How Stitched Glass Gave Birth to The Knitting Pilgrim
After fifteen years – a long, long time – of knitting Stitched Glass, my installation of tapestries looking at the commonalities and differences amongst the Abrahamic Faiths, things have started moving fast. Never thought I’d say that about knitting.
Needless to say, that’s meant I haven’t had time to blog about it all – so I have a bunch of blogs stored up. Here they come. February first.
The long-held purpose of Stitched Glass was to create an opportunity for conversation. Conversation, hopefully, among disparate groups of people – so that they could find common ground, rather than seeing the other groups as ‘the other.’
But as I approach the end of knitting the last tapestry, I’ve wondered how to do that. And off and on over decade and half of knitting, my wife, Claire, has wondered how to get the installation into textile museums and other galleries so that I could participate in that conversation. Claire would, in fits and starts between writing jobs, try reaching out to textile museums and the like, and get very little uptake. Granted, I’m not a trained visual artist – I didn’t get a Material Art degree from OCAD University (although that sounds like a really good time) – and I’m not represented by a gallery, and I don’t have a long history of solo and group exhibitions, because apparently I bit off way more than I could chew with Stitched Glass, and it’s taken a lot of time, alongside my day job and raising our kids with Claire, and doing the laundry. All very worthwhile and time-consuming things.
So one day about a year ago, knowing that I was over half-done the last tapestry, Claire discusses this problem with our good friend, Tracey Erin Smith. Tracey is the Artistic Director of Soulo Theatre here in Toronto, and she and Claire have often tackled artistic problems together, musing ways to keep moving forward despite the obstacles. At the time, Tracey’s theatre was producing a show called The Clergy Project which shares some themes with my textile installation – namely, interfaith empathy and focusing on what brings us together, not pulls us apart. Tracey, who is a great lateral thinker, asked if maybe she could use the tapestries as a backdrop for The Clergy Project – or as an exhibition that travelled with the show. Claire said that my last tapestry wasn’t finished yet, and also that I’d worked on the installation for so long, it really needed its own platform. So then Tracey said, why don’t you and Kirk write a show for him to perform alongside the tapestries, and use them as his set?
This, of course, was an ingenious idea, classic of Tracey. Because the reason I hadn’t attended OCAD U was because I’d attended the York University Theatre Performance Programme instead, where I’d trained as an actor. I was a full-time actor for 25 years or so, until my kids and Stitched Glass came along… so this idea of combining acting, writing and my knitting work created a new opportunity to get Stitched Glass out there.
Claire is a full-time writer, working primarily for film and TV, and we have often collaborated on writing projects over the years, so I asked her if she’d like to work with me on this project. I feared if I wrote it alone, it would never get done, because a half-tapestry still needed knitting. We pulled together our ideas, wrote 20 pages, applied to the Toronto Arts Council and were lucky enough to receive playwriting funds to develop the project (thank you so, so much, TAC). We called the show, The Knitting Pilgrim.
We asked our good friend Anna Pappas, Artistic Director of Ergo Arts Theatre, to produce it. She jumped on board right away because the play, and Stitched Glass, deal with themes like interfaith empathy, understanding of ‘the other,’ and conflict resolution – all themes she tackles in many Ergo Arts projects. A good match.
We did a variety of things to prepare for, and develop, A Knitting Pilgrim. Claire and I continued to write. We brought on the wonderful playwright Beverley Cooper as our dramaturge to help us with the script, and we also brought on three faith consultants to work with us at both script and workshop stage: Reverend Janet Ryu-Chan, Presbyterian Minister at Morningside High Park Church, was our Christian consultant; Sarah Margles was our Jewish consultant; and Farheen Khan was our Muslim consultant.
I’ll pause here to say that even just the process of talking about this project with those three consultants was so stimulating for me. After all my research into the Abrahamic faiths over the length of knitting the tapestries, to meet at the same table with Christian, Jewish and Muslim friends and work through how to talk about the Abrahamic faiths, and how we were all feeling about the status of getting along in today’s world – interfaith or otherwise – taught me so much.
Then I took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre course to get my acting feet wet again, and get comfortable with the idea of talking out loud about the ideas that I’d been living with, stitch by stitch, row by row, over the last 15 years of knitting. Meanwhile, of course, I was feverishly knitting. Yup. That’s me. Always feverishly knitting.
Eventually we had a script we felt we could workshop – and that is how we spent this past February.
We rehearsed at The Small World Music Centre in Artscape - a cultural hub in the west of Toronto. Anna Pappas directed the workshop.
We brought on the fantastic Nick Bottomley as our projection designer.
Here I am at the part of the show where the Christian window, or tapestry, is complete. At that point in the story, I’m only 5 years into my 15-year experience.
Bev Cooper, our dramaturge, worked with us on the script.
We held a presentation to show the work in progress, mostly to solicit feedback from our trusted colleagues. My brother Marc came to see the show, as did our 3 faith consultants.
We had a really interesting debrief after the presentation about the show and its themes, and we got lots of ideas about how to continue developing the work toward a tour.
And that is how Stitched Glass gave birth to The Knitting Pilgrim. Ergo Arts Theatre will tour the two shows – the exhibition and the play – together in 2019. And yes, we’ll use the Stitched Glass tapestries as our set – but some venues, like museums and galleries, will also show Stitched Glass as its own exhibition. We’ll perform the play, which runs about 65 minutes, and then give the audience a chance to see the tapestries up close, have an informal discussion, or a Q&A and panel discussion – whatever our bookers desire.
If you know of a venue – a theatre, museum, gallery, place of faith, organization or knitters’ guild – that would like to book the show in 2019, please contact Ergo Arts Theatre and click on touring info.
I’m pretty excited about it all. I have a lot of people to thank: Tracey Erin Smith, for the initial seed of an idea that has already grown into such an interesting tree, my wife Claire who continues to go on this long journey with me, Anna for agreeing to produce the show, everyone associated with the workshop, and our three consultants.
I’m still learning. We’re still writing. I’m still knitting.