25th Trillium Award

Get to Know Literary Ontario, with Gayle Dempsey of Muskoka Chautauqua

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Muskoka Chautauqua

By Erin Knight

The wordsmiths and booklovers of Muskoka have always taken their reading and writing seriously. As early as the 1920s and 30s, this beautiful region of cottage country was known as "Canada's Summer Literary Capital." Some of Canada's best known writers — Bliss Carmen, Dorothy Livesay, Charles G.D. Roberts, E.J. Pratt — visited Tobin Island on Lake Muskoka to speak and share their work at summer-long "Chautauquas."

Much has changed for Muskoka in the intervening 80 years, but a love of reading and a commitment to community has persisted. Today, Muskoka is home to the vibrant arts and learning association Muskoka Chautauqua, based in Port Carling. The organization took the name "Chautauqua" in celebration of the region's strong literary heritage.

"Muskoka Chautauqua is a vibrant cultural hub where people gather to engage in the arts, lifelong learning, reflection and conversation," explains Gayle Dempsey, director of development, aboriginal and arts education at Muskoka Chautauqua. "We hold literary events, author?s talks and lectures as well as concerts and performances, arts in education programs, art exhibitions, demonstrations and workshops, culinary celebrations, summer arts camps and children?s festivals."

One of the ways that the organization fosters a love of literature is through the Muskoka Chautauqua Reading Circle. The Reading Circle acts as a community-wide book club by releasing an annual reading list that becomes the focal point of their Signature Event festival held each June. It's a fabulous idea, although the current organizers can't take full credit — even the Reading Circle has its roots way back in the 1920s, with what could be considered an early prototype for today's CBC Canada Reads.

"It was originally established in 1922 in an effort to raise the profile of Canadian authors, who didn?t enjoy the celebrity common to American and British authors of the time. Each year, a list of suggested reading was supplied to its members and lectures and readings were given in the summer that complemented the reading list," says Gayle. "The first Reading List of the revived Muskoka Chautauqua was published in June 2010, exactly 80 years after the last original Muskoka Chautauqua Reading List."

The theme for the 2013 Reading List and Signature Event is "Humour, Health and Happiness." While the organizers sometimes appeal to the public for suggestions for the Reading Circle's longlist, this year they are trying something new. They've been approaching local literary luminaries for their suggestions, and the resulting list is sure to be a hit. From this longlist the committee will build their program for the 2013 Signature Event, which will take place the first weekend of June and is open to the public. The new Reading List is due to be launched this month, so be sure to check the website for details.

Because participants will have had a chance to read many of the books ahead of time, the June festival is an especially lively one. "The Signature Event is extremely exciting, whether you?re a literary buff, music lover or just enjoy good conversation," says Gayle. "The event takes place over three days and includes talks and interviews with authors featured on the Reading List as well as local authors, musical and dramatic performances, poetry readings, features and presentations from young people who take part in our arts in education programs, as well as some great food. This year, with the theme of humour, health and happiness, the event will also include some comedy!"

Muskoka Chautauqua is pleased to welcome Steve Paikin of TVO?s The Agenda as host of the weekend for the third year in a row. The events will take place in the historical lakeside village of Port Carling, a first for the town. Gayle and her collaborators are currently hard at work planning the schedule for the weekend and inviting the authors and entertainers who will bring their energy and expertise to the 2013 Signature Event.

There's a lot for Muskoka's bookworms to be excited about these days, though Gayle acknowledges that times are difficult for bookstores, especially in a smaller community. While some of Muskoka's independent bookstores have had to close their doors in recent years, Gayle is encouraged by the active network of libraries and by the keen interest of book-loving residents, not to mention the support of many local establishments. Museums, cafes and gift shops have taken up the cause of local authors, celebrating their work and inviting them to speak at events throughout the year.

A cultural engine like Muskoka Chautauqua doesn't run itself, but Gayle is energized by the thriving literary community that surrounds her. "This area has been fortunate to host some of Canada?s greatest literary talent from the early days of Muskoka Chautauqua until today. I feel so fortunate to be able to live and work in a setting that is both breathtakingly stunning and at the same time so culturally vibrant."

Gayle Dempsey is director of development, aboriginal and arts education at Muskoka Chautauqua. She is a fourth-generation Muskokan and feels a deep connection to the spirit of the land, the lakes, the natural beauty and the peace that is Muskoka. She believes that arts and culture are very significant factors in quality of life and play a key role in defining who we are as individuals, communities and as a society. She is committed to reclaiming and promoting Muskoka?s rich culture and heritage both locally and globally with a view to facilitating international cultural exchanges.

For more information about Muskoka Chautauqua please visit the Muskoka Chautauqua Literary Landmark and the Muskoka Chautauqua website.

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