How these rising Toronto artists pivoted to make lockdown work for them
A year of lost gigs, changes and unexpected new opportunities
In Toronto, with the second wave in full force, residents are bracing for an isolating winter indoors. As stay-at-home orders persist, the usually bustling city has been quiet, with many of us about to enter our tenth month of working from home.
But some jobs are easier to do from home than others. For many creatives who work with the public, these changes have posed a new challenge. With the latest lockdowns and creative spaces like music venues, theatres, clubs and studios closed for the foreseeable future, how can artists keep up with their craft?
Creatives have had to employ resilience and ingenuity to rethink their approaches, and some have even ended up discovering new connections with their art that they might not have found otherwise. We spoke with three rising Toronto artists about how they've pivoted to make restrictions work for them: DJ Ace Dillinger, photographer Alyson Hardwick and comedian Brandon Ash-Mohammed.
Ace Dillinger, DJ
2020 was off to a great start for DJ Ace Dillinger.
She had gigs booked in Europe for the first time in her five-year career and planned to tour extensively in the U.S. One of the shows she was most excited for was an afterparty for Afropunk in Brooklyn, an annual arts festival for live music, film, fashion and art produced by Black artists which she has attended herself in the past. Dillinger also had big plans for Strapped.TO, a Toronto-based monthly BIPOC and queer-focused dance party. As their resident DJ, she and the event's founder, Marisa Grant, were going to team up with different collectives around the U.S. to put on local editions of the party.
Having finally saved up enough money to travel, Dillinger remembers thinking, "This is gonna be the best year ever."
And then in March, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, shutting down all non-essential businesses and services, including the bars and clubs where Dillinger used to perform. Travelling abroad was out of the question, too. At the time, there was hope this arrangement would be temporary — a few weeks, perhaps. But those venues ended up being closed for the majority of the year.
DJing in a club is all about people gathering in a crowd to dance — something that's impossible in the era of COVID. "It was like swallowing an elephant," she says.
After coming to terms with the fact that nothing would be reopening anytime soon, Dillinger pivoted to virtual performances. Strapped.TO moved its party online using Zoom, and in the summer, they were even able to host an outdoor, socially distanced dance party in celebration of their one-year anniversary. But now that the cold weather and heightened restrictions are forcing everyone back inside, online DJing is really the only option.
While Dillinger loves to DJ no matter what, there's nothing quite like the actual dance floor. "Real-life parties are not something you can replicate," she says. "It doesn't have the same vibe at all — no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try."
There are also a lot of things about DJing in front of a screen that have taken Dillinger some time to get used to. Without the energy of a crowd, it just doesn't feel the same. And closing a laptop at the end of a set, rather than socializing and continuing on with the night, can be depressing. On top of that, performing on Zoom puts all the spotlight on the DJ — something Dillinger is not used to. "I don't really like to be the centre of attention," she says. "I just like to play the music."
But since the Toronto party scene won't be going back to "normal" in the near future, the show must go on. People still need a way to let loose and socialize during these strange times — so with this in mind, Dillinger and Grant started rethinking the concept of the party, wondering how to make it more engaging and not just another event for people to "sign in to" after a long day of working remotely.
On Halloween this year, they launched the first adaptation of their party: The Strap House. In collaboration with Maggie's Toronto, an organization by and for sex workers, The Strap House is a monthly virtual strip club that celebrates Black and queer folks in the industry. The night features various different forms of entertainment instead of just DJing, making it more engaging for both Dillinger and the other people who attend.
"You can be at the strip club in the comfort of your own home, still listen to great music, still connect with people," she says. "There's an entertainment aspect where you're actually being visually stimulated, as opposed to just listening to music. I think that has helped."
Heading into 2021, Dillinger is taking things step by step. "I think this year taught me that nothing is certain, literally nothing," says Dillinger. She's currently looking forward to a virtual New Year's Eve party with The Strap House, and continuing to make R&B mixes for her weekly radio show Dilly's Dose on ISO Radio.
Alyson Hardwick, photographer
Freelance photographer Alyson Hardwick grew up in Labrador, the U.K. and then Nova Scotia before moving to Toronto about five years ago in pursuit of her craft. Clients use words like "natural" and "genuine" to describe her work — something she identifies strongly with. "I think that's what I try to do: try to create a photograph that feels very genuine and not forced," she says.
Connecting with people prior to the shoot is important for her to achieve this. At the beginning of the year, Hardwick was freelancing and nannying to help pay the bills. Feeling overwhelmed by pressure within the creative community, she wasn't photographing as much as she had in years past. But when Toronto locked down, both streams of income were cut entirely.
With both an eight-day shoot and a summer wedding in Nova Scotia cancelled, the photo work she had lined up was completely halted. "Those were bummers," she says.
Although she was eventually able to set up some photoshoots by social distancing and wearing a mask, she hasn't made it a habit due to the potential risks involved. But this unexpected time off has given her some much-needed rest.
"I feel like I'm not allowed to say this as an artist, but I was so lazy for the last seven months," she laughs. "I didn't have that overwhelming feeling to hustle."
Hardwick ended up discovering new opportunities working as an executive assistant with the Inuit Art Foundation in October. In this position, she's been inspired to see all of the hard work and dedication toward uplifting Inuk voices. This opportunity is not likely something she would have pursued otherwise, she says, thinking she would always need to have a part-time job and freelance on the side. Hardwick has been pleasantly surprised by the change of pace, and says it's connected her to cultural roots.
"I get to focus more on my history, and knowing more about Labrador and other Inuk artists," she says. "It's very special, and it's very fulfilling."
This time has also given Hardwick a chance to slow down and focus on some unpublished projects by photographing her partner and taking self-portraits in a "more tender and personal way." A practice she's had since her teen years, self-portraiture gives Hardwick both an outlet to flex her creative muscles and a way to boost her confidence on low days. Spending time on this has connected her back to photography as more of a personal passion than a means of income. And business or not, Hardwick knows she will always take photos.
"It feels really good to take beautiful photos," she says. "It just fulfills me."
Brandon Ash-Mohammed, comedian and writer
Brandon Ash-Mohammed had his career take off in 2020 — from his bedroom.
Just before the pandemic hit, Ash-Mohammed had been experiencing some health issues which stopped him from working and travelling as he normally would. With his career momentarily on pause, the stay-at-home orders came as a blessing; instead of feeling like he was missing opportunities to keep grinding, he was able to focus on recuperating.
Once he was feeling better, the work began. After 10 years making people laugh in bars and clubs, he knew he would need to pivot his career substantially — but lucky for him, those changes worked in his favour.
In June, Ash-Mohammed released his debut comedy album, Capricornication, from the comfort of his home. The first comedy album ever released by a gay Black Canadian, it debuted at number one on the country's comedy charts and struck up conversations about the lack of diversity in the industry. The praise and publicity earned by Capricornication allowed Ash-Mohammad to raise over $4000 for BLM Toronto, Soy Toronto, and 2-Spirits in the first month of sales.
"[Lockdown] allowed me time to kind of rest and restore my energy, but it also allowed me to release my album in a way that was more comfortable for me," he says. "Since then I've been asked to be on all of these shows on Zoom; I've been asked to host the first virtual Toronto Pride; I was writing on This Hour Has 22 Minutes."
"I've just been challenging myself and trying to take myself to places where I never thought I would go, or would have been too scared to go."
Thanks to <a href="https://twitter.com/BrandonAMcomedy?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BrandonAMcomedy</a> for bringing the laughs! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CGLCCShowGoesOn?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#CGLCCShowGoesOn</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LGBT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LGBT</a> <a href="https://t.co/URPGnkNTGH">pic.twitter.com/URPGnkNTGH</a>—@theCGLCC
Before working from home was the daily norm, Ash-Mohammed spent much of his time travelling to gigs. But with his schedule freed up from most travel, he has more time and creative energy for additional projects and shows.
Of course, doing comedy online has its own challenges. Without being able to hear an audience's reaction, it's hard to test new material. "It's weird because you literally have no idea how you're doing," he says. And, due to COVID restrictions, he can't go into The Theatre Centre — a live arts hub and incubator on Queen Street West where he's currently an artist-in-residence — to work in-person on his project, a rap musical about his life and career.
But with the normalcy of day-to-day stand-up comedy on hold, Ash-Mohammed's inspiration has run free. He's also used his quarantine time to launch his new podcast Sittin' Up In Our Room, where he and co-host Andrew Johnston tackle subjects ranging from pop culture to immigration. In addition, Ash-Mohammed is working on The Untitled Black Sketch Project, Canada's first all-Black sketch collective. The project team is collaborating with Toronto Sketchfest to put together a show in "whatever format is possible in February."
"We all have to adapt in some way, and I'm not just gonna let myself rot away because it's not the exact way I want to do it. I'd rather grow and learn how to do these kinds of things," he says.
While challenging, it's been a year of self discovery and professional development too. Next year, 2020 will be something pivotal to look back on.
"It's going to be a fun story one day," he says. "That's how I look at it."