Arts & Life
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On a Friday morning in late June, Lynne Skromeda woke up with a very specific breakfast craving.
"Jason (Smith, her partner) said, ‘Do you feel like McDonald’s for breakfast today?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I do,’" laughs the executive director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
"That’s normally what I do on the way out to the park. It’s my guilty pleasure I only do once a year when I’m driving out to Birds Hill. I get an egg McMuffin — no meat — a hashbrown and a coffee."
Indeed, right about now, in a normal year, Skromeda and her team would be out at Birds Hill Park building the folk fest site, which takes about three weeks, as well as meeting with the thousands of volunteers who keep the event running smoothly. "I’m used to being totally crazy right now, and running around and dealing with all kinds of things," she says.
But, in April, her organization had to make the heartbreaking decision to cancel this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival, which was supposed to happen July 9 to 12, owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"That first month was the worst because we weren’t sure whether we’d have to cancel or not, so it was really up and down," she says. "Once we made the decision to cancel, as devastating as it was, it was a decision.
"Since then, it’s been trying to figure out staffing — and thank God for the (federal government’s) emergency wage subsidy program, because we haven’t had to do any layoffs. Then it turns into, ‘We can’t do our usual stuff, what can we do?’ We’ve gone to our laundry list of things we want to do but never, ever have the chance to. It’s looking at all different kinds of things, from how we do our signage storage to thinking about how different parts of the festival are working because we don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with next year.
"We can’t even start planning because we don’t know what the rules are going to be. I’ve often thought, ‘Hmm, maybe tarp culture is going to be a good thing for us because it’s really defined spaces.’ We’ve created a whole list of things we want to look at over the next couple of months."
Here are five things that have been keeping Skromeda grounded during the pandemic.
1. Front porch
"From the get-go, of course when all of this started, it was just starting to turn into spring time but it wasn’t really nice out yet. We’d have those few days with plus temperatures and Jason and I could come outside, and we’d just sit for a minute and feel the sun on our faces. It was our safe place because it was part of our home, but it was a way to get out in the very first stages of (the pandemic).
"As we became more comfortable, we’d be able to have socially distanced visits with people. We’re on a high-traffic street so people walk by all the time, so we were able to yell out to people from the porch, saying hi and having conversations. And then it was my mom’s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and the porch is a good enough size that we were actually able to get together as a family and celebrate, even though it’s not the normal way.
"It’s turned from a bit of a safe haven to a bit more of a social space because we have the space to do everything physically distanced appropriately."
2. Sonos system
"Music is something we’re totally missing right now and, actually, it ties really nicely to No. 1 because we have a portable speaker we can bring out to the porch so we can sit outside and listen to music. It’s not the same as the festival or being in a live music venue, but it still brings us music, whether we’re listening to a folk fest playlist or a couple radio stations we really like, or walking down memory lane with some stuff that we have in our music banks."
3. Peloton app
"Everybody thinks of Peloton as the cycle thing, but it’s way more than that. It has yoga, meditation, cardio, outdoor running, indoor running, strength training. The classes are anywhere from five minutes to 75 minutes so, again, being stuck inside a lot of the time, it’s nice to be able to have a huge bank of workouts. They’ve got some challenges, and I’ve got co-workers and friends who have all engaged in those challenges. Again, it’s a way to be together when we can’t physically be together."
4. Cece and Roo, the cats
"I was never much of an animal person until I met Jason, and he was a huge cat guy. Especially being stuck inside, it’s so nice to have these little bits of life. And it’s really sweet: we all go to bed at the same time, and they sleep on top of us at night. So it feels like this little family. I just love it. They have quirky little personalities, and they’re so much fun."
"I know a lot of people hate all the Zoom calls. But, for me, I’m a really social person and it’s the way I’m able to keep in touch with people. It’s the way I’ve been able to see the staff at the folk fest. It’s the way I’ve been able to do Book Club. It’s the way I’ve been able to connect with colleagues across the country. And it’s actually led to me connecting with people in ways that I never thought I would, in many cases more often than I would.
I think (video conferencing) is one of the things that’s made the whole pandemic process so much more tolerable in how we’re able to continue working and moving society forward, even though we’re so stranded and dealing with so much. It will never replace being with real humans in real life, but it certainly has helped along the way."
Though he knows it was the right decision, cancelling the Winnipeg Folk Festival was a tough blow for its artistic director, Chris Frayer.
"For me, because I curate the festival and put that lineup together with a bunch of considerations at heart, not to be melodramatic, but it’s kind of like doing a really nice painting and no one ever seeing it," he says.
He moped around the house for a few days. And then he got to work.
On July 11 at 7 p.m., the organization will present Winnipeg Folk Festival at Home, a streaming concert featuring performances from Sheryl Crow, Tash Sultana, Alan Doyle, Courtney Barnett, Vance Joy, and William Prince, to name a few. The show will stream via folk fest’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Frayer was buoyed by the way in which artists rallied around the festival. "It was so amazing how generous the artists were. Sheryl Crow got back to us in a day, and was like, ‘Here’s a song I want you guys to use — I think it’s meaningful right now.’ Brandi Carlile was the same way. Vance Joy did a great video, Waxahatchee did a really cool video. All these artists rallied around the festival." And the partnership with Bell MTS and Assiniboine Credit Union allowed folk fest to pay artists, many of whom have lost a key component of their livelihoods this year.
In a typical year, Frayer’s job keeps him on the road, attending music festivals and conferences all over the world. This spring, however, he leaned into another job: dad/teacher/husband.
"It was definitely a big adjustment because of the schooling from home, and the transition of getting teachers using the right software and stuff for the kids, and then trying to set up a routine for them every day," he says. "For the past 20 years I’ve been travelling for work. I’ve always had that break from family, to go off and be Chris Frayer on my own, and then come back and be Chris Frayer, dad and husband. I’ve been doing all those thing so many parents have been doing for forever. To see how much goes into a day for someone who doesn’t work a conventional job and takes care of children was an eye-opener."
While he’s welcomed the fresh perspective afforded by the pandemic, he hasn’t fully embraced the sweatpant life. He’s still been getting dressed in the morning for Zoom calls.
"At some point you have to put on the hard pants," he says with a laugh.
Here are five things getting him through this time.
1. Folk fest colleagues
"Being close with the people you work with, trusting each other — like, we have a pretty familial environment, and we really seek to be progressive in the workplace with workplace policies. Immediately having support to close the office down and keep people safe, and then start working remotely to bring this project forward was a huge thing. I don’t take that for granted."
2. Izzy, the dog — and the family, too
"She’s usually like a therapy dog at the best of times, so she’s taken an even bigger role in just being around for the family. And family for sure. Being supportive, trying to get through these times. We went for daily walks to Assiniboine Forest — we go there every day with the dog. I think getting outside and doing that together was critical."
3. The backyard
"We spent a lot of time in our backyard, whether it was gardening or using our pizza oven — which was huge for us during this whole thing. We’ve made, like, 50 pizzas. We’re always out back."
"Reading is something I wasn’t doing as much (before), and I read Red River Girl (The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine, by Joanna Jolly) during the quarantine, and that was almost kind of a reconciliation thing for me. It was just so Winnipeg, and so much to do with the travesties in our Indigenous communities."
5. Pandemic pastimes
"I have a book about fermentation from (Danish restaurant) Noma, so we’ve been making kombucha. We’ve been doing our own sourdough. You know, all the classics. I’ve realized how much stuff you can do on your own, but how people deserve to be paid much better for the work they do. Like, I make sourdough and it’s a herniating experience — but I can go buy a loaf for $5. I’m sitting there going, ‘How am I getting a loaf of sourdough for $5? It should be $10 at least.’ You just start to appreciate the things people do that you rely on."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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