The annual theatre festival is over for another year—here's what we'll remember most about SummerWorks 2014.
The end of SummerWorks always signals the beginning of the end of the summer season, but this year it’s doubly bitter. (Cold, that is.) But at least we now know that we’ll get another hit of SummerWorks this winter. As the festival came to a close on Sunday, it was announced that a second annual festival named Progress will be taking place in February 2015. Along with the Toronto Fringe’s offshoot, The Next Stage Festival, Progress—with its focus on international artists—will help bolster a burgeoning winter festival season in the city .
So as we delight in having something to look forward to that will help lift the the late-winter blues, let’s look back at the festival that just passed and consider the major hits, trends, and performances that will keep us going through fall.
TEN: Standout Individual Performances
Most of the shows we saw this year that really impressed us were collaborative efforts, but there were still some performers who gave outstanding individual performances (and, of course, even when it comes to a “solo” show, there are still a lot of people offstage helping to make it work). We enjoyed Howard Rosenstein’s turn (and remarkable makeup) as a forcibly civilized ape-man in Kafka’s Ape, though the decision to stage the show at the Gladstone Hotel, which was hosting a wedding reception or noisy dance party next door during at least two of the shows, was a mistake. We were impressed by all aspects of He Left Quietly (which won the Best Production award on the festival’s closing night), but Conrad Coates’s performance as a quietly dignified former death-row prisoner was its lynchpin. Kaleigh Gorka’s pregnant mother in And Now, The End also made an impression, though the show itself needs more rewrites. And Elly-Rae Hennessey was luridly sensational as a demented axe murderer in GASH!—though it was a shame she didn’t appear and liven things up until the final few minutes.
NINE: Soloists Showcased in Recurring John
After five years of presenting new work in the Musical Works in Concert series, the organizers decided to move the series out from under the SummerWorks umbrella. That makes a certain amount of sense, as, compared to five years ago, there’s much more music and musical theatre in the regular SummerWorks programming. (This year’s juried series included And Now, the End; Macaratu You!; and El Jinete, for instance.) Still, we’re sorry to see it go, and hope it won’t be long before the series pops up in a new form.
The best presented this year was Kevin Wong’s Recurring John, the story of a boy who grew up to become a lawyer, a father, an openly gay man, a divorcee, and then a married man once more. “John” never appears in the show, so we learn about his life through the people in it—his mother, a teacher, a co-worker, a friend, his daughter, his ex-wife, and a woman who lives in the park and sees him daily. Wong landed a terrific cast, because every singer in the clever show gets one big number to belt—and we’d be shocked if the show doesn’t go on to another iteration with one of the several musical theatre companies in Toronto.
EIGHT: Playful Mobility in the Music Series
There wasn’t a massive event this year in the SummerWorks Music Series comparable to 2013’s Wooden Sky travelling show—that said, the best collaborative concerts were those that took full advantage of the space in which they were performed. For Army Girls‘ Failure Fest, dancer Cara Spooner was a mischievous gremlin who moved singer/guitarist Carmen Elle’s mic all around the space—drummer Andy Smith found himself reaching for his kit as Spooner slowly moved it piece by piece to the edge of his reach. For Weaves Through Time, singer Jasmyn Burke became the centre pin of a clock whose long hands became unravelled from around her and stretched out across the room, eventually being untangled by volunteers from the audience. And for Lido Pimienta’s Secret Garden, director Natasha Greenblatt had side stages and a performance space across the room from where the stationary music gear was, and enthusiastic dancers caroused in the audience’s midst.
SEVEN: One-On-One Live Art Experiences
Most performing art experiences consist of several performers being watched by a much larger group of audience members—but some of the most interesting events in the Live Art series at SummerWorks were solo experiences. For The Re-View Project, Linnea Swan invited SummerWorks patrons one at a time up to a small secluded room to talk confidentially and candidly about the shows they’d seen. In Pier, Katie Kehoe’s section of what looked like a short dock (complete with floats) was transported daily to different locations along the Queen Street strip, where she invited passersby to stop for a while, relax, and have a chat. And the dancers of Ecoute Pour Voir performed on the street for audience members connected to them by long-wired headphones.
But our favourite solo Summerworks experience was the interactive adventure The Stranger: Part 1, in which one audience member at a time would have a series of encounters with Dopo Lavoro Teatrale’s “strangers” out in public—”strangers” who would direct them to their next encounter. Starting at Queen Street and Augusta, and weaving down alleys, into basements, and across parks, the interactions encouraged the creation of an alter ego “character” who would be more likely to take risks than we might as ourselves. The constant feeling of being watched left us slightly paranoid (in a good way)—that feeling continued after the final clandestine interaction at Union Station, as the company continued to send us supplementary emails containing audio recordings and more, leading up to a group encounter in The Stranger: Part 2. Part 2 was slightly anticlimactic (we’re sworn to secrecy as to what actually happened), but that’s mostly because Part 1 was such an exhilarating experience—and a significant improvement on the much smaller-in-scope show DLT produced at the 2013 festival.
SIX: Location, Location, Location: TRACE, The Water Thief, and The Container
In performance art, as in real estate, where you are can be just as important as what you are. Most shows go to great lengths to dress up their “black box” theatre space to transport the audience somewhere else. In a festival setting, with multiple shows in the same space daily, it can be difficult to construct something truly original. For some of the best shows in the festival, the companies didn’t try to conform to a theatre’s specifications, but instead staged them elsewhere. The Water Thief used the deep basement of St. John’s Cathedral to stage its show, which utilized multiple projections; it even welcomed audience members with a solemn ceremony reminiscent of the services held above. Theatre Gargantua’s TRACE took place in a room, painted all white, where the windows looked out onto historic brick facades; the show was tailored to the space, which was painstakingly dressed for the show. And The Container crammed audience members and cast alike into a shipping container, dropped in the parking lot behind the Theatre Centre. In both TRACE and The Container, the performers moved around and among the audience, and the proximity to the performance went a long way toward making the shows affecting for those watching.
FIVE: Unconventional Design in Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales and Antigonick
The winner of this year’s SummerWorks Award for best set or costume design went to the team from Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales for effectively turning the Lower Ossington Studio Theatre into a sanctuary of blankets, pillows, and lamps (for mood-lighting)—the perfect venue in which to let down your guard and take in some unexpectedly morose fables. Designer Roxanne Ignatius’s set was impressively ambitious considering the time constraints of a festival: it created a whimsical 360-degree world that let the children’s tales really hit home. Meanwhile, the design in poet Anne Carson’s adaptation of Antigonick also used a surprising material—cardboard—to create a kind of playground for the actors instead of the audience. Director Cole Lewis (winner of the SummerWorks Emerging Artist Award) had King Creon (Dmitry Chepovetsky) saw and stomp his way through the makeshift walls—what began as a terrifying threat devolved into a ridiculous display of hyperbolic masculinity. Though completely different in atmosphere, both Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales and Anitgonick created worlds that were engrossing and, above all, surprising.
FOUR: Technology in Jaqueries, Part 1 and Half Girl/Half Face
Toronto theatre has made huge strides when it comes to incorporating technology into live performance, and SummerWorks included two examples of how technology is being used to break new ground. In Zoë Erwin-Longstaff’s Half Girl/Half Face, a young woman made a webcam video onstage, while the video was projected onto a screen above her. This wasn’t anything entirely new on its own, but the trick perfectly suited the narrative context of a girl whose face became a social media meme. With both the live and online versions of her face onstage, the audience had to choose which one to watch at any given time—and it was surprising how often we chose the image over the real thing. In the walking dance show Jaqueries, Part 1, an app developed specifically for this production helped guide audience members through the story as they followed dancers around Queen Street West. Though it demonstrated the drawbacks of dealing with technology in a live show (slow and confusing set-up before the show, awkward pulls of focus, and a weak or muddled storyline), it also featured moments that proved mobile technology and live art have a future together.
THREE: Music as Theatre in the Juried Series
Musical theatre rose to prominence in this year’s festival, with quite a few plays incorporating song, dance and onstage musicians. Maracatu You!‘s title proclaimed it would explore the Afro-Brazilian genre, and the show proceeded to do so with infectious energy and enthusiasm. El Jinete was an outright mariachi opera, the Los Dorados ensemble providing powerful, emotionally resonant performances. Performers floored their audience with musical harmonies and singing that communicated fury and sorrow. A particular stand-out was Alexandra Wever’s rendition of “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” a classic Huapango song that came to moving, enthralling life through her delivery.
TWO: Ambitious New Scripts From Toronto Playwrights for The Widow and Complex
Amir Al-Azraki and Rebecca Applebaum are two local writers exploring emotionally charged, difficult material. In Al-Azraki’s devastating new drama The Widow, a clash of values turns violent when Samir, a handsome but wet-behind-the-ears Shakespeare instructor, begins an affair with his pupil, Nour, a widow whose husband was killed in the Iraq War. Applebaum’s Complex also explores the messy dynamics between a teacher and a student: after volunteering as a math tutor, Sarah assumes she’ll have a lot to show Chalkfarm teen Darren—but she’s the one who learns hard lessons about race, privilege, and her own assumptions. Both playwrights offered subtle (and, in the case of Complex, often very funny) insights into the idea of options—what life is like for those who have them, and how limiting it can be for those who don’t. Whether examining family pressures in Basra or Toronto’s seemingly worlds-apart neighbourhoods, both scripts invited us to consider the challenges and benefits of diverse points of view.
ONE: Ensemble Work in The Container, Thus Spoke, and Tragedy: a Tragedy
Strong ensemble work was key to several of this year’s productions. The cast of The Container fed off the stifling heat and tensions produced by the tight confines of an actual container to convey the anger and misery of refugees illegally travelling into an uncertain future. The performances carried an emotional charge that made one wonder if a legitimate fight would actually erupt. In Tragedy: a Tragedy, the cast channelled a stereotypical local news team, using stock anchor, field reporter, and political analyst types to humorous and thought-provoking effect.
Montreal’s Étienne Lepage and Frédérick Gravel were relatively unknown in Toronto before the English premiere of Thus Spoke… came to SummerWorks, but we hope we’ll be seeing much more of them (and their super-talented team of dancers) in the future. Written by Lepage and choreographed by Gravel, the piece featured four dancers (Gravel, Frédérick Lavallée, Marilyn Perreault, and Anne Thériault) alternating between slow, sensual, yet slightly awkward group dance numbers and audacious monologues directed to the audience—monologues that covered everything from privilege, to contract-killing Stephen Harper, to critiques of shows as “shit,” to getting off on their own open-mindedness. You know a group of performers is charming when they directly make fun of the audience, and that audience remains putty in their hands.
This post originally miscalled Chalkfarm “Chalktown.” We regret the error.