By Quinte Arts Council with files from Donna Bennett
Performing arts centre Westben, known for its 400-seat venue The Barn on a 50-acre property in Campbellford, Ont., has been presenting music since its first full symphony concert in 2000: classical, broadway, jazz, folk fiddle, pop, electronic and comedy.
Westben hosts over 90 events and experiences each year: that’s until the pandemic hit, and the number of in-person visitors went from 10,000 to zero.
Unable to continue with live events during lockdown, in 2020 co-founders Donna Bennett and Brian Finley pivoted Westben’s roster to create digital experiences, with online programming and the new Westben digital venue (an interactive map of the Westben grounds which hosts all the Digital Concerts at The Barn).
They created 72 new videos including podcasts, Musical Moments, and kids programs.
These concerts were recorded without audiences and incorporated a sense of place with performances on the meadow, near the pond, as well as in The Barn.
Looking ahead to summer 2021, Bennett and Finley realized that having an audience limit of 50 could not financially support hosting an international calibre of artists, as well as operating costs.
“We concluded we didn’t want to change our branding or mission, but we needed to look at the number of events and experiences we were offering, the location of events, and how we were delivering the experience of nature and music,” says Bennett.
They took pause and began to create a new plan that would still bring people together through music safely and comfortably. Then their dreaming went into overdrive.
Their focus shifted from large events to small groups, which meant reconfiguring seating in The Barn to create small pods for socially-distanced seating for 50 people (and more if restrictions lift.)
Bennett and Finley then looked at the Westben property as a whole and imagined three new outdoor venues: The first, a natural amphitheatre, just beyond the picnic meadow and pond: “With a gradual rise, lawn chairs and hay bales will work well for seating with a covered stage in front of the pond. The audience will then have a great view of the performers and the whole Westben property,“ says Bennett.
The second, a place for exclusive concerts, will be set around a campfire near the picnic area, a place where mostly folk and roots artists after their “On the Hill” concert can share an intimate set with 15 to 25 people.
The third, located across the road from Westben at the Mary West Nature Reserve, will give small groups of concert goers (after a guided walk) an intimate nature performance by the river bed. Newly-built bridges over the river will be the stage and stumps along the river bed will be the seating. Concerts will be shorter (one hour and fifteen minutes) and more frequent, starting at 2:00 pm and ending with a 10:00pm show for the late night adventurers.
“We are hoping that moving from large events to bubble pods/smaller audiences, people will feel more comfortable in venturing out to a concert,” says Bennett. “By creating new outdoor venues we hope audiences will feel safer in the wide open spaces of the farm. Having no intermission should decrease opportunity for cluster gatherings and increase feelings of safety. The new entrance area to Hill Venue will keep audience traffic flow separate.”
She adds: “Nature and music have always been integral to Westben but the pandemic has offered us a platform to take this to the next level.”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Umbrella magazine, available now.