The SummerWorks Performance Festival celebrated its 25th year with a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary creation, and our writers were thrilled at the results of discipline-defying artists collaborating with each other. If there was a takeaway from our festival experience, it was that the constraints of the various series—theatre, music, live art, and, new this year, dance, plus special presentations—are increasingly unnecessary. We saw concerts in the theatre series, and theatre in the dance series, and noted with some concern that some audience members missed out on seeing some of the best work in the festival because they were too focused on one particular area.
Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld stated in an recent interview with the Toronto Star that he’d like to “abandon categories altogether” and present the festival as one interdisciplinary program. We strongly support that idea. This year’s festival featured exceptional curation from artist-selectors from a variety of backgrounds, and yet we suspect they were occasionally constrained by their series’ purviews. A system of “tags” for future programming, with curators choosing the myriad categories their selections might fall into, would help audiences navigate the festival, especially online, where a few simple clicks could help patrons find their interests.
Here are some of our picks for the highlights of this year’s SummerWorks. There’s much overlap with our mid-festival reviews, of course, but we continued to see shows until the closing day, catching nearly three quarters of the entire festival. These are the companies and artists we especially hope to see more from in the future—and you should, too.
10: The language of This Is The Way We Live
In this, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, the Australian accent still feels like a rare find. Even though the idea of an Australian living in Toronto isn’t all that unique on its own, there is something about the accent that is disproportionately enthralling. Especially in theatre, Aussie rhythms and slang command a different kind of attention. In the script for This Is Where We Live, Vancouver-born, Sydney-based playwright Vivienne Walsh plays with this specific dialect in a very poetic, fast-paced way. She adapts the Orpheus and Eurydice myth into a story of two teens stuck in a claustrophobic small town; the performers, Jenna Harris and Tim Welham, evidently put a lot of care into the accent training. This Is Where We Live not only provided an opportunity to hear the work of an unknown Canadian playwright and a darkly moving piece of work, but it felt like a different way of listening, too. We hope to hear more from her in the future.
9: Double Duty players Liz Peterson, and Kaleb Alexander
Two performers stood out for us this year at SummerWorks for making multiple impressions. Kaleb Alexander played a pair of seemingly good men trying to atone for heinous deeds in two excellent ensemble shows, as a former child soldier in the Rwanda-genocide inspired The Living, and as a nobleman in The Marquise of O_, where his resemblance to a dashing Bill Cosby in his I Spy salad days gave Red Light District’s biting adaptation an added shot of “ripped from the headlines” frisson.
Liz Peterson, too, excelled in an ensemble show, Wildlife, a collective creation wherein she opened the show with a Biblically inspired turn and stole a scene riffing on The View. But she also dazzled in her audacious solo show, Performance About A Woman, connecting with audience members and improvising movement and ideas based on her sustained eye contact with them.
8: Solo On Stage: Stupidhead, Charisma Furs, and The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely
Peterson’s Performance About A Woman wasn’t the only standout solo show at the festival this year. Three other women created their own shows dealing with identity and self-enfranchisement. Katherine Cullen grappled with her dyslexia with the assistance of Summerland and Brantwood co-creator Britta Johnson by writing Stupidhead! a Muscial Cmoedy despite a lack of any musical training (although her last show Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play was one).
Katie Sly stripped her self, sexuality, and biography bare in Charisma Furs, touching on a rough childhood and stifling past relationship, plus adding local colour with anecdotes set at No No Pony, The Garrison, and (beneath) the titular Spadina fur shop.
Ngozi Paul deservedly won SummerWorks’ Spotlight Award for Performance for her sensational turn in The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely, portraying a black woman at various ages whose life experience has parallels drawn to the mistreatment of Saartjie Baartman.
7: The Dazzling Design of Ayelen
Ayelen set some serious challenges for itself from its premise alone. Telling a tale of international industrial exploitation through the lens of mythology and allegory requires a sense of the mythical. Tricksters, bird spirits, and blind demonic gods have to emerge from their otherworld to be a vehicle of the play’s message into our own.
Fortunately the set design and costuming came together to create imagery and atmosphere that was in equal turns vibrant, dazzling and sinister. Ornate thrones and crowns provided dangerous majesty, while bright and intricate makeup and costuming gave a sense of the shining spirits and culture under threat of being crushed and ravaged. The set design and costume work from Shalak Attack and Bruno Smoky earned Ayelen an honourable mention for design from the festival, one that was richly deserved. The show’s staging had the headiness of an ancient tale told around a fire, creating images from the depths of imagination.
6: Diversity on Display, in Better Angels: A Parable, MacArthur Park: a Disco Ballet, and Wildlife
The lack of diversity on stage is a serious problem for most theatre companies and festivals, even for the Toronto Fringe, whose blind lottery selection still has trouble attracting performers and creators of colour. So it’s encouraging to see SummerWorks’ curators, jurors, and audiences embracing so many shows written and performed by visible minorities. Playwright Andrea Scott shrewdly portrayed modern day colonialism and slavery in Better Angels: a Parable, which won the SummerWorks’ Prize for Production. Wildlife featured a range of women from diverse ethnicities, and established artists collectively collaborating with emerging ones; and MacArthur Park Suite: a Disco Ballet co-creators Ryan G. Hinds and Nicole Rose Bond cast actors making their dance debuts, and dancers making their acting debuts. (The ensemble garnered an honourable mention for SummerWorks’ Theatre Centre Emerging Artist Award.)
5: Theatrical Dance shows Are You Still Coming Tonight? and HYPER_
Some of the most daring and theatrical performances we saw at SummerWorks weren’t in the theatre series, but in the dance series. Montreal troupe Social Growl Dance’s Are You Still Coming Tonight?, like last year’s Thus Spoke, was our favourite discovery of this year (the SummerWorks jury agreed, awarding them the Vanguard Award for Risk & Innovation). It made us wonder how it is that Quebec’s dancers are also such consummate actors. And Freya Olafson’s HYPER_ was the most visually arresting production of the festival, with the scrim and 3D glasses adding an uncanny aura to her dancing, even without the duplicating images projected for the show’s climax.
4:The Global Conscience in The Living, Upon The Fragile Shore, and Ayelen
SummerWorks marked its 25th anniversary with a strong display of global conscience. Not that the idea of performances trying to raise international awareness while entertaining is new to the festival, but audience receptiveness was remarkable. The Living, from playwright Colleen Wagner, rightfully picked up the NOW Audience Choice award. Inspired by tales told to Wagner by survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the play’s gripping exploration of social conscience and survival stood it in good company with other productions looking to broaden understanding—shows like CorpOLuz Theatre’s Upon the Fragile Shore and Fiya Bruxa’s Ayelen took audiences through the experience of coping with half-forgotten modern tragedies, or understanding the history of Third World exploitation that births them.
Taking any show in that sort of direction can be problematic. The material involved is heavy, even off-putting stuff, and often painful. The well-meaning desire to get an important message across can trap a company into subjecting an audience to strident, atmosphere-breaking lecturing to their face from on high. Instead, the most successful combinations of theatre and global awareness this year brought the audience deep into a sense of the humanity at the heart of any issue off strength of performances and writing both.
3: The Grand Spectacle in the Music Series
If SummerWorks’ core ethos is interdisciplinary work, then the music series this year was the best example of that, with every headlining act on the bill collaborating with directors, puppeteers, choreographers and more to deliver much more than just a concert. We thrilled at the deep-sea-diver-versus-eel combat in the crowd for Most People and Matrox show What Fate Awaits Them; we were moved by the dozens of musicians and choristers who helped create Adam Paolozza and Gregory Oh’s tribute to Scott Walker, Melancholiac; and we were tantalized by the larger than life lewd anatomy portrayed by Still Boys and Jesi The Elder in 2016 Spring Collection.
2: The Immersion of Counting Sheep, The Stranger, and An Evening In July
The fourth wall is broken more often than not at SummerWorks, but some shows go beyond that and place the audience in the middle of the show. This year, Counting Sheep took that to the most extreme, conscripting audience members into riots, feasts, work parties, and funeral processions. It was thrilling for most, though some audience members, especially people who were older or less able-bodied, were discomfited. (A more prominent warning or advisory might have been prudent.)
Audiences were also expected to sprint down alleyways and into buildings, chasing mysterious cast members of The Stranger, the city-spanning remount that sold out its limited availability for the second year in a row. Comparatively, An Evening in July, a site specific remount from last year’s Fringe Festival, was languid in pace as the duo Templeton Philharmonic wandered the gardens and hall of St. George The Martyr Anglican Church, audience following, for their Grey Gardens–inspired ghost story.
1: The Gender Politics Tackled in The Marquise of O_ and Beautiful Man
Erin Shield’s new play Beautiful Man took a simple but lucrative idea—What if the genders were reversed in the inherent sexism and objectification in popular cinema?—and ran with it, creating a funny and occasionally uncomfortable (especially for men) skewering and crushing critique of patriarchal bias. Director Andrea Donaldson also cleverly dressed and choreographed the play’s three women as sexualized entities, instead of fully flipping the script and putting them in baggy sweats or business suits, while the titular man posed provocatively on a pedestal behind them.
Red Light District also tackled current gender politics, bringing a modern view and staging, despite their period setting, to The Marquise of O_. A woman unknowingly raped while unconscious seeks to discover the father of the child she realizes she is carrying, and her family and suitor struggle to hew to societal expectations under the circumstances. It’s the titular Marquise who should be dictating the terms of her pregnancy, of course, but no one supports her unconditionally. Clever staging conceits earned the show the SummerWorks Award For Design; if there’s a show that’s ready for a remount in a larger company’s season, it’s this one.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly captioned Alex Samaras as Matt Smith. We regret the error.