In 2018, POC Culture hosted its first event in Peel Region. At the time, founder Vanessa Spence hoped the spoken-word and poetry group would help elevate the voices of artists in the African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) community.
Then, Spence and her partner made the decision to move to Cambridge. She quickly realized there was not as much diversity in the art community here as she had hoped.
“We don’t see our stories on the stages too often…We don’t have many artists, writers, artistic directors who are of the ACB population,” Spence said.
“I thought it was just a perfect place to say, ‘okay, this is where I want to live. This is where I want…to change the ecology of what’s going on here in this region, and hopefully, outwards.”
And with that, POC Culture became Virtu Arts, a production company that focuses on educating, developing and sharing the theatre work of ACB creators with a mission to advance their careers and stories.
“Careers come first, and with your career, you just need someone to give you the opportunity to fail. Right? To learn, fail, learn, fail. And that’s what I want to do here at Virtu Arts,” Spence, now artistic director and producer at Virtu Arts, said.
“I want to give folks the opportunity to come here, understanding that they don’t know everything, but knowing that you can learn everything that you can, just by having the courage, taking that initiative.”
When COVID-19 hit, Spence thought Virtu Arts was at a standstill. Unable to work with other actors because of pandemic restrictions, Spence turned to a project she had been writing for a while—a one-woman play called Stretch Marks: Part One.
Stretch Marks: Part One was born out of a book of poetry Spence wrote while she was pregnant. After the book was published, she felt she had more to say. So, she started writing a play.
“It was just kind of everything that I couldn’t say, as a first-time mother—as a first-time mother of color, everything that you couldn’t say is kind of what I wanted to put in that place,” Spence said.
“Then out of that, there was a lot going on with… the foster care system, adoption and all that stuff. I kind of really got into that kind of research for some reason.”
It was that research that inspired Spence to create a story about a female lead who was adopted by a white man. With the help of a very supportive team, Virtu Arts was able to launch Stretch Marks: Part One as their first play in 2020.
Since then, the production company has been offering workshops and creating opportunities for artists to grow in the community. They’ve also been connecting with other local theatre groups including Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, MT Space and Green Light Arts.
“[The community is] very, very supportive, and they want our art. They want people to stay here and to build this region and the art community. But there’s definitely a need. And I think they see that need. The community sees that need,” Spence said.
“A lot of people move away from this region to go and build a career somewhere else. I’ve noticed that and I know that, but that’s why … I took the time to say, ‘okay, we have to put energy into this region, so that it’s not 10 steps back.”
Virtu Arts will also begin rehearsals for Stretch Marks: Part Two in September. The production, funded by the Ontario Arts Council and the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, will focus beyond Spence’s perspective as a mother and include the stories and experiences of others. Having had the opportunity to speak to over 15 Black folks who have been adopted by white families and now have children of their own, the play will explore intersectional aspects of the human experience.
“It’s a story that can be told by all races and all folks…It’s not even just telling Black stories…it’s about telling a story that transcends. There’s a Black character at the center. That is representation,” Spence said.
“You don’t have to tell a story about a Black person in the 1800s…You can tell a story about them right here right now…with a topic that affects everyone, right? It’s just a Black character at the center or a Black family at the center.”
Spence hopes pandemic restrictions continue to ease so Virtu Arts can move away from relying on virtual workshops and programming. Virtu Arts is currently using physical space at 44 Gaukel St. for rehearsals. They will also be a part of IMPACT Theatre Festival in October.
The production company is filling a number of volunteer opportunities and some paid ones as well. Spence hopes that Virtu Arts can carve out a space for local creators in the ACB community to grow their craft.
“When we say, ‘hey, we’re holding auditions for a Black artist, for this Black character’…automatically, they see themselves and they want to audition, they want to be a part of it. And even if they don’t get the role, then ‘hey, do you think you can be a stage manager? Do you want to grow in that area?’ … Just bring them in and other ways, even if they weren’t able to get the part,” Spence said.
Care Lucas is Executive Director of WLU Student Publications, and Publisher of TCE. You may have bumped into her at Steel Rails over the years, or in one of the Region’s many magical record stores where she regularly combs through stacks of vinyl. At home she spends time building puzzles with her son Atticus, cat Garfunkel and chinese crested dogs Star and Dookie.