Imagined Realities at the Rhubarb Festival
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Imagined Realities at the Rhubarb Festival

From left to right: Jordan Tannahill, Johnnie Walker, and Adam Bourret in Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You? (A Slumber Party for Boys), playing this week at the Rhubarb Festival. Photo by Greg Wong.

The Rhubarb Festival is well underway and about to head into its closing weekend—which makes it the perfect time for us to catch up with festival director Laura Nanni, and several of the performances’ creators, to talk about how Rhubarb has been faring, and learn more about its attempts to foster the “convergence of contemporary performance.”
That convergence is a topic of great fascination to Nanni, and something she strove to program into this year’s Rhubarb Festival, her first at the helm. “Siloized is the term that gets used—our artistic communities are siloized,” she says, referring to the tendency of organizations to become insular and self-focused. “With Toronto being so large, there’s a danger in that we can become complacent in playing to the same people all the time, rather than bridging out.”

To combat this, Nanni drew on her own background with non-traditional companies (like FADO Performance and her past programming work at Harbourfront Centre) to bring more dance, music, and performance art into Rhubarb’s home, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—and also to push the festival further. She reached out to many other companies across Toronto and extended a broad invitation for new work from companies that “align with [Buddies] in some way, whether that be politically or artistically.”
Buddies’ efforts to bring a wider variety of work under the Rhubarb umbrella doesn’t run counter to its efforts to promote queer culture, but rather bolsters outreach to individuals who might not be regular subscribers. “We have a multi-layered approach to what queer culture means in the context of Buddies,” says Nanni. “Rhubarb isn’t mandated to be a festival showcasing queer art or artists, but the works here are all boundary-pushing. Rhubarb is for voices that might not otherwise have a platform.”
The flip side of that is exposing the core audience at Buddies to innovative artists without obvious connections to queer culture. This week, for example, Henry Adam Svec’s Livingston Sessions—which present folk songs purportedly written by CFL players—will play between shows with more overt queer content.

The Mic Cup gets wheeled into the middle of Yonge and Dundas’s scramble intersection during a performance of Please Copy Us Forever. Photo courtesy of Peacegas.

Another new approach to engaging with audiences is happening down the street from Buddies’ location, and indeed, all over downtown streets. Rhubarb’s new Mobile Works programming has performance artists engaging with the public at Yonge-Dundas Square and city streets leading to Buddies’ building.
To learn more, we spoke with Jon McCurley (of Life of a Craphead) after this past weekend’s performance of Please Copy Us Forever, as he divested himself of a ratty red cape. “I was a copycat Superman,” he explains: in the embedded-in-the-street performance, one authentic-looking Man of Steel and two shoddy imitations used the space in the centre of the Yonge-Dundas scramble intersection to entice people to pose for pictures. “No one’s using the middle of the intersection for anything, so we’re trying to inspire people to claim it,” says McCurley.
The Supermen were not alone. Dozens of different players—a Rogers Robin Hood slaying a red, crab-like mascot representing the despised telecom, a rapping hooded figure in a huge Starbucks branded “Mic Cup,” LARPers pretending to represent a new studio in North York—were running out, performing flash spiels and demonstrations each time the walk sign came on for all crossings.
Back at Buddies, we delve into Rhubarb’s second week of programming in detail— starting with Jordan Tannahill, who’s in two very different projects: a very personal one-man mixed-media work, Bravislovia, and the slumber party send-up Who Who Who’s Got a Crush On You? (A Slumber Party For Boys). “I’ve been working on Bravislovia since I was ten, really, drawing maps and writing about it right through high school. Other people had like, Magic cards and Star Trek, and this was my obsession,” says Tannahill, who kept his imaginary world largely to himself until adulthood. “It was never conceived as an art project, but looking back on it now, it does chart my own sexual awakening and coming of age.”
Like Post Eden, the film and stage hybrid show Tannahill and his company, Suburban Beast, presented at SummerWorks last year (it made our list of the festival’s best shows), Bravislovia features filmed sequences—but this time, most star Tannahill himself. “I filmed a lot of it around my grandparent’s cabin, using a lot of the original sites that inspired my childhood imaginings,” including a decommissioned Pinetree Radar Line station in Foymount, Ontario, he notes. “I’m not an actor—I’ve never performed in my own shows—so it’s a pretty revealing piece. There’s obviously a lot of myself in there.”

While they aren’t polar opposites (both shows deal with childhood sexuality), Who Who Who is a completely different tack for Tannahil, who, along with several other “non-performers,” is collaborating with Nobody’s Business Theatre on the show inspired by “girly game nights,” and one in particular: Dream Phone. “It’s both super cheesy and super gendered,” says Tannahill, referring to the game. “By queering the game, we point out the absurdity of its gender construction, and poke fun at a lot of its inherent messages.” Comparing the two shows, he says “if Bravislovia is a complex meal, then Who Who Who is a sherbet to cleanse your palette afterward. It’s a lot of fun.”
Absurd fun is also a big part of GUNS, a piece in which it’s a social norm to bring firearms to a dinner party. Hannah Cheesman, who co-created the playlet with writer/actor Alexandra Napier and co-performs it with Liz Peterson, describes the two-hander as “a big ol’ metaphor for life, with a really absurd edge to it.” Though the actresses wave around some heavy firepower in the show, Cheesman regrets to say a visit to a firing range wasn’t part of their process, or in their budget. “It’s fairly expensive to do, for people who aren’t making a lot of money,” she half-mockingly laments.
When we ask her to comment on the trajectory of the festival as it’s moved through different performances, festival director Laura Nanni reflects: “Week One dealt with the here and now,” she says, and as well as the past. “There’s a lot of imagined realities in Week Two, and especially with the Sunday Social programming, a look towards the future.”
As futures go, it’s looking pretty good.
The Rhubarb Festival’s closing round of programming runs until February 27, at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and other locations. Check out their website for scheduling and ticket prices.

CORRECTION: February 25, 12:17 AM We originally stated that Alexandra Napier was a co-performer in GUNS; while she is the co-creator, it is Liz Peterson who co-performs. Our apologies to both Napier and Peterson.