At 35 years old, the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre may be nearing middle age, but it’s still the place to go if you’re looking for experimental, boundary-breaking, not-your-theatre-next-door kind of stuff in Canada. Every February, Buddies in Bad Times warms up the Church Street neighbourhood with public works, cabarets, live performance art, and a robust lineup of emerging and established artists pushing their own limits and those of the political and cultural moment.
Festival director Laura Nanni is taking the opportunity to look at Rhubarb’s trajectory: this year’s lineup revolves around significant works of the past, and prophetic interpretations of the future. At the same time, with 34 successful years behind it, Nanni and the Rhubarb team have faced an unexpected challenge in getting the 2014 edition off the ground: a funding denial from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
We spoke to Laura Nanni to get her perspective this year’s festival, and the repercussions of the funding gap.
Torontoist: Can you tell us where the theme of archiving came from for this year’s Rhubarb Festival?
Laura Nanni: Acknowledging that it’s the 35th year of the festival, I wanted to mark that milestone in some way. So as a lead up to it, we really started to look at all of the elements at Buddies that could be elements of an archive. For more than a year, myself, members of the intern team, and other members of Buddies have been collecting and cataloging everything from marketing elements to scripts to create a record of everyone who’s been in the festival over the 35 years.
The idea of archiving and how it’s changed with advances in digital media, our relationship to history and how history is understood, how the body is archived—all of those things came into question. But it’s kind of not true to the festival to only look back, because Rhubarb is all about forward momentum and pushing boundaries, so a companion to that is work that considers the possibilities for future.
How is that represented in the programming?
I decided to expand our collaboration with organizations in the Buddies neighbourhood. It’s called the Open Space Projects, and it’s for artists to respond to the idea of archiving at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Glad Day Bookshop, Pink Triangle Press, and The 519 Church Street Community Centre, as well as Buddies. That I knew was going to be a kind of anchor to the programming.
In addition to that, there is an artist Heather Cassils we’re presenting on the first evening, I had been in conversation with her for a couple of years and it was kind of a magical moment when I realized that Cassils’s work connected so well with some of the things I wanted to highlight: the idea of process, archive, body as archive, transformation, and documentation.
There are many examples of collaboration between emerging and more established artists, like Rhubarb veteran Hope Thompson working with director Morgan Norwich for the first time, and the Young Creators Unit artists working with established directors Brendan Healy, Evalyn Parry and Alistair Newton. Queer elders are also intersecting with a younger generation, as part of projects I Say This As A Gift at Glad Day Bookshop, Listening at the CLGA at the Canadian and Lesbian Gay Archives and Beyond Body Politic at Pink Triangle Press.
In looking back at the history of the Rhubarb Festival, was there anything you learned that surprised you?
Something that I really champion about the festival is that it has a no review policy, and that wasn’t always the case. In the first three or four years there are examples of some reviews. I’m not sure about what instigated the shift, but that was really interesting for me to stumble across. And something that was really pleasantly surprising to me was that in early press releases, they describe Rhubarb as a place where a painter could become a playwright. Artists working in different media were intermingling, and that’s such an important part of Rhubarb to me, and it was really reassuring to see that was integral to the festival since the beginning.
It’s not, well, funny that the year you choose to celebrate the history of the festival is the year that the Department of Canadian Heritage revoked your funding. But it is interesting.
There is some irony to that, definitely. Thankfully, we’re not operating on no funding at all, but it was a significant chunk. And the particular program, about building community through art and heritage, there’s no question to me that that’s always been an important aspect to the festival. And there’s no way I could have programmed the festival to be a response to that. At the end of last year’s festival, I already had the plan of what I wanted this year’s festival to be. It’s quite unfortunate, of course, but maybe the timing allows the question of heritage to fit in a different way with everyone.
Is there going to be a response to that in the festival?
With the cabarets, for example, I asked the artists to either remix something that they had created in previous years, or to respond to something they thought was important culturally or politically in our current moment in time. Of course, there’s a chance that this is at the forefront of someone’s mind and they want to respond to it. But, in the spirit of Rhubarb, I’m not editing any artist and there is an element of surprise. Because I’m sure there are those, like myself, who still want answers. The Department of Canadian Heritage works differently from the other peer-assessed grants, so it’s a little fuzzy as to what exactly the criteria is and who’s making these decisions. And if we are no longer eligible, I think it’s just useful to know why.
How has the smaller budget affected the programming of the festival this year?
There are some instances of less programming, or projects are on a smaller scale. For instance, the archive part of the festival is something I would really have liked to further develop. It’s primarily online and there is a portion on-site that people can interact with, but it’s not on as grand a scale. There are also more one-offs, especially in the first week. I wanted to maintain the number of artists and shows in the festival, so this is how we could still maintain that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.