Over 30 years, thousands of students have taken part in hundreds of performances as part of Creston’s annual Focus on Youth arts festival, the 30th of which runs May 2-6, with performances at Prince Charles Theatre and an art show at the Creston and District Community Complex.
For piano teacher Monte Anderson, a co-founder of the festival, that record highlights what makes the Creston Valley unique.
“There’s no other place in Canada, that I know of, that has this kind of thing, that has the co-operation between private teachers and the school district,” he said. “It’s a testament to how we get along in this valley.”
Anderson started the festival with another private piano teacher, Jo Anne Knobbe, in November 1986, and enlisted Elizabeth Hutton and Bonnie Boldt to co-ordinate drama and theatre. It was held in the Catholic Church hall, and included 10 performances, mainly violin, piano, vocal and drama, as well as a visual art display.
It was an immediate hit — about 700 people attended the festival, which then featured a short concert every half-hour for an afternoon.
“We were trying to provide an opportunity for our students,” said Knobbe from her home in Regina, Sask., where she moved in 1988.
The following school year, the private teachers joined forces with the Creston-Kaslo school district (prior to becoming the Kootenay Lake school district upon amalgamation with Nelson), and held 17 concerts in the Prince Charles Theatre, with student performers spanning all grades, even including the Prince Charles Secondary School debate club.
The joint school district-private teacher concept has remained through the years, with local “VIP” MCs hosting the concerts, which focus solely on participation rather than competition.
“That’s a big aspect of it — building self-esteem and confidence,” said Anderson, who told the Creston Valley Advance in 1988, “There will always be one person sitting in the back who is afraid to fail.”
“It’s always good for kids to do something other than just for themselves or their practicing,” said Knobbe. “It gives them confidence of being able to do something in public.”
When private students take to the stage, it encourages their peers to try to advance their talent beyond what can be taught in school.
“By having the private teachers involved, it shows off skills at a higher level,” said Anderson, who will perform with Knobbe in a special May 5 fundraising concert.
Building confidence is an important part of Focus on Youth, agreed Margaret Lavender, the former school district music co-ordinator, who has been involved since the second year, and continues to volunteer.
“The students always said they learned so much in being able to rehearse,” she said. “You’re working as a team to produce something. Seeing the end result, the pride was wonderful to see. …
“It’s always fun to see those kids come in in rehearsal week and see what they’re trying to do, then come back in performance week, and they’ve got it!”
From 1988 until his retirement in 2004, former Adam Robertson Elementary School teacher Frank Goodsir always had his Grade 4 and 5 music classes onstage with instruments. For many, their favourite song was “Tiny Bubbles”.
“They got to play the ukulele, they got to dance the hula and they got to shake Hawaiian rattles,” he said.
For Goodsir, a driving force in Creston’s community theatre scene for decades, Focus on Youth presented a unique opportunity for the community’s students.
“For most kids, this is their only theatre experience,” he said. “They not only perform for their parents and grandparents, but they perform for their peers. … And they get to work with the lights and sound, and get that true theatrical experience. They may never have another one in their life.”
As the years progressed, and after his retirement, Goodsir got more involved, co-ordinating publicity, taking photographs and maintaining extensive archives. His close association with Focus on Youth has allowed him to watch students’ abilities blossom, some from kindergarten right on up. One of those is Grade 12 student Skylar Eyre, a violinist who will perform for the last time in May.
“Focus on Youth allowed me a chance to perform in a comforting, welcoming environment,” said Eyre. “There are no adjudications and I have never been criticized for any of my performances. It gave us youth performers a chance to really showcase our talent and work that we have put into it, and to celebrate our accomplishments as growing individuals.”
It will be bittersweet, he said, to mark the milestone of his 13th festival.
“It’s given me a chance to reflect on my performances and to really appreciate how far I have come as a performer, artist and individual,” said Eyre. “It makes me really appreciate the community I have been raised in for supporting my passions and encouraging me to strive confidently in the direction of my dreams since the time I was five years old.”
For some, the festival gave them a chance to demonstrate passions that turned into careers. Miriam Anderson, for example, became a professional classical musician in Europe. Pascale Hutton now has many movie and TV credits, and was the star of CBC’s Arctic Air. And Sarah Kapoor launched her film, The Bad Mother, partially shot in Creston, at last year’s Hamilton Film Festival.
Those passions couldn’t have been fueled without the community members who diligently attend the concerts — they’re not just for parents and grandparents to enjoy.
“There’s always something about each performance,” said Goodsir. “There’s always some child whose talent surprises you.”