. From 1994 to 1997, the organization developed a number of projects, including: Dene Suline Ho Ni Ye in Wollaston Lake; Qu’Appelle Gathering, an internationally attended symposium on the community play form at Fort San; A North Side Story (or two) and City Flats, both of which focused on the urban experiences in North Central Regina; and, The Survivors writing workshops with Street Workers Advocacy Project.
In 1998, Common Weal was awarded core funding from SaskCulture. This supported the hiring of Van Fossen as a full-time Artistic Coordinator. Projects at this time included the Riverbend Writers Group at Riverbend Correctional Facility and Time for Us, a video storytelling project with Elders at the Regina Food Bank. By 1999, the organization was no longer a fledgling startup built around a single project. The departure of Van Fossen sparked significant board turnover and successive General Managers Tina Beaudry and Marnie Badham focused on building an institutional framework and policy. At this time, the staff of the organization swelled to a team of six (project dependent). The organization’s mandate expanded to include community-based projects in all disciplines, and we re-incorporated as Common Weal Community Arts. Initiatives included a video project, Our Stories Our Lives, a mentorship program with emerging theatre artists, and the development of our first visual Artist-in-Residence.
In 2000, Marjorie Beaucage joined the team as Artistic Coordinator. She oversaw a doubling of the project budget. This allowed for programming to expand with a focus on developing broad provincial partnerships, projects, and outreach initiatives. Standout programs through to 2002 include the Pine Grove Writing Circle at the Prince Albert Correctional Facility and the first annual Aboriginal Youth Playwrights Festival, which toured the province. In 2003, Common Weal core funding shifted to the Saskatchewan Arts Board, aligning the organization with peers in the arts, a major success for the recognition of socially-engaged practice in the province. The organization was also granted access to Canada Council project funding. Projects focused on youth arts and audio arts, including spoken word, hip hop, and experimental soundscape. The organization participated in the Arts Stabilization Project, resulting in the development of a strategic plan focused on growth through marketing, project dissemination, financial planning, evaluation, and governance. Additional projects included an exploration of graffiti in Up Against a Wall, I Can See Queerly Now, Prairie Echo, and wasikamow kayas kaki-pi-ispayik. This exceptional period of growth was overseen by Chair, Don List.
In 2004, Grasslands: Where Heaven Meets Earth emerged as a major focus. This site-specific collaborative dance project was a massive undertaking that resulted in a new era of large-scale interdisciplinary programming for the organization. In 2005, former Artist-in-Residence Judy McNaughton became a member of staff as the part-time Northern Artistic Coordinator, joining Southern Artistic Coordinator Ian Black. This resulted in the opening of the northern office in Prince Albert. Longtime board member, Maggie Dixon, moved into the role of Board Chair. Projects at this time included Prairie Roots youth hip hop and the Prairie Spirit Youth Theatre program, both serving indigenous youth. In 2006, the departure of Marnie and Ian brought Lynn Acoose and Elwood Jimmy onto the team. Projects included the Prince Albert Aboriginal Artist Initiative, Dreaming in Colour, and the publication of Artist and Community Collaboration: A Toolkit for Community Projects.
In 2007, Common Weal began receiving core funding through the Canada Council Integrated Arts Program. This funding allowed for a reworking of the artistic team resulting in the part-time artistic staff moving to full-time Artistic Directors (north and south), thus expanding programming and partnership potential. Projects flourished, including a youth arts mentorship program and the first Two Story Cafe and Urbanisms interdisciplinary art festivals in Prince Albert (presented in partnership with IPAC). Southern programming focused on Regina’s North Central neighbourhood with Common Circles and Dewdney Avenue Project.
2009 saw another shift in the team when Joanne Shannon and Gerry Ruecker joined as Executive Director and Southern Artistic Director, respectively. Rick Kotowich moved into the role of Chair and oversaw a period that focused on strengthening organizational foundations, including significant policy development. In 2010, Common Weal hosted CONNECT: towards a socially engaged aesthetic, a national conference on community arts. Additional projects included Northern Artists Initiative in the northern Métis community of Cumberland House and a photojournalism project in Regina.
From 2011 to 2015, Common Weal enjoyed a period of stability and artistic development led by Board Chair Mirtha Rivera. We looked back on our 20-year history with a self-published book and Birdsong Communications documentary, North Side Story (or two) Revisited. A new partnership with the Southern Saskatchewan Independent Living Centre resulted in Listen to Dis, a residency utilizing voice, movement, and theatre techniques to work with members of the disability community. After three years of exceptional growth, Common Weal mentored Artist-in-Residence, Traci Foster, as she led the group in becoming an independent non-profit. Additional programming included the Arts 4 All Essentials symposium (in partnership with Toronto's Jumblies Theatre), Writing for Your Life and Writing on the Wards at Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital, and a partnership with the Northern Dene community of Patuanak, spearheaded by artist Michèle Mackasey.
In 2015, current Executive Director Risa Payant joined the team. In 2016, the organization undertook a comprehensive review of operations and programming, including an internal review, stakeholder interviews, and a brand audit. The results led to a new vision that focused on increasing our profile and further articulating the organization as among the foremost voices in socially-engaged arts provincially, nationally, and internationally. Southern programming focused on expanding our reach in rural Saskatchewan through A Rightful Place, while northern programming focused on making the work of communities visible with initiatives like the large-scale exhibition, Axenet’i Tth’al.