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Artists in the Park - Permits and other issues

29-May-2010 by Belinda Cole [80]

• 1) Hindrances and benefits from the City's 2006 centralized permit policy, 2)city staff relationships/partnerships with performers vs."policing" approach 3) some possibilities of "ungoverned" spaces

In September 2008, CELOS met with 9 people who perform in parks and public spaces to discuss the ways in which laws and policies positively and/or adversely affect the artists' ability to perform in parks.

The performers included: dancers, actors and actresses, theatre directors and co-directors, and puppet makers and performers.

The stories the performers told raised a number of issues, themes and questions noted below.


All of the performers talked about how helpful city staff have worked together with them to facilitate their performances in parks and public spaces.

One director of an outdoor theatre festival in an Ontario town talked about how a local town councilor stepped in to help the festival get up and running. The director had surveyed the park for a good place for the fire throwers in the performance. He was concerned about the potential that some dead branches of a tree might catch on fire. There was no policy about this - the councillor came with his truck and saws and worked with the performers to saw off the vulnerable branches.

The artists also talked about a number of difficulties they had experienced with city staff and parks supervisors who focus on unnecessary and sometimes seemingly arbitrary rules or requirements.

One theatre group was accused of "erecting illegal structures" and was obliged to have a stakeout done (a stakeout is done to prevent the piercing of pipes, etc. underground) in order to place some pieces of fabric on sticks less than 6" into the turf.

Another performer talked about very popular children's programming that has been needed and well-supported by the community for over 20 years in Trinity Bellwoods Parks. However, the city bureaucracy fluctuates in its support, sending a mixed message; for example, the program needs the same basic materials and supplies, location, etc. as it has for the past 20 years. Sometimes the parks staff work very cooperatively with the people who work in the program setting up and providing the necessary equipment. But, other times, city staff approaches the program with almost a "cult of safety", and an emphasis, not just on managing the public space, but on governing the people within the parks.

Or, funding is granted by one arm by the city to put on a theatre or arts project in local parks, yet another arm of the city obstructs/prevents it, by imposing new rules, or refusing or obstructing the city support needed to make the event happen.


Central planning/permitting

Sometimes, the effect of central planning/permitting imposes a view of a neighbourhood park as "terra nullis" - a type of empty "no man's land" onto which the city bureaucracy superimposes plans, policies, procedures and rules. For example, three long-time performers in parks talked about how a central permitting system cannot take account of long-time connections between the performers and the local parks in which they have performed.

The performers talked about numerous experiences they had trying to work within the City of Toronto Parks Department central permitting system.

The discussion raised a number of underlying questions about the permit system, including the following:

Is central permitting an effective or desirable tool for some situations/parks? If so, which ones? Why?

The performers talked about how every neighbourhood park they work in is different and the performers had a range of different experiences working in different parks across the city. For example, Dufferin Grove Park has involved, knowledgeable staff that know what is going on in the park and are well equipped to handle most permit requests. This is not the case in some other parks. For example, parks with a volunteer board often do not have the capacity to manage permit requests within a park.

Centrally permitted activities may conflict with neighbours' enjoyment of their parks and with locally planned activities

One performer observed that the Dufferin Grove Park staff frequently either doesn't get told by central permitting office what is going on in the park, or they are told the day the event is happening.

Another artist talked about a similar difficulty encountered by some "friends of parks" groups. One of these is an ad hoc group which oversee events in the park. The group is sometimes surprised to learn that significant events are being held in their park, for example a huge basketball tournament.

Central permitting is often cumbersome and time-consuming

One performer stated that, whenever possible, he avoids getting permits to avoid the problems other performers talked about. He said that he doesn't have time for all of the bureaucracy involved - he feels that he and the rest of the community know what he's doing and support his performances, so that permits are often beside the point.

He feels there needs to be a shift in the City of Toronto culture to make parks better by asking artists the question "how can we help you here?"

Another performer talked about how Dufferin Grove Park recreation staff used to do a lot of partnership recreation/community permitting - a simple, direct way of overseeing activities in the park. The performer also had this type of permit in other communities, e.g. Jane and Finch where a theatre company partnered with the recreation staff there to hold an outdoor theatre festival. Through community permitting, she has made connections with various recreation supervisors in the city who are knowledgeable about the park they work in. She noted, however, that in recent years this type of simple permitting has become increasingly difficult and bureaucratic for staff and park neighbours. [Note: this is an explicit aim of the 2006 permit policy - all existing, neighbourhood approaches to park permits and existing relationships between people and local parks has been abandoned in favour of abstract ideas of "equity, fairness, diversity, etc."

She noted that the result of central permitting trends - in the name of a formal notion of "equity" - is that it is becoming tougher for strange or diverse things outside the box to work in parks.

She stated that Dufferin Grove Park staff have been asking the city supervisors for the definition of "partnership" - behind partnership recreation/community permitting - in which on-site, knowledgeable recreation staff vouch for community members. Before, when more reliance was placed on the competence and discretion of parks staff familiar with the community, it was easier for community members to book park space; as the emphasis on formal guidelines and bureaucratic practices has increased, it is more difficult to get permits in a timely, simple way that facilitates the broadest, most diverse use possible of public space.

The costs of central permitting

One artist told the story that at a moment in time, "out of the blue", his small theatre group was told it must have a permit for a park event that had been held annually for many years.

Along with the permit requirement came a claim for huge insurance costs - one year he received a bill for $ 2400 in insurance - a staggering amount for a small theatre company. He went to his local councillor about this bill and resolved the issue. However, the performer emphasized that these performances are not a "pasttime" that the performers engage in; they are important work in the community and parks, and people should not be spending time and money that is not directed to their performances.

He stated that, as a result of the increasing bureaucracy, he has turned into a "bull" and goes "to the top" when he encounters a problem with the bureaucracy.

Another performer added that with the City of Toronto's move to a central permitting policy and practice, her permits, formerly free, are now very costly for her small company.

Sports activities given priority over dance festivals

When she applied for a permit for her dance festival, one performer found that sports activities were given priority over her outdoor dance festivals, even though the dance festivals have been performed for 12 years and are very popular and well attended by park goers.

Double booking of permits

In addition, the central permit office has double booked her performances with another theatre group. This happened, although she was informed by the permit office that double booking was not possible with the new system.

Conversely, the central permitting system cannot respond to the flexibility of holding 2 events in a park on the same day (Cooking Fire and Day of Delight), even when the performers from the two groups agree there is no conflict at all.

Benefits of permits

Another performer talked about some of the important purposes benefits that permitting serves for her and her community. For example, permits can serve to regulate the noise after 11 pm, as well as the garbage.

She added that she has been glad to have a permit for her events. If, when she arrives in the park and someone is using the space her group intended to use, then having a permit to show people is very helpful.

Permit requirements can dampen the ability to create theatre in the park

The director of an annual outdoor theatre festival talked about how different actors and troupes are invited to choose the spots in the park that best fit their play. However, staff have been told that they must specfy (6 weeks before the festival) the exact spots and times in the park that the group will be using. In order to leave the actors the flexibility they need, one artist circled all of the unpermitted sites in the park.

One of artists described her experiences with a parks supervisor who involves himself in the permitting, although it is unclear whether or not he has any permit-related responsibility. She wondered aloud about the legal ambit of the supervisor's job and authority.


One actor talked about several interesting things have happened in the areas between or outside the "governed" space. One community wanted to do something interesting for kids in the summer and asked the theatre performers, who had worked with the kids in a drop-in program, to run a summer program.

The performers wanted to do a project in a space that people walked through, and the theatre group tried for three months to find out who "owned" this piece of land. As it wasn't clear, they went ahead and held a very successful project.

Another actor talked about a similar experience on “non-governed land” - of performing and holding a cooking fire on a small piece of land. When the area supervisor became aware of it, she gave her blessing for the fire.


A few stories about arts and theatre in the parks in the past

One performer talked about his beginnings as a street theatre performer in the mid 1960's. His small troupe's objective was to play on the streets. In Yorkville at the time, merchants did not want vendors and street performers. The performer became something of a cause celebre in his efforts to "pass the hat" at the end of his performances. It was not clear to him whether or not it was illegal to pass the hat.

He went to city council and told them that he was being prevented from playing on the streets. He spoke before the parks committee and got a yearly permit to perform. He continued to go to council most years until 1978 when council issued a special permit for the theatre company he was involved with to perform and pass the hat. At that time, he said, there were no theatrical performances in parks.

See also:
Parks and Rec and their NO's

Attachments to document: Artists in the Park - Permits and other issues