A nearly two-hour show. No intermission. A highly avant garde artist pretty much unknown in Vancouver. To say the work did not seem like a surefire sell-out would be an understatement.
And yet, the show, Taiwanese choreographer Lin Lee-Chen’s Eternal Tides – billed as one of the most ambitious undertakings in the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival’s 14-year history – drew an audience of 2,000.
“Even five or eight years ago, [it] would be like: You’re ridiculous. That’s not going to happen,” says Norman Armour, artistic and executive director of the festival. But it was a hit.
That the show, and the festival itself, drew such enthusiastic audiences in 2018 – this year, more than 150 performances and events at 18 venues over 20 days brought in more than 17,500 people – speaks to a development in Vancouver’s cultural scene that can be traced back to Armour’s own efforts. The city acquired, you could easily argue, a taste for the eclectic because of the offerings PuSh, co-founded by Armour, has presented here since it began in 2003.
“I feel very proud that we’ve cultivated and tapped into and encouraged a sense of curiosity with our audience,” he says.
Now, after making his mark on the city, Armour announced that he will be leaving his role as artistic and executive director. A few weeks after mounting the 2018 festival and putting much of next year’s 15th-anniversary festival in place, Armour, 59, is taking on a new role, consulting for the Australia Council for the Arts. His final official day at PuSh is April 27.
It is an opportunity for Vancouverites to take stock of the mark that Armour and PuSh have made on the city.
“I always say that you know an event has been successful when you can’t imagine a time that it did not exist. It has become so important to a community it is tightly woven into the collective psyche. Norman has done this with PuSh,” says Heather Redfern, executive director of The Cultch, one of several venues that collaborate with PuSh. “And not just here in Vancouver and across Canada, but also internationally. In performing-arts circles, Norman and PuSh are synonymous with Vancouver. He has literally put this city on the international cultural map.”
The festival began as a presentation series – a collaboration between Armour, who had co-founded what was then Rumble Productions, and Katrina Dunn, who was then with Touchstone Theatre (and who has since left PuSh). The idea was to bring in international artists and present local work as well – interdisciplinary, avant-garde, boundary-pushing.
I always say that you know an event has been successful when you can’t imagine a time that it did not exist. … Norman has done this with PuSh.— Heather Redfern, executive director of the Cultch, a collaborator with PuSh
“We wanted to challenge ourselves, we wanted to challenge our colleagues, we wanted to make connections between Vancouver and elsewhere,” Armour says . “And then, within the city, we wanted to create a new sense of possibility around what the performing arts were and a new way to frame it.
“And we were also looking to create a new sense of audience that was trying to bring people together in a room who perhaps had up to that point not seen themselves being in the same room; ‘I only go to dance, I don’t go to music.’”
There wasn’t a lot going on in the city culture-wise in January and February and the timing worked for shows that might also be staged at The High Performance Rodeo in Calgary or what was then the Six Stages Festival in Toronto, both of which were models for PuSh.
For a theatre community that felt geographically isolated – even more so because funding for touring shows had been reduced so there was even less exposure to what was happening elsewhere in the country – PuSh was an exciting event “from the very beginning,” says Kathryn Shaw, artistic director of Studio 58, the theatre program at Vancouver’s Langara College. “There was huge buy-in.”
There were three shows on the bill that first year; the first was a performance piece by Quebec artist Marie Brassard, Jimmy. It was mid-January – dark and probably raining, but the performance Armour remembers was sold out, with something like 110 people jammed into a space meant for 90. The performance, by all accounts, was mesmerizing. There would be a talkback session afterward.
“She went backstage to get out of her garb and remove a fair bit of makeup,” Armour recalls. “It took about 15 minutes … not a single person had left.
“And I thought okay, we’ve got something here.”
They initially avoided using the f-word (“festival”), Armour jokes, but the PuSh International Performance Series – “a collection of brave new works from Canada and beyond” presented in three venues over three months – evolved into the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which quickly became, thanks to diverse, courageous and sometimes quirky interdisciplinary programming, not just a highlight of Vancouver’s cultural scene, but one of the best things about Vancouver, period.
“Getting audiences at times was a challenge for contemporary work. I really knew it was needed and we happily discovered over time that it was also wanted,” Armour says .
The festival was instrumental in setting up a new shared arts space in Vancouver, The Post at 750. Co-founded by PuSh, Touchstone Theatre, Music on Main and the organizers of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, the hub includes office, rehearsal and meeting spaces. Armour considers this a major part of his legacy.
Shaw says seeing the work at PuSh has inspired a number of local companies, enhanced their vision and helped them continue their experiments in theatricality.
Indeed, the presence of PuSh seems essential in creating an environment that has allowed the creation of shows such as Winners and Losers by James Long and Marcus Youssef, which has travelled all over the world, including a month-long run in New York; or Neworld Theatre’s King Arthur’s Night, which had its world premiere at Luminato last year. Both have also been at PuSh.
“We have been challenged to redefine performance and have been exposed to thought-provoking, edgy work from around the world,” says Shaw, who performed in An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch in 2007 – where a different actor performed unrehearsed each night, discovering the story along with the audience; and whose students participated in Mariano Pensotti’s site-specific work La Marea in 2011.
It’s fair to say that even a more traditional commercial theatre company such as Vancouver’s Arts Club has been pushed by PuSh. They co-produced the musical hit Do You Want What I Have Got: A Craigslist Cantata by Bill Richardson and Veda Hille, which had its world premiere at PuSh in 2012 (after beginning its life as a 20-minute song cycle at Club PuSh) to glowing reviews and has since travelled across Canada.
The exposure has worked both ways: while local companies were able to see international works without travelling to Europe or South America, the festival format meant officials would come to Vancouver to see locally produced work.
“It’s hard to get a festival director from Texas or Berlin or Paris to come to Vancouver to see a single show; it’s near impossible,” Armour says . “And we were creating a kind of critical mass at a certain time that would bring people out.”
And through the years, local audiences have learned to expect out-there dance, theatre, music, whatever from PuSh, and have cultivated a taste for it. In 2014, to celebrate PuSh’s tenth anniversary, the European company Gob Squad performed a Vancouver version of Super Night Shot – a four-track film shot live-to-tape in the hour leading up to its screening. It was thrilling.
The shows don’t always work, but safe, they’re not.
“I have seen shows I loved, shows I hated and shows I didn’t understand at PuSh,” Shaw admits . “Through it all, I have always been thankful Norman Armour had the vision and courage to make me uncomfortable, to challenge me and to stretch my perceptions of what is possible. He will truly be a hard act to follow.”