The Harrison Festival Society is celebrating another landmark birthday with the 30th year of its Season of Performing Arts.
The off-season program brings eight to ten performances into Harrison between September and May – when the Village starts ramping up for the yearly Festival of the Arts: a beloved local celebration of music and multiculturalism that celebrated its 40th season in July.
Phyllis Stenson, the Former Harrison Festival Society executive director, said the Season of Performing Arts started with a performance from the semi-professional Phoenix Chamber Choir who came out to Harrison one Sunday afternoon thirty years ago to test a new show before going on tour.
The show was a hit, and the festival society realized there was an appetite for music and art outside of the once-a-year festival.
“That concert went well and it was kind of like, ‘why didn’t we think of this before?’” Stenson recalled. “The festival was built [so] that people wouldn’t have to leave the area to hear live, good music. It made sense to do something during the year so that there was something to do for local people in the Fraser Valley – so they had an opportunity to see live music and it kept the Harrison Festival profile up.”
With partner and husband Ed, the pair brought in countless performers and musicians, maintaining Harrison’s reputation as a destination for arts and culture.
“It kept the profile up in the community, there was roles for volunteers. It kept us connected between festivals,” Stenson said.
But it also helped the festival run smoothly, Ed added.
“It’s hard for an organization that does a [once-a-year] event to maintain the infrastructure that you need to do that… so these shows keep things active and help to maintain that infrastructure,” he explained.
When the shows first started, a decade after the first Festival of the Arts, the Stensons were happy to see more than 80 people attend. That number, along with Harrison itself, has grown. But that isn’t the only thing that’s evolved. Theatre was once a huge part of the Season of Performing Arts, which now features mostly musicians, many notable and flying in from around the world.
“In the early years it was definitely more local performers – like Vancouver,” Ed recalled. “Brand new artists starting out and that sort of thing, certainly not the international and bigger stuff we see now.”
While many of the season’s performers are of national and international fame, the local audience has grown since the program’s inception, said Phyllis.
“It’s really great that its still going and the thing that we’ve seen happen over the years – and especially recently with Andy [Hillhouse] here – is that the local Harrison-Agassiz audience has really grown,” she said. “And that’s really good to see. I think it’s become a really good community thing to do.”
|Sarah Jane Scouten is the next musician to take the stage during Harrison’s Season of Performing Arts. (Submitted)|
Stenson said something that sets Harrison shows apart is the intimate, round table experience in the Memorial Hall that allows audiences to dance, drink, snack and enjoy the show in a more casual setting.
“You might go and see the same performer in the Cultural Centre in Chilliwack…but here, if you want, you can dance in the aisles and all over the place,” she said. “I would much rather see a dance group [in Harrison] than having to bop around in my seat.”
Current executive director Andy Hillhouse and marketing and administration manager Bryan Cutler continue to work hard to bring in fresh acts while pleasing long-time audiences.
“When I came on it was working quite well,” said Hillhouse, who has held the position for five years. “It’s been a matter of figuring out the balance of introducing new stuff to people [and] balancing that with…you’ve got to have a couple of shows that sell well.”
Country music performer Sarah Jane Scouten is the next musician to take the Memorial Hall stage on Saturday, Nov.3 at 8 p.m. The three-time Canadian Folk Music Award nominee combines traditional folk with modern themes including songwriting that addresses poverty, midwifery and heartache. With her own unique style and respect for old-school folk and country, Scouten is a performer to watch – and now you can, right here in Harrison!
On Nov. 24 at 8 p.m., music-lovers can enjoy a special treat: a combined performance from one of Canada’s leading traditional fiddlers, Pierre Schryer and the Harrison Festival Society’s very own Andy Hillhouse on guitar.
Schryer is known for his energy and warmth on the fiddle, covering Scottish, Quebecois, Cape Breton and Canadian Old Time styles with remarkable ease and talent.
Combined with Hillhouse, the founder and manager of the Celtic Funk band Mad Pudding, who plays “driving, groovy” guitar on the Celtic music scene, this show is surely going to be one to remember.
Tickets to see either performance at the Memorial Hall are $25 (free for kids 12 and under) and can be purchased online at harrisonfestival.com, in person at the Agassiz Shoppers Drug Mart, or at the Ranger Station Art Gallery.