Twenty Years of Summer(Works)
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Twenty Years of Summer(Works)

Beginning around 8 p.m. on Saturday night, a meteorological phenomenon occurred in Toronto’s west end. Outside, the skies darkened, the winds gusted, and the rain poured. But inside 100 Ossington Avenue, it was nothing but summer.
The warming of the weather means the arrival of a beloved season—festival season. No matter the music taste, culture, neighbourhood, hobby, sexual orientation, or gastronomical preference—hey, sometimes even the species—there is at least one weekend or event in Toronto dedicated to it. But over the past twenty years, one festival has emerged as more than just a summer fling for the arts community: the SummerWorks Festival is an annual highlight on our city’s theatre calendar. And on Saturday, producers, performers, patrons, and players united at the Lower Ossington Theatre to officially launch its twentieth installment, which will host ten days of concerts, visual art installations, and over forty new theatrical works this August 5–15.

Showcasing celebrated acts of SummerWorks past and present, the party had a dual role of looking back and moving forward. A stirring excerpt from Project Humanity’s The Middle Place reminded the audience why the show was selected for the 2010 seasons of Theatre Passe-Muraille and Canadian Stage after its premiere at last year’s festival, while returning favourites Matthew Barber, Nina Arsenault, and improv troupe The National Theatre of the World gave sneak previews of their newest works. And newcomers to the festival Suburban Beast sparked our interest with the provoking mixture of video and live acting in its show Post Eden, to premiere this August.

David Coomber and Sascha Cole perform in front of video projections in Post Eden.

The new talent in Toronto’s art scene may be heating up, but in 1991, the climate was much cooler for Toronto’s small but eager theatre community. So five friends—Benj Gallander, Greg Holmgren, Carol Pauker, Rob Sherwood, and Ben Stadelmann—decided that Toronto needed another vessel to showcase their work. What was first seen as a first-come-first-served response to the Fringe Festival, SummerWorks has come into its own legitimacy as Canada’s largest juried theatre festival—one that gave playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s The Russian Play its start, and attracts Canadian theatre veterans across the country, such as Ted Dykstra, Melody A. Johnson, Alan Dilworth, Andrew Kushnir, and d’bi.young. But both emerging and experienced artists must meet SummerWorks requirements to be included, which demand risk, bravery, and artistic growth in participants.
“I don’t like to be asked to watch things that I don’t think are very good,” said Michael Rubenfeld, the artistic producer of SummerWorks who, in a team of four, handpicks the festival’s theatre and musical lineups. “To me, when the work costs something, when the artists are frightened, then it turns into something I’m interested in seeing.”
According to Rubenfeld, SummerWorks “provides a home for work looking for a home,” giving artists a platform to try techniques outside their comfort zone without the fear of a financial flop. And even though this mandate dates back twenty years, Rubenfeld, now in his third year at the helm of the festival, thinks one of the qualities of SummerWorks is its ability to react to the new ways theatre is being created today. With musicians like Matthew Barber and The Acorn providing the music for two SummerWorks shows (The Haunted Hillbilly and Countries Shaped Like Stars) this year, dance shows that emphasize narratives as strongly as the movements, and the increasing use of multimedia in theatrical productions (seen in Post Eden on Saturday), the lines dividing different art forms are disappearing. And according to Rubenfeld, the focus of SummerWorks will always lie in answering the question “What is theatre?” but it’s this mixing of genres that holds its future.

Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld.

“Artists are speaking in a new way. It’s the way work is made. We’re just trying to encourage it, to name it a bit. That’s what the festival can do: empower artists to think creatively,” he said, describing the festival’s role as an “ambassador for the arts.” As such, this year will feature a new Musical Works in Concert series, nightly improvised play readings, and video feeds linking the various venues together. These, as well as the annual ten-night Music Series (featuring The Hidden Cameras, PS I Love You, and The Wilderness of Manitoba this year) and the SummerWalks tours will take place at the Performance Pavilion at the Lower Ossington Theatre.
But if an all-encompassing arts festival of experimentation and creative growth seems contradictory to the laid-back ideals of summer living and loving, Rubenfeld thinks so too.
“Fun in theatre is seen to be sacrilege. We’re relegated to our obsessions and our need to communicate them, and we put them in front of enjoying our lives. But it’s important to have fun no matter what age you are.”
Hence SummerWorks’s biggest addition to its twentieth year: The Playground, an interactive multimedia installation that lets festival-goers let loose with a board game or a round of Ping Pong, or instead create a video to project against the wall, or compose a song with their cell phone. Rubenfeld says its a way to discover what it means to play as an adult, to remind busy Torontonians that if we can SummerWork hard, we can SummerPlay hard too.
With its twentieth birthday, SummerWorks has successfully emerged from its formative early development and awkward adolescence as a respected, self-aware young adult with an eye on the future—an accomplishment few humans can claim. Now if only the weather could be as reliably hot as SummerWorks 2010 is sure to be.
Photos by Stephanie Tonietto.