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A beacon of avant-garde light in the dead of winter

The Oldman from Famous Puppet Death Scenes - Push Festival

It's January. Vancouverites wake up in the dark, leave work in the dark. There are Christmas lights to take down, bills to pay, no Olympic Games to look forward to (or rail against). Oh, is it still raining? Blah.

Thank the cultural gods, then, for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, a beacon of avant-garde light in the dead of winter. Now in its seventh year, the festival presents envelope-pushing theatre and performance in Vancouver beginning each January, essentially changing the theatre landscape in the city.

Alas, the credit does not really belong to the cultural gods but to Norman Armour, the festival's visionary executive director who has been with PuSh from the beginning.

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"I think it's opened new worlds to audiences here," he says.

Mr. Armour, 51, grew up in Toronto, in a family with a theatrical pedigree (he is related to Dora Mavor Moore). "When I first started theatre way back in the mid 80s, I was the guy who did the weird [stuff]" he said during a recent interview.

Mr. Armour moved to Vancouver in 1990. He was with Rumble Productions in 2003 when he and Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn launched an international performance series that would present three "brave new works" in three venues over three months.

"We felt that there was a gap and we felt ... that the arts community and audiences as well would respond well to something that hadn't been there previously," said Mr. Armour. "And it very quickly proved that, yeah, there was a desire."

The guiding philosophy was that this would be a curated event with works selected based on artistic merit. "We're choosing these shows because we think they're important things for you to see," says Mr. Armour, "not just because we think you'll buy a ticket for them."

In 2004, the works were programmed into a two-week period. The following year, the series officially became a festival and has "exploded," says Jerry Wasserman, head of the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. "For a festival that's only in its seventh year officially, that's not very old, it now occupies a really huge place on the theatrical map of the city."

Growing from a budget of about $50,000 in 2003 to $1.7-million this year, PuSh has not only brought edgy theatre to Vancouver audiences, but also it's given local creators exposure to international approaches.

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"It's probably a historical coincidence, but Vancouver's own avant-garde, companies like Electric Company and Boca Del Lupo and Theatre Replacement have come of age at the same time as the PuSh Festival has," says Prof. Wasserman. "I really think there's been this really rich, low-level cross-fertilization whereby those companies get to see work that's actually a little outside of their envelope from mainly European avant-garde companies that we absolutely would not see otherwise. We wouldn't even hear of them if Norman Armour didn't bring them to town."

The works - contemporary, alternative, sometimes obscure - have at times proven a little too inaccessible for audiences (there is the odd walkout), but Mr. Armour says that's okay.

"We continue to challenge audiences. People may hate the work but they respect that there is real artistry in it and that there's integrity and rigour in it. ... We use the notion of broadening horizons. We want to create more space for artistic risk, more space for artists to feel that if they went on their instincts and they worked in a kind of thorough way, that there would be an audience there to applaud that."

Coinciding with the festival is what's now called the PuSh Assembly, where theatre types talk shop. It brings presenters from all over the world to town, where they're exposed to the works on stage.

"It's the best place for us, because there's such a strong concentration of national and international presenters looking for programming to pick up. And the audiences that come out are hungry for something edgy. They're expecting something a little bit different," says Michael Scholar Junior, who has twice brought the Tom Waits operetta The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets to PuSh and this year will bring Hard Core Logo: Live.

The festival has commissioned several works, including the Electric Company Theatre's Studies in Motion (2006), and Rimini Protokoll's Best Before (2010), currently on an international tour. Mr. Armour is excited about a new commission: an opera based on the 1985 Air India bombing.

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"We have a really strong track record [with commissions]and we want to continue that," says Mr. Armour. "That's a really important role that we play and should continue to play."

He also sees site-specific work as integral to the festival. This year's La Marea ( The Tide), by Buenos Aires-based writer/director Mariano Pensotti, will have audiences strolling through Gastown, exposed to the thoughts of those they pass in real time.

"No doubt a lot of professional artists in the theatre who have done site-specific work are going to be watching very carefully to see what site-specific work looks like from an Argentine perspective," says Prof. Wasserman. "It's just a way of nudging us out of our narrow, west coast, this-side-of-the-Rockies view of the universe that you can't help but have when you're as geographically isolated as we are out here."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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