“Oh look, we can PARTICIPATE”, exclaimed a young mom to her partner and children as they arrived at the launch point of Clay and Paper’s annual “Night of Dread” event that began and ended at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto. Volunteers helped the family outfit themselves with masks from the theatre’s assembled accessories available for sign out. Participation proved to be but one of the extraordinary components of this community arts event.

Halloween has always seemed to me a bit of a difficult holiday in modern times. Most of us no longer believe in ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. We feel guilty as parents about scaring our kids with superstition. Besides, aren’t there enough horrors in the world? When we think “okay, let’s dress up in more fanciful, happy clothes” we run into another set of dilemmas.

“A fairy princess?”

“No, no, too sexist! Gender stereo-typing, that will never do!”

“A belly-dancer? An Indian brave?”

“No, no! Cultural appropriation! What will the neighbours think!”

And what about the whole thing of “trick or treating”? In a time when so many children are overweight, we know the dangers of high carbohydrate loads on the whole system, not to mention tooth decay, do we want our kids super sugar-loaded. We fear for their safety on dark streets at night. It’s just hard to celebrate the tradition anymore.

How do we update this late autumn holiday in a way that is meaningful to modern times without causing the wincing feeling that we are going against our core values or exposing our children to harms of various sorts? Clay and Paper Theatre has crafted an annual event that keeps the core components of Halloween, while avoiding all of the baggage. Their creativity has resulted in a new celebration in harmony with the season and our actual lives.

Halloween is a festival for a time when the days are becoming darker and primitive people might have worried that the sun was dying. It is a time of fears and shadows. Some of the oldest civilizations had traditions of building fires on hillsides to feed the sun and wearing disguises to fool malevolent spirits.

In our modern world there are shadows of fears that haunt all of us in our dark moments. Near the gardens in Dufferin Grove Park, Clay and Paper Theatre had set up a garden of fears. Economically (and humorously) using pizza boxes on sticks, they had emblazoned the boxes with modern fears: nuclear annihilation, global warming, bio-hazards, isolation, losing a home, bankruptcy, financial ruin, war… and so on. What a fantastic opportunity for family dialogue as people moved about the garden of fears and chose which fear to pluck from the garden and carry in the parade as representative of that individuals worst fear this year.

Masks were black and white papier mache creations that, to me, symbolized the dark and light in all of us, in the changing seasons and our world. Walking about among us as we selected our fears to carry and our black & white masks to wear (if we chose to wear a mask) were a collection of giant puppets representing some of our fears. I was struck in the gut by the representation of pollution. She was a giant blue puppet with a serenely beautiful appearing face and flowing blue silken fabric, horrendously littered with bits of plastic garbage bags and excretions of fast food containers, drink cups, plastic water bottles and straws. Some of the huge puppets were a bit more mysterious and we didn’t quite know what they were representing until the end of the event.

A bugle call and drum roll signaled the assembly of the march and about 1,000 people or more set out following as we paraded our fears through the streets of Toronto. It was interesting to watch the faces of the people who came out of houses and stores to watch the passing march. Some were delighted and seemed to know what to expect. Others were extremely puzzled, even a little worried. It was a long enough route that children were wanting to be carried by the end of the journey so families with young kids are advised that a stroller or wagon will likely be required at some point in the trek.

Back at the Dufferin Grove Park we walked along a path of shrines. This lacked any explanation but it seemed to me that they were shrines erected to things lost in the past, a loved pet, a farm. Made from the simplest of materials they were reminiscent of Day of the Dead shrines built on grave sites.

We walked towards a bonfire in the middle of a circle of people. Here the fears we had carried through the dark night streets were burnt in a warming sacrificial fire. The crowd cheered the burning of the fears. The giant puppets representing major fears like “Corruption & Greed” “Nuclear Annihilation” were introduced as they did their final macabre dance around the fire. With a fanfare of humorously discordant circus music, the “Fear of the Year” was introduced. In this year’s case that was “The fear of selfish leadership” represented here in Toronto appropriately by a giant gravy boat. The artistic reference was to our hapless Mayor Ford who promised to save billions from the city budget by cutting the “gravy” and then his hired consultants couldn’t find any such gravy. His attempts to instead define libraries and culture as gravy have met strong citizen opposition. The gravy boat was taken on a last lurching voyage. The responsive creativity of the team at Clay and Paper Theatre added a last minute touch drawn from the latest headlines as a Margaret Delahunty lookalike pursued the gravy boat on it’s final voyage to the fire. A great cheer rose up from the crowd as the final great fear went up in a tower of flame.

Death dancers waltzed around the bonfire as our fears burned. Only the fear of death which can never totally leave us remained alive. The figures of death beckoned to the crowd to come and dance with death. The message to my understanding was that only when we learn to dance with death are we truly alive. The circle of dark and light, yin and yang came into focus in this conclusion, sombre, meditative and graceful. Then exploded into light with fire twirlers and jugglers harking back to a primitive time where warmth and light drove away the terrors of winter and darkness.

What a wonderful achievement and gift to the people of Toronto. My one and only suggestion to the creative team is that they lost people at the conclusion due to the length of the march. It was a very cold night, so that was also a factor. Some great entertainment was available at the end and I would have liked to stay and dance but like many others I was freezing and very tired so we packed up at the conclusion of the fire twirlers.

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers

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