Every year in the middle of Vancouver's rainy winter dreariness, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival offers at least the promise of avant-garde heat.
This year the festival marks 10 years in the cultural envelope-pushing business, with a CV that boasts immense growth, international interest and a record of premiering and presenting ground-breaking and widely resonating works. Its impact on the local performance scene has been substantial. So much of the theatre being made here is exciting, with a provocative, curious aesthetic – and for that, PuSh can share in the bows.
Now, at 10, it's taking stock – and making plans for further evolution.
PuSh began in 2003 as a performance series of three new works over three months – a co-venture of Katrina Dunn's Touchstone Theatre and Rumble Productions, where the festival's current visionary artistic and executive director Norman Armour was artistic producer. They sensed a need for a cutting-edge winter festival that demonstrated a disregard for disciplines, but they weren't quite ready to call it a festival.
"It was such an easy sell in that so many people sensed the need for it," says Dunn, who is still with Touchstone. "But we were a little afraid of the f-word, getting too big too early."
It returned as a series, with some changes, in 2004, and in 2005 PuSh embraced the f-word, officially becoming a festival, presenting five main shows and an industry conference component that would become the PuSh Assembly, on a budget of about $400,000 in a one-person office (Minna Schendlinger, the festival's managing director, who will step down in June).
Now with a budget of $1.8-million, this year's festival boasts 20 mainstage shows, as well as the edgy music element Club PuSh, a film series and a comprehensive PuSh Assembly. More than 25,000 people attend the three-week festival, according to PuSh, which now has eight year-round staff members. At the same time, the community-run PushOFF, a separate community-produced showcase of tour-ready B.C. and Canadian works for presenters, coincides with the festival.
But the real story, of course, is the artistic one. PuSh has helped shape, encourage and evolve the local performance scene – in particular the independent community. "[We have] been highly influenced by those conversations with artists from elsewhere and the kind of work that we're exposed to," says Marcus Youssef, whose Neworld Theatre has had several shows at PuSh.
Celebrated works have been born here, such as the Electric Company's acclaimed Studies in Motion, which was at PuSh in 2006 and has since been staged across the country. Bill Richardson's and Veda Hille's Do You Want What I Have Got?: A Craigslist Cantata began as a 20-minute song cycle at Club PuSh in 2009 and evolved into a hit musical that premiered at PuSh in 2012 and has since been performed in Toronto and beyond. PuSh commissions work from international companies as well, such as Rimini Protokoll's Best Before, – where each member of the audience participated in a group video game – which went on to Seattle, Toronto (at Luminato), Berlin, London, Paris and elsewhere.
Even shows that were not specifically created for or commissioned by PuSh owe much to it. Take Winners and Losers, a hit at PuSh last year that has since travelled across Canada and to Europe. This intense work – that involves Youssef and fellow Vancouver indie-theatre stalwart James Long evaluating whether things, people, places are winners or losers (a debate which ultimately gets very personal) – was created with strong PuSh influences.
The festival's emphasis on international and national work has at times ruffled some local dramatic feathers. PuSh in some years has achieved a one-third local, one-third national, one-third international program – but has never consciously aimed at any ratio. This year's mainstage festival is dominated by national and international productions, rather than local offerings. It's no Luminato in this regard, but some locals have bristled at the beyond-Vancouver focus at times.
There have been programming disappointments along the way, too – performances that saw multiple walk-outs (such as Marie Brassard's The Invisible in 2009), or attracted too-small crowds (such as Bang on a Can All-Stars that same year, which didn't even come close to half-filling the Chan Centre).
Fund-raising also remains an issue,and Armour is intent on increasing investment from the corporate sector. "Philanthropy for the more avant-garde work in town … is really still very nascent right now," he says. Currently about one-third of the festival's $1.8-million budget comes from private and corporate donations and corporate sponsorships (one-third comes from government grants and the final third from box office). Corporate sponsorships amount to just over $183,000 in cash. But there's more money in this city, Armour knows, and he points out it can have a huge impact on a still developing festival like PuSh.
He is also keen to attract a younger, more diverse audience.
"Our desire and our goal is to become a household name in this city," says Armour, sipping a coffee in a café filled with the kind of young crowd he's looking to attract. "There are still some people who don't know that we exist. But we're working hard to change that."
FOUR PUSH SHOWS TO CATCH
L.A. Party/An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk
In one multimedia show, a fanatic falls off the vegan wagon in L.A.; in the other, clips of Captain James T. Kirk are edited together to create a meditation on the human condition. Jan. 21 to 25 at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.
A Brimful of Asha
Real-life mother and son Asha and Ravi Jain share the stage in Toronto's Why Not Theatre's hit – a true story about arranged marriage. Jan. 16 to Feb. 8 at the Arts Club's Revue Stage.
Writer and storyteller Ivan Coyote and musician Rae Spoon expound on their failed attempts at fitting into the gender binary. Jan. 16 and 17 at Club PuSh (Performance Works).
Nanook of the North
Legendary throat-singer Tanya Tagaq collaborates on a live soundtrack during a screening of the 1922 film. Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 at the York Theatre.
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival runs from Jan. 14 to Feb. 2 in Vancouver (pushfestival.ca).