Is SummerWorks – the largest juried theatre festival in the country, which begins its 22nd edition Thursday – starting to develop an international reputation? It seems so.
Item 1: During a visit to the Festival d'Avignon in France last month, I ran into the young artistic director of a British theatre dedicated to international playwrights in a bar. What did he know of Canadian theatre, I asked. "I hear good things about the SummerWorks Festival," was his response (and pretty much his only response).
Item 2: In industry magazine American Theatre's recent special issue on Canada's theatre, an article about Toronto recommended a savvy theatrical tourist might best visit the city in August for SummerWorks – not during the regular theatre season or, despite its much bigger budget and footprint, when Luminato is on. (Ironically, the high-profile controversy over its – now, thankfully, reinstated – federal funding no doubt increased its prominence).
If theatre-world insiders are beginning to notice SummerWorks – it's fitting that the festival is also starting to open its arms to the rest of the world.
As part of a new stream of programming called "live art," artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld has for the first time brought in a number of artists who live outside Canada – and who think outside the (black) box. Coming from as far afield as Italy and Lebanon (though most are based in the U.K.), these creators have unorthodox ideas about what a piece of theatre might look like. It might, for instance, be a PowerPoint presentation, or an audio guide to your local supermarket, or a voyeuristic peek out a window at a woman on the street (who will obey your every command).
Rubenfeld says he invited these global artists to combat what he calls the "bubble effect." "There's no shortage of work in our own city – we just don't have a lot of access to work that's happening outside of Toronto, outside of Canada," he says. "I think it's important in terms of maintaining a global conversation not to get too localized."
To curate the series, Rubenfeld enlisted the talents (and contacts) of one of the most prominent young Canadian theatre artists that Canadians have never heard of.
Deborah Pearson, a Torontonian who moved to Britain in 2005, has made a name for herself overseas fairly quickly with a performance collective known as the Forest Fringe. In 2007, she founded a venue by that name at the Edinburgh Fringe – and her group now showcases experimental forms of theatre in other cities such as London and Dublin. In 2010, Stage magazine named her and her creative partner Andy Field two of the 100 most influential people in U.K. theatre.
While there are artistic organizations in Toronto open to the often interactive "live art" Pearson champions – Buddies in Bad Times, and, increasingly, Theatre Passe Muraille – this emerging art form is on a whole other level in the U.K., where the poster-child is probably a company called Punchdrunk. That company's immersive adaptation of Macbeth, Sleep No More, has been running in New York for a year-and-a-half now (and formed the basis of a recent episode of Gossip Girl).
To explain the appeal of much of "live art" versus traditional theatre, Pearson turns to Marshall McLuhan's famous statement that the medium is the message. "The thing is that the audience discovers what's expected of them at the same time as discovering what the piece is about," she says.
One of the most internationally in-demand pieces Pearson has imported to SummerWorks is Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better by Tania El Khoury. In this piece, a single male audience member will be able to look out a window and control the movements of a female dancer out in the street.
At the Battersea Arts Centre's One-on-One Festival in London, the piece caused a stir – in part because the audience was restricted to men. In Toronto, an additional female spectator will be involved in the interaction.
Pearson has also commissioned work from local artists such as Darren O'Donnell of Mammalian Diving Reflex fame; Small Wooden Shoe's Jacob Zimmer; and noted transsexual performer Nina Arsenault, who will be living on the SummerWorks site for the entire 11-day festival as part of a durational work called 40 Days and 40 Nights.
Artistic director Rubenfeld added this "little mini-festival, in the middle of this larger festival" for the same reason he expanded SummerWorks to include a series of music concerts a few years ago – which has also accounted for its rising popularity, especially among twentysomething and thirtysomething audiences.
"I'm interested in what it means to be an audience, how is the audience implicated in the work," says Rubenfeld. "Often, I go to the theatre and I feel like no one has considered what my experience is going to be."
In addition to its Live Art series, SummerWorks has what is probably the most impressive theatre lineup in its 22-year existence – featuring premieres of new works by the country's top playwrights, new works on hot-button issues and even one based on a Globe and Mail column. Here are five I've got my tickets for.
France or, the Niqab
Playwright Sean Dixon's new comedy asks what miniskirts, high heels and the niqab have in common. Inspired by a column by Tabatha Southey ("Minister Kenney, can I become a citizen in these shoes?").
Can't afford tickets to Daniel MacIvor's latest at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival? Well, for $15, here's another brand-new work from the in-demand playwright – a trio of monologues about a punched-out doctor, a killed cat and a ruined vacation, brought in from Halifax's Kazan Co-Op as part of the festival's National Series.
Ron Pederson reprises his acclaimed performance in the solo show about a imaginative boy who "conspires with wolves to save himself from his alcoholic father."
Rosa Laborde, best known for her hit Tarragon Theatre play Léo, is back with another three-hander about an unorthodox love triangle – this time set against the backdrop of environmental disaster, rather than political upheaval.
Well, Ecce Homo theatre certainly timed this production well. Alistair Newton directs the Canadian premiere of novelist Edmund White's play inspired by the controversial unpublished correspondences between just-deceased author Gore Vidal and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh.
SummerWorks runs from Aug. 9-19 in Toronto.