Stratford sketch: this cultural city is also home to digital arts – but not enough homes

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were around 120 beds available for Stratford school students in the community, but now there are only around 60.


The Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business is the best place in Stratford, Ontario. to get a bird’s eye view of the small town that exceeds its weight as a cultural destination.

This University of Waterloo satellite campus is mostly housed in a building that resembles an alien observation ship that landed right in the city center. Its north-facing wall is a giant window pane and from the third floor you can watch the comings and goings throughout the city center.

Normally, passers-by can also look into the building which opened in 2012 and see a hustle and bustle of activity, but that hasn’t been the case since its classes were moved away in March 2020.

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That will start to change next week with many more universities across Canada as new term begins.

But just as the Stratford Festival reopened to a smaller audience at the start of the summer, the Stratford School will first reopen with just 30 percent of the courses in its popular undergraduate program in Global Business and Digital Arts. coming back to form in person.

Many of the program’s 712 students simply cannot come to campus yet, especially international students who have been drawn to the interdisciplinary program.

There are visa delays or vaccination issues preventing enrollment students from India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, and Taiwan – so mandatory courses remain online this fall.

On Tuesday, Christine McWebb, principal of Stratford School, was showing me around campus, talking about the imminent return of some face-to-face classes, when she met Raymond Drainville, professor of digital media and visual culture, whom she had herself- Even haven’t met in the flesh for over a year.

“Can I give you a hug?” Drainville said, dropping off bags of snacks (celebration cookies, mixed nuts) he had bought for the hungry students he would soon be teaching in person.

How much interaction is too much now? The open-plan Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business building was designed to naturally facilitate those occasional hang-ups that could potentially lead to a creative collaboration – but now run into all the stickers on the floor that advise people to stay separate. and make stairs and hallways one-way. (Drainville and McWebb nevertheless shared a quick masked embrace.)

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You might think that a physical venue for the study of digital arts was always going to play with the paradox, but the Stratford School curriculum that teaches coding and business skills alongside creativity is generally very hands-on.

There’s a tech library on campus with a laser cutter and 3D printer and all kinds of cutting-edge gadgets that students can borrow to work on independent courses or projects.

To truly study player play, you need to do more than log into a Twitch stream; at Stratford school there is a play lab equipped with a one-way mirror for researchers to watch couch potatoes play Call of Duty while they are linked to sensors that monitor perspiration and heart rate.

“Obviously, we did [remote learning] now for over a year and a half so it can be done, but we think the real learning is happening on campus, ”McWebb said.

“This program is extremely collaborative and interdisciplinary, so the students learn as much from each other as they learn from us now.”

Just as the pandemic has shown that theater companies can produce digital offerings – see Stratfest @ Home streaming service from the Stratford Festival – it reminded us that business and the digital arts can benefit from human contact. in person.

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The technology exists in the real world, after all, and interacts with physical bodies, as Stratford School researchers know. Lennart Nacke, one of its star teachers, recently received a grant of $ 350,000 to work on exercise games for geriatric populations, for example – one of the school’s many projects focused on ” gamification ”for the good of society.

The biggest problem the Stratford School faces is, indeed, the physical space in Stratford. Before the pandemic, there were around 120 beds available for school students in the community, and now there are only around 60, McWebb says. Landlords have sold rental properties to people who have moved out of the Greater Toronto Area in search of affordable homes, or have directed them towards long-term rentals for professionals.

I started renting a house here in Stratford in July so I could watch the Stratford Festival and the restaurants and shops in the city emerge from the pandemic crisis – although the Delta variant certainly made that more hesitant than triumphant .

But what I’ve learned is that the cultural and hospitality industries have adapted and resilient to COVID-19 – and housing shortages are their long-term problem.

Restaurants and hotels need places where workers can live; the Stratford Festival needs to house artists, and artists of all stripes want to be able to afford property in the city; and who will volunteer if the city becomes a less attractive place for retirees?

Housing appears to be the most pressing issue facing all sectors today in Stratford, as in so many places in Ontario and across the country.

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John C. Dent

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