The stage of the Theatre on King (TTOK) is dark. People sit closely together, awaiting Festivus Rattus Rattus 2035. When the lights turn on Brad Brackenridge, playing Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett, is holding puppets representing City Council. Actors in large rat masks with button eyes jump out at the audience. The small, black space is alive with fabrics and lights, and the magic of TTOK envelops the audience in a world of a post-apocalyptic Peterborough overrun by rats.
Written by Kate Story, with essential input from other artists, Festivus Rattus Rattus 2035 was part of Precarious: Peterborough ArtsWORK Festival. The event brought lively theatre, workshops, and panel discussions on precarity and artistry in Peterborough to TTOK’s stage. Ryan Kerr and Kate Story also partnered on A Certain Place: The Bernie Martin Festival the year prior, and are passionate about supporting local artists and creating a culture of theatre in Peterborough.
Story credits Kerr for opening TTOK as a space for artists to do important work, creating a home for theatre in Peterborough. “Ryan and I did A Certain Place: The Bernie Martin Festival, which was about examining place, the year before. This year we did the Precarious Festival, which involved artists in various stages of their careers from as many different disciplines as possible, to investigate the idea of place and what does it mean to make work. I also wanted to do that by having panel discussions. I love a good panel discussion! It must be the frustrated academic in me,” Story laughs at her own work ethic, taking on a hundred tasks at once to see the festival to fruition.
Coming from a family of academics, this Newfoundlander almost chose to walk her parents’ path. “My dad was very passionate about Newfoundland culture, and was at the heart of the Newfoundland Studies movement,” Story says. “My mother, who retired from academia when she had us, was a musician and writer as well. She played and composed music for silent films in St. John’s.”
This local theatre icon can recall the exact moment she fell in love with the arts. “In St. John’s we would see at least one major Canadian dance company a year,” she says. “One year we saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. They did a production that was very dramatic. I was this little four-year-old body; I don’t think I moved watching the production. I was hovering above my seat the whole time. We were so close to the stage that when one of the male dancers pirouetted his sweat hit us. I was just beside myself; I thought it was amazing!”
When her mother took her backstage, she fell in love even more. Theatre techies hung out with their heavy metal shirts, smelling of booze and cigarettes. Even the velvet curtains are strong in her memories of that moment; it was a world that called out and enchanted her. “When you stood backstage you could see this little slice of the auditorium and I was like, ‘This is where I want to be. I love this place. This is so exciting to me.’”
Story attributes her success as a dancer to the teachers who empowered her to create and choreograph her own dance pieces. “By the time I was 13 years old I had already created 45-minute dance pieces because I learned modern dance and choreography at a young age. That would be rare today to see studios offering choreography classes to kids. There was that struggle there to be an academic, but underneath that there was a sense of art mattering.”
The journey leading up to Story’s success in Peterborough is a surprising one, as she had not received the warmest of welcomes when first coming to Peterborough. “I was in Otonabee College, which was the jock college back in the 80s. They didn’t like me very much there. The party room happened to be next to mine as well, I often heard them call me a fucking freak and a dyke.”
The incident challenges Trent’s reputation as being known as “the gay school.” Her friends lived at Peter Robinson College, which Story felt was friendlier to those that identified as queer. Things escalated one night after she had made inquiries about transferring to Peter Robinson.
“There was one incident where I could hear them discussing how I wanted to transfer to the fag college, and I knocked on the wall and said, ‘Guys, I can hear you.’ They were drunk and rowdy, and started shouting threats. It got to the point where they were threatening to rape me,” she said.
She moved in with a boyfriend shortly after just to get off campus. “I wasn’t a jock. I was part of TIP [the Trent International Program] and I had discovered Cultural Studies. The whole incident was fairly typical I’m sure, but it frightened me,” she said.
Story identifies as queer, falling in love with her female friends and women throughout her life. The statuesque redhead described herself as awkward and uncomfortable fitting into feminine gender stereotypes. “Kate in the 80s had a shaved head, wore combat boots and men’s underwear over leggings. I thought that was really cool, paired with a yellow raincoat or a jean jacket. My experience with gender was that it was a costume,” she said, “I had trouble getting cast. I wasn’t a pretty girl. In fact, I was told I was ugly. I wasn’t your typical ingénue.”
She later became involved in starting the Union Theatre in 1989, a performance space run by a collective of local artists. There, she was often behind the scenes, lending her sewing skills to making costumes or taking on small roles. “I had a dance background, but hadn’t really done theatre, so I didn’t know how to be an actor. I wasn’t very castable as theatre is pretty limited for women; it’s pretty stupid and still is. It was also a macho culture. Not everybody there was like that, but men at the Union tended to take up a lot of space. I never had the confidence that I could make the work, and I wasn’t getting that message from anyone else either.”
She then enrolled at OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) for graduate studies. However, the lively Toronto theatre scene called out to her. “My heart really wasn’t in grad school,” Story said, “It only lasted about three months because I kept going for auditions. I wasn’t good, but I ended up taking any workshop or course I could to get better. I knew I needed training.”
Working any odd job she could to pay rent in Toronto, she continued to encounter frustrations in getting passed up for major roles. “I was getting really bitter and opinionated about these theatre experiences,” she said, “like, what we’re saying, I’ve never heard a woman talk this way. There was no woman that didn’t either look like an ingénue, a mother, or an old hag! Those were the three options. I thought it was just ridiculous.”
She wrote own production called Throat, a humorous piece about a young woman who wants to create and perform a one-woman Hamlet, that got accepted by the Rhubarb Festival in Toronto. It was also performed at the Fringe Festival in St. John’s where it was well received. However, when it was part of the Summerworks Festival in Toronto, the Toronto Star gave it a scathing review.
“Oh, it was awful. She wrote that my performance was adequate, but that I should get somebody else to write my material. I never had very thick skin, and no one came to the performances. It was quite lonely and difficult to put the show on night after night.”
Story credits her stubbornness for continuing on. “I put my head down,” she said, “I was like ‘No, no one can tell someone not to write. She can’t say that to me.’ I understand what she was doing. It was a funny review; she was a journalist and she had a story to write, but that stayed with me. I’m never going to tell an artist to just stop. What a shitty thing to do.”
Working at 4th Line Theatre during the summer, she yearned for meaningful collaboration, and knew the opportunity for that existed in our community. Story credits Bill Kimball of Public Energy for being one of the reasons she eventually made her way back to Peterborough.
“Peterborough is attractive to me because of people like Bill. He makes space for people to make work, and because of him we’ve got all these great artists who come to town,” she says, “and often give workshops and so on. There’s no way I would have moved back to Peterborough if Public Energy wasn’t here. Peterborough also has a unique collaboration community here. Ann Jaeger, for example, is a visual artist that I can ask to design a theatre set. That’s pretty remarkable, because in a place like Toronto for example, you would go somewhere that designs sets. It would be unusual to get a visual artist to come in.”
Last year, Story published This Insubstantial Pageant, a science fiction novel with a feminist take on The Tempest. The book received rave reviews, including one from the Toronto Star, which in light of the review of her play Throat, speaks to Story’s resilience and determination as an artist. It is a message Story wants to reach young artists; she aims to empower and inspire those around her, which is highlighted in her work at the Precarious Festival.
Her passion for mentorship and workshop training allowed for various opportunities during the festival. “Sarah DeCarlo did a filmmaking workshop for young Indigenous women. We had money for Eryn Lidster and Sharon Mackenzie to be mentored as theatre technicians,” Story said. “I also mentored Eryn as she created her first theatre work, titled Invisible. Laurel Paluck mentored a youth artist while creating the big rat heads. Brad Brackenridge mentored Naomi Duvall in puppetry. To me, all of that was really important.”
Elisha Rubacha and Justin Million also received support for the work they were doing by becoming part of the festival. “Kate changed my life this year,” Rubacha said, “through EC3 she gave me grant writing mentorship, and then theatre writing mentorship through Public Energy’s Alternating Currents. After that, she asked me to be involved with Precarious, which was a great experience. She’s given me about a thousand times more confidence in myself as an artist. What she did with Precarious and Festivus Rattus is exactly the kind of work I want to be doing myself.”
During the Precarious Festival, this ambitious supporter of the arts also teamed up to create the first artist survey ever done in Peterborough. Kate partnered with Su Ditta of Electric City Culture Council on a survey that aimed to ask the key questions regarding the intersection of art and access. “When Harper was in power we lost statistics, but as a grant writer for the arts, I think it’s important to get this data,” Story said. “There are things I wanted to find out: are women, transgender, and queer people making less money for making art? Where do we stand in our art-making, comparatively, in the general Peterborough population? I want to know, are artists of colour getting the support they need to make their art? These are important questions, and we have no hard data concerning artists in the community.”
She ended up receiving some negativity in reaction to the survey, but if her journey has told us anything so far, it’s that she does not falter in the face of criticism. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed, and Jill Staveley, Trent Radio Production Manager, praises Story for her strength. “The thing about Kate,” Staveley told me, “is that she’s one of the few people that, when she has a goal, she sees it through till the very end.”
In light of the hardship she’s faced, it’s clear that hers isn’t your typical story of success. We’re lucky that Kate Story wouldn’t fit into some box, and that she didn’t give up when she was told she didn’t fit the part. She has created space for people of all walks of life to make art, a vital and challenging accomplishment. She has collaborated with others in the community to mentor and uplift artists, and in light of all of her success, maintains her humility when being praised for it. Rubacha said it best when describing the impact Story has had on the community. “Kate does work that shifts the way our culture values the arts,” she said. “She is one of Peterborough’s best people.”
Photos by Karol Orzechowski.