The annual theatre festival is done for the year, but here's what we'll remember about SummerWorks 2013.
Here it is, mid-August, and another SummerWorks has come and gone. At Sunday night’s closing party, artists, staff, and fans celebrated the festival’s 40-some-odd theatre productions, eight musicals and concerts, 12 live art pieces, and nine nightly lineups at the Performance Bar. In all, SummerWorks netted a 10-per-cent increase in revenue in 2013—its 23rd-annual edition. Some awards were handed out to this year’s standout shows, and the names of the winners are at the bottom of this post.
But there was plenty more to celebrate at this year’s festival. Here are Torontoist‘s 10 favourite things from SummerWorks 2013:
TEN: Sunny Drake’s puppet work in X
Performance artist Sunny Drake’s puppets aren’t up to any kiddie stuff. For his solo show X, Drake combined live-action character work, animation, projections, and puppetry to relay the story of Caitlin and Jamie—childhood friends now dealing with issues related to addiction, sexuality, and gender identity. Using miniature masks propped on his wrists, Drake transformed his own hands into tiny human bodies capable of sauntering across the stage with remarkable realism. These puppets served as more than just a compelling—and very cute!—staging gimmick: as representations of the human form shrunk down to finger size, they also emphasized Caitlin and Jamie’s shaky grasp on their own lives and behaviour, as well as their vulnerability in the face of substances and situations beyond their control. Although X addressed numerous weighty themes, Drake’s unique puppetry brought to life moments of poignant humour from within a tale of struggle.
NINE: iShow‘s experimental interface
Any stage manager will tell you how difficult it is to keep even the most streamlined of shows on track. The more technical elements in a show, the greater the chance of mayhem. Montreal’s The Petites Cellules Chaudes chose to embrace this chaos in shaping their experimental iShow, which found a dozen performers using the internet on stage as a way of exploring and satirizing modern telecommunications.
Amidst the mess of screens and wires—and the intrinsic unpredictability of the internet—performers gleefully applauded when things went right, and offered apologetic but good-natured shrugs when they didn’t. They brought the audience into the experiment, playing on the empathy of anyone who’d had trouble with a poor Skype connection. The results were well worth the tumult, ranging from the hilarious (as when a random stranger on ChatRoulette was cajoled into performing a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac) to the perturbing (as when unsuspecting voyeurs got more of a strip show than they’d bargained for). The show was at times awkward and unsettling, but the resulting sense of intimacy and complicity between performer and audience neatly mirrored what one might find with a stranger over—you guessed it—the internet.
EIGHT: Musical ensembles (and breakouts)
“Epic” was the buzzword for many of the musicals in this year’s festival. It was often used to describe the SummerWorks Theatre Series’ The Life of Jude, which boasted a cast of 21 actor-singers. But that was topped in the Music Works in Concert series by A History Of Summer‘s 23 singers, who chronicled through song nearly a century of (mostly same-sex) love on Fire Island. The sci-fi adaptation Paradises Lost boasted 17 singers and a number of musicians.
These nascent musicals benefited greatly from the depth of talent carefully arranged on crowded stages in the Great Hall and Black Box theatres. That said, we still noted a few individual standouts. In Miss Shakespeare, Rielle Braid knocked it out of the park with her character Hannah’s introductory song, “Just a Name,” which was followed by a grounded reading of the sole male role in the show (a role shared by four of the women in the cast of seven). Neema Bickersteth, who also delighted in the Theatre Series show Salome’s Clothes, soared operatically as a religious fanatic in Paradises Lost. And Blair Irwin brought an effervescent and welcome touch of comedy to History of Summer as a young woman who is ignored on an island of gay men.
SEVEN: The edgy social commentary in Entitlement and girls! girls! girls!
Entitlement and girls! girls! girls! were two shows that couldn’t help but leave an indelible impression. Entitlement set its sights squarely on the film industry, casting a wide net of satire that targeted everything from the tendency of film schools to act as opportunistic businesses to the belief shared by many younger film students that story is inessential to creating a good movie. Meanwhile, girls! girls! girls! was an unflinching account of a group of disaffected teens succumbing to the lethal consequences of peer pressure combined with an overabundance of idle time. Sharing the same inclination to paint in bold and broad strokes, both plays went beyond expectations. Fearlessly confronting the cutthroat nature of working in film and the ripples of violence lurking just underneath teenage ennui, these productions succeeded in unearthing some uncomfortable truths.
SIX: The sexual intensity in Tender Napalm
Although English playwright Philip Ridley’s script for Tender Napalm is a particularly poetic take on modern love, what distinguished this two-hander wasn’t its intricate lyricism—which has a lot of beauty to offer—but the visceral and darkly sexual performances by Toronto actors Kyle Purcell and Amelia Sargisson. As a couple in meltdown mode following a vaguely sketched tragedy, Purcell and Sargisson (also a couple in real life) threw themselves back and forth between the gentlest and the most brutal romantic scenarios—they were equally convincing recreating a chance meeting between teens and performing a make-you-squirm-in-your-seat castration fantasy scene. And while the use of a dreamlike patchwork of alien abductions, magical serpents, and monkey armies to dramatize their emotional trajectory from virginal idealists to damaged adults was unusual and arresting, it was their down-to-earth and (sometimes literally) stripped-bare passion that made this show a standout.
FIVE: This Wide Night‘s realism
SummerWorks hosted plenty of high-concept and technically involved performances this year, which made the sometimes-painful realism of This Wide Night stand out in sharp contrast. Director Kelli Fox put human frailty center stage in this uncluttered story about women adjusting to normal life after time in prison. Cast and crew spent time working with actual ex-prisoners, and those experiences were put to good use. The narrative was appropriately straightforward, and the design and technique never seemed to interfere with the action. All this restraint gave actors Kristen Thomson and Maggie Blake the freedom to inhabit their roles and to fully communicate the joy, sorrow, and cringing embarrassment of their characters.
FOUR: The stage lighting in How To Disappear Completely
A few important things to know about Itai Erdal are that he once studied to be a documentary filmmaker, is currently a professional lighting designer, and has always been a natural storyteller. He does not claim to be a performer. So, for his one-man show, How To Disappear Completely, in which he recounts the final days of his mother’s life, he and director James Long wisely use the things Erdal knows best to help him along: film, straight storytelling, and excellent lighting design. Interspersed throughout the story are quick lessons on Theatre Lighting 101 that outline the uses and effects of Erdal’s favourite types of lights, colours, and cues. It was fascinating to see Erdal shed some light (ba-dum bum) on one of theatre’s most underappreciated elements—plus all the fancy illumination gave the title of the play a whole new meaning.
THREE: The talkback at nanny: maroon warrior queen
As SummerWorks establishes its reputation as the country’s largest juried theatre festival, some participating artists hope to showcase pieces at their most polished in order to get the attention of bigger companies and venues. Some, though, continue to think of the festival as a place to stage works in progress, like the well-received The Art of Building a Bunker… and d’bi.young’s nanny: maroon warrior queen. In fact, this was the first time Young brought nanny before a public audience. In order to incorporate feedback from playgoers, she held talkback sessions after each performance. Even by the third day, nanny had already changed into a clearer, more powerful story—a definite benefit for Young and her team. But the talkbacks were also a treat for audiences members, who got an inside look at the creation of the show, the chance to hear about Young’s hopes for the play, and a rare sense of participation that kept the indie spirit of SummerWorks alive.
TWO: The collaborations in the SummerWorks Music Series
This year, for the first time, SummerWorks paired all of its musical acts with theatrical collaborators, and the results were sensational. Justin Rutledge’s Out of the Woods included a hilarious tent-sex scene where the tent itself became a dancer. The score that The Bicycles composed for Maggie MacDonald’s Young Drones could (and should) be a recorded concept album. But the best collaborations were not just special events, but one-of-a-kind happenings. Maylee Todd’s multimedia experience, Planetarium, conceived with actor and director Steven McCarthy (who is a musician and a member of The Elastocitizens), was a career-best show from a musician we’ve been watching for years. The Wooden Sky, paired with veteran Theatre Columbus director Jennifer Brewin (who also had a hit in the SummerWorks Theatre Series with the bluegrass opera The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw), led hundreds of fans down Queen Street West alleyways dotted with musicians and through parks and intersections, before ending up at the Black Box. These fruitful pairings were supported by talented behind-the-scenes technicians and volunteers, and were examples of the magic that can happen when a collective pulls together.
ONE: The awkward dinner parties in Delicacy and Late Company
Welcoming relative strangers into one’s home can be a nerve-wracking proposition under the best of circumstances, but, with the right combination of characters and scenario, it can become a tantalizing recipe for comedy or drama. Although they deal with vastly different situations, both Kat Sandler’s Delicacy and Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company capitalize on the conceit’s inherent ability to manufacture awkwardness and tension. While Delicacy‘s hilarious swingers comedy put the fragile dichotomies between two couples under the microscope, Late Company investigated the guilt and anger roiling within two families in the wake of a gay teenage son’s suicide. The personality clashes in the two plays were evident from the hosts’ preparations alone—in Delicacy, an uptight couple serves expensive wine and charcuterie to free-spirited guests, and in Late Company, a grieving mother cooks a meal for an adolescent bully who had tormented her son, only to learn that he can’t eat it due to a food allergy.
And here are the winners of this year’s official SummerWorks awards:
- SummerWorks Prize for Production: Late Company, directed by Peter Pasyk
- The Contra Guys Award for Outstanding New Performance: 7 Important Things by STO Union
- National Theatre School Award for Set or Costume Design: Birdtown and Swanville for Family Story
- Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation: The Petites Cellules Chaudes for iShow
- Canadian Stage Award for Direction: James Long for How to Disappear Completely
- The Spotlight Award: Anthony MacMahon for Wild Dogs on the Moscow Trains and Kat Sandler for Delicacy
- The Theatre Centre Emerging Artist Award: Ben Wheelwright for girls! girls! girls!, Christo Graham for Entitlement, Daniel Ellis for Maria Gets a New Life, Jeff Ho for Murderers Confess at Christmastime, and Zoe Cleland for girls! girls! girls!
- RBC Arts Professional Award: Andrea Scott for Eating Pomegranates Naked and Sunny Drake for X
- The NOW Magazine Audience Choice Award: Late Company by Jordan Tannahill, directed by Peter Pasyk