What makes a performance feel truthful? Is there a difference between acting and revealing? What process does lived experience need to undergo to become art? These are questions that gave me pause this weekend as I took in a dozen shows at the Summerworks Performance Festival in Toronto and marvelled at some of the truthfulness I saw on stage – and at how frequently art seemed to have a spillover effect onto real life.
Now in its 28th year, the 11-day curated festival specializes in new and experimental work, providing a laboratory for established artists to try something different and the opportunity for emerging artists to gain exposure. This year, autobiographical themes were everywhere. In more than half of the pieces I saw (or was immersed in), the performers used their actual names and/or incorporated significant personal details into their performances. Real events happened, too – by which I mean events with real-life repercussions. The most literal example: In a solo piece called Truthteller, I stood directly over the performer (Eroca Nicols) as another woman moved an actual needle under her skin and gave her a tattoo.
A more figurative real-life mark was made by the AMY project, a performing-arts training program for young women and non-binary youth. In Lion Womxn, a cast of 12 youths told stories that came directly from their lives – stories of immigration, racism, sexuality and loss. Staring boldly into the audience, the performers took turns relaying vivid personal struggles with grace, rawness and vulnerability. At one point, a young woman addressed a couple in the front row as “mom and dad.” She spoke of her profound love for her mother, then proceeded to tell her father that she was bisexual. You need only have glanced at the couple, tearfully clutching each other’s hands, to know that this was an actual coming out, and that a private family moment had transpired, simultaneously, as a beautiful theatrical event.
Another knockout show that draws on biographical experience is novelist Brian Francis’s Box 4901. In 1992, as a closeted gay undergrad at the University of Western Ontario, Francis placed a personal ad in the local paper. Now, a quarter of a century later, he drafts responses to the 13 letters he ignored. These letters are brought to hilarious life by a diverse cast of queer men and the imaginative configurations that director Rob Kempson makes with them as a collective. Francis’s responses are frequently cutting and funny, but they also let him ruminate on growing up gay in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, a bygone era without Tinder, texting or googling before dates, and different general attitudes toward homosexuality. In that light, the show feels like a requiem on change, but the material might be most powerful when it reflects on the ways that love, and our search for it, are immutable. Now, like then, little glitches of chance have such a disproportionate impact on our lives, and Francis vivifies this idea in his haunting final response.
Francis narrates the play himself, standing at a lectern behind a microphone, his sometime shaky voice in stark contradistinction to the polished projections of the professional actors that surround him. This imperfect realness was fascinating and felt so inextricable from the play’s magic that I couldn’t help but wonder whether something might be lost in a new production that cast an actor in Francis’s role.
Not dissimilarly, it seemed that the real subject of Winners and Losers, a play structured as a series of debates, is the friendship and chemistry between its two performers, Valerie Planche and Makambe K. Simamba.
Winners and Losers was written and originally performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long in 2013 as a kind of hot-topic wrangling between two friends. At Summerworks, it’s recast as a dialogue between two women. They are of different races and nearly a generation apart in age. The affection between Planche and Simamba is palpable, and the play is gripping when it’s emotionally bare, with Planche divulging her troubled relationship with her mother and Simamba relaying her experiences of racism at a mostly white private school in Zambia. Maybe because of the stark honesty they achieve in these moments, other sequences seem a little too polite or off-the-mark, approaching jugular subjects obliquely, with neither going in for the emotional or intellectual kill. Simamba is hilarious in a diatribe about white women’s obsession with Idris Elba, but when the women go head-to-head on desire, race and sex, there was a sense of abstraction for me, particularly in the climatic debate on feminism.
Other shows of note at this year’s impressive festival: The immersive and atmospheric Café Sarajevo episode 1 by bluemouth inc.; the funny and camp Hot Cuts, a work-in-progress by Aurora Stewart de Pena that occupies hyperstylish territory between David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar; and Linnea Swan’s irreverent dance-theatre solo Yes.
Summerworks continues at Toronto’s Theatre Centre and Media Arts Centre until Aug. 19.