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Dayna Manning is a Stratford, Ont.-based musician. 'I just feel really supported by my community and if I didn’t make the investments in my community prior to the pandemic, I wouldn’t have survived the pandemic,' she says.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

New outdoor stages have been popping up all over Stratford and the very newest sits right on the edge of town behind the Stratford Perth Museum. It’s called Player’s Backstage – and no, that’s not a misplaced apostrophe; Player Carpentry and Masonry got the naming rights.

Player’s Backstage’s inaugural player was to be Dayna Manning, a Stratford-born, Stratford-based and Stratford-boosting folk artist who’s loved locally and has carved out a unique career for herself since the 1990s.

Rain intervened, however, and instead, Manning played there on Monday for museum donors (such as Jim Player, owner of Player Carpentry and Masonry). Her performance was dubbed the official opening concert, even though Stratford-based singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith and a group of Stratford Festival performers had already taken turns on it.

“I think that was my first high-five in a year,” Manning said, when she first reached a microphone, having been introduced by and slapping palms with museum general manager John Kastner on her way across the stage.

This was not Manning’s very first live, in-person set of songs and stories in a year – she recently started playing some solo concerts in backyards. But it was her first gig in a long time with another musician accompanying, the drummer Stephan Szczesniak.

“Oh, wow, it’s fun to play together,” she said a couple songs in. A bit gee-shucks, but genuine, which is a good way to describe Manning’s demeanour in general.

Stratford’s a music city as much as a theatre city – and this week saw music really move to centre stage in its reawakening with the start of the Stratford Summer Music festival. All kinds of musicians will be rediscovering the fun of playing live together outdoors and indoors into September, from opera singers to percussion quartets to avant-garde ensembles.

Manning, over a coffee on the patio of Foster’s Inn one day recently, put the effect of the pandemic on musical artists into context: The first worldwide devastation to earning a living she and her peers lived through was called streaming. It’s been constant adjustment and adaptation since then.

”So the pandemic – career wise – wasn’t the most shocking thing ever,” says Manning, who signed her first record deal in her teens and is now in her 40s.

One adjustment Manning went through long ago was from considering herself a singer-songwriter, to calling herself an artistic entrepreneur. She tries to live life as “a 100-mile artist,” focusing less on coast-to-coast tours like the ones she’s been going on since, as an 18-year-old, she opened for Burton Cummings, and more on working in her own community.

Manning, for instance, she runs a business called the Folk Army, a music school/leadership camp where she teaches mostly young girls to play guitar and ukulele or songwriting. She also produces other people’s records and has learned graphic design skills.

COVID-19 has led to musical artists of all stripes playing a lot of backyard concerts – in Ontario at least, where what’s allowed in terms of gatherings has often been clearer regarding private homes than concert venues or theatres.

But Manning notes that house concerts are a long-standing tradition for folk artists – though living rooms rather than backyards were the old normal. And, she adds, there’s a much older genre of music birthed in private homes: chamber music.

Manning combined the two in her most recent album, 2019′s Morning Light; she’ll be playing chamber-folk tunes from it on Sept. 15 at Stratford Summer Music, backed by violin, cello, flute, horn and percussion.

In truth, all the figuring out how to get by, following the usurpation of music sales by streaming (Manning, for instance, wrote a memoir about her songs that now outsells albums at her merch table) only really helped up to a point in the pandemic. Manning still went on CERB for a couple of months – and ultimately moved out of the house she owns in Stratford and started renting it out.

“I have wonderful tenants in there and I just grabbed a bachelor apartment downtown – and that’s how I made a huge shift to survive financially as well,” she says.

Manning is unmarried, a fact she offers up in order to note that she had no other income to fall back on. Her deep commitment to Stratford has helped, however. (You can see her love for the city in her video for You You You, shot in the new Tom Patterson Theatre and featuring cameos by locals such as musician Loreena McKennitt, actor Colm Feore and former CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge.)

“I just feel really supported by my community and if I didn’t make the investments in my community prior to the pandemic, I wouldn’t have survived the pandemic,” she says.

“Although I can’t say I survived the pandemic ‘cause I just don’t think it’s over – and I also don’t think I’ve hit the hardest time.”

Manning radiates country confidence, wears long flowing summer dresses and pens lyrics explicitly about the freedom to be found in kindness, but there’s also an underlying strain of melancholy to her music and stories.

At the Stratford Perth Museum concert, she played a song with an anxious, repeating guitar line, King Of The Background, about Richard Manuel, a Stratfordian who was member of a very famous band called The Band, and took his own life in 1986 just a few hours after a gig.

Manning said by way of introduction: “It’s a struggle to be an artist.” Then she sang and her voice carried its way all the way across acres of fields and parking lots and into the city.

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