Next time you hear someone complain about fat cats in the arts living high off the government hog, consider Myriam Steinberg. Ms. Steinberg's full-time occupation – for which she is barely compensated – is running a remarkable little festival called In the House, which you will find in 13 homes in a pocket of the Commercial Drive neighbourhood this weekend.
The performances – 20 over three days – are literally in houses (or yards), including Ms. Steinberg's not-exactly-spacious bungalow. With shows ranging from puppetry to music to burlesque, it is an innovative, exciting and highly intimate cultural experience.
"It's amazing," says Ms. Steinberg, 39. "You're up close and personal with the person beside you, and with a performer."
Ms. Steinberg is the force behind the festival, which is marking its 10th anniversary. Having run it (and related events throughout the year) for most of its history, she has made it happen with dedication, determination – and on a shoestring.
The idea began in 2003 with Daniel Maté, a singer-songwriter now living in New York.
"The initial vision we had was of capitalizing on Vancouver's slightly quirky sensibility, and people's love of staying home … ," Mr. Maté recalls. "I wanted to do something for Vancouver that maximizes on its strength and gives it a delightful new experience of the arts. And it didn't take any convincing. People were just like, 'Yup, let's do it.'"
One of those people was Ms. Steinberg, who was then focusing on visual arts. An old school friend of Mr. Maté's, she agreed to help out after he approached her with the idea.
"It was one of the most inspiring things I'd ever done. All of a sudden I was face to face with all these performers, this whole new world I didn't know existed. … And there was that sense of community and that sense of exploring the arts that I had never encountered," Ms. Steinberg says.
The organizers were amazed to see packed houses and thrilling performances.
"The whole experience just very eloquently and simply put the lie to the complaint which I myself had spouted and I still find myself falling into, the stereotype of 'Vancouver's sort of a cultural dead zone,'" Mr. Maté says. "What's wonderful about Vancouver's people, its artists, its point of view, its sensibility, I think really comes to life in that festival ... and it has something to do with breaking down traditional walls between private and public, between music and theatre and dance and puppetry."
The festival went on hiatus in 2004. In 2005, with Mr. Maté's blessing, Ms. Steinberg brought it back.
In her quest for neighbourhood homes, she has approached residents after real estate open houses or garage sales. Among the performers is a guitar player she heard singing in a neighbouring yard.
Mr. Maté (this year's recipient of the $100,000 U.S. Kleban Prize for most promising musical theatre lyricist) has both performed and opened up his home for the festival. He describes the experience as a sort of communion between the performer and audience that transforms the room from a mundane space to something sacred.
"We're used to being on big stages with lots of people in the audience, ranging from 200 to 2,000 people, so being in a living room where there's only 70 or 100 people is super intimate," says Laura Albert, part of the fusion belly dance and circus performance troupe Luciterra, a feature of the festival for several years. "You can connect with each member of the audience individually throughout the span of the performance. And people feel like they get to know you, which is something you don't get in a larger space."
In an animated conversation about the festival, Ms. Albert mentioned Ms. Steinberg's dedication repeatedly, marvelling at the doors she has opened for both emerging and established artists – and at the creativity she has employed to put on the beloved festival with so little cash.
Ms. Steinberg figures her budget this year amounts to about $30,000 in money paid – which increases to about $250,000 when in-kind support, including her own labour, is included.
For the first seven years, Ms. Steinberg says she was lucky to take home $3,000 or $4,000 for the entire year. Now, with government funds, some corporate sponsorships and a handful of private donors – including her parents – as well as the odd private gig at a wedding or other event, she is able to pay herself about $1,200 a month.
"I live frugally," she says. "I don't buy clothes, I don't drink, I don't smoke. I spend my money on rent and food and gas."
The priorities are paying her performers and keeping ticket prices low – and making the festival accessible in every way.
"I really want to break those stupid walls of entering somebody's house for a cultural reason, and breaking the stereotypes of various neighbourhoods. Like, how many people who live on the west side will never go past Cambie? [They think] Commercial Drive is full of druggies and crazy people. And then they get here and they're like: 'Oh my God, these are really beautiful houses.'"