We take a look at what worked and what didn't for the festival and its shows this year.
The SummerWorks Performance Festival has wrapped, and we’re still reflecting on and considering much of what we saw at the eclectic and multi-disciplinary 11-day fair.
It’s a festival that thrives on transition—even more so this year as new artistic director Laura Nanni picked up the reins formerly held by outgoing artistic director Michael Rubenfeld, who was overseas during the the festival with the touring production of last year’s festival hit Counting Sheep. (It’s just won a prestigious writing award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.)
The programming was fascinating, owing to an exceptional half-dozen artistic curators. But as with any major festival, there’s room for improvement. We struggled at the outset with coverage, due to a lacking credited photo gallery of the works in the festival. A program, in its hard copy form, was conspicuously absent until almost the start of the festival, and some patrons complained about the difficulty they had scheduling their show-going using the festival’s new app or the gorgeous, but unwieldy, website.
Another aspect SummerWorks would do well to consider is the festival “hub.” The Factory Theatre courtyard served as the venue for the opening and closing parties, but noise complaints drove patrons inside after 11 p.m. both nights, and during the course of the festival, it was rarely hopping night to night. SummerWorks would no doubt love to replicate the success of the Fringe Festival, which has done extraordinarily well with food and drink sales nightly at its Honest Ed’s alley location and looks to continue that success at its announced 2017 location: the Scadding Court Community Centre. The natural hub for SummerWorks, given how much of the festival now takes place considerably farther west along Queen Street than Bathurst Street, now seems to be the Theatre Centre at Queen and Lisgar. There’s limited space inside, what with all the festival programming, but across the street is Lisgar Park, which the city lists as a venue for events and which Artscape, a provider of several SummerWorks venues, has some sway over. It would be a real coup for SummerWorks to move their hub there.
Below, in no particular order, is a list of ten things we liked (or disliked) about the programming at the festival this year.
10 Safe Anarchy On Stage
It can be thrilling for audiences to watch mayhem on stage, so long as we remain confident that it’s the characters, not the performers portraying them, that are risking life and limb. But when we see a potential disaster in the making, it destroys our suspension of disbelief. We’re no longer focused on the character’s actions, but instead on the possibility of the actor slipping and falling on the piece of paper they’re about to step on.
That possibility became a reality at least once during the run of Chase Scenes: #1-58, whose concept and ideas we loved, but whose execution had us wondering what kind of insurance the festival had. We cringed at the performance we saw: an unweighted ladder teeter precariously as a performer leapt onto it; an actor running in place at a brisk pace, unaware of a too-long-on-one-side bathrobe belt dangling between their feet; and a performer being slung off another’s shoulders and falling onto two audience chairs (that thankfully had no audience members sitting in them at the time). A briefcase full of paper money was dumped in the performance space (which ranged between and around the audience) early in the show, was scattered, and remained underfoot until the end.
In contrast, NO FUN seemed like utter chaos with the performers meandering across the stage, an untidy assortment of blenders at either side of them, and props flung away after being used. But said props never ended up somewhere where they could be stepped on; even with guitars plugged into amps, we never saw a performer step over wires in a careless manner. By ensuring the safety of the performers (not to mention the audience) was never called in question, we were able to submerge ourselves into the punk-rock aesthetic the show was endeavouring to create. That’s the kind of care required to ensure the drama stays on stage, rather than the drama that results when someone is carried out of the theatre on a stretcher.
9 Refocusing Awareness: Two Indians, A Moment of Silence, Amanah, The Unbelievers
The media cycle is a fickle creature as far as the light it sheds on tragedies and issues to give a damn about. The spotlight keeps moving on to something new, and, for the most part, so do we. But the loss, challenges, and difficult experiences left behind don’t actually lessen when they shift to the smaller corners of our thoughts. Struggles in the face of clashing cultures, defining identity, attempted genocides, and the basic right to human expression, at home and abroad, continue on, indifferent to our own waning attention span.
We’ve praised SummerWorks before for defying apathy and inertia in bringing some measure of attention to strains since forgotten when the immediacy stops feeling so immediate. When the shows serving as vehicles for that awareness continue to be of such quality, we’re going to keep praising the festival for fostering them.
A Moment of Silence explored the Chain Murders of intellectuals and artists in 90s Iran. Amanah made the experience of Syrian immigrants more intimate than a brief barrage of images. The Unbelievers served as a painful reminder of the massacres of the Yazidi that began in 2014. Two Indians took its audience toward a degree of acknowledging the conflicts and triumphs alike in the day-to-day lives of Indigenous people.
These shows tackled a wide array of issues between them but held in common the very real humanity and emotion they wielded to do so. Theatre has the singular power to make an experience feel personal and get past the idea that any problem might feel too big to focus on, even when the issues faced where we live might seem like a world apart. The continual embrace by SummerWorks of the idea that we can in fact remember the struggles and suffering in the world, to do what we can to come to some kind of terms with them, is one of the core reasons we enjoy this festival.
8 Best Supporting Players
In seven years of post-SummerWorks wrap-ups on Torontoist, this is the first year there aren’t any performers pulling double duty in shows, if we discount d’bi.young anitafrika playing a concert with her band, the 333, as well as creating the Audience Choice award-winning show Bleeders. That’s a good thing; it means the festival is utilizing a more diverse pool of talent. So this year, we want to make note of performers within ensembles who really shone, including Heath V. Salazar’s gender-fluid artist in This is the August; Nickeshia Garrick, who both choreographed and performed in Bleeders; Roxanne Ignatius, the crafty visual artist responsible for much of the Music Series’ past aesthetics, appearing on stage as a grinning roadie/worshipper of Kurt Marble’s arrogant alter-ego in Glitter Jesus; and Ewa Wolniczek, whose tense debate with co-star Farah Merani (who received an honourable mention for the Theatre Centre Emerging Artist award) was a highlight of Trompe-La-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century.
7 Audiences Participating with Enthusiasm: Soliloquy in English
A great many SummerWorks shows love audience participation; not just the sort where performers roll out onto the aisles and dance or act at you, but the kind where the audience becomes part of the performance. Nothing went quite so far with the idea this year as Soliloquy in English where everyone in the intentionally small audience passed around a book worked up by artist Patrick Blenkarn, reading passages aloud and going further to follow inflection and instructions from the book as best they could. The show also works pretty well as a microcosm of reactions to audience participation as a result, everywhere from cringing awkward dread, to willful, glorious abandon. Full disclosure, I land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, generally speaking.
Blenkarn revealed in a post-show Q and A that reactions in the readings ranged from the curt and monotone, to a person who just belted out “Strangers in the Night” like the torch song it is, when all they had to do was recite it. Our own group was pretty game and mutually supportive to attempt inflections, directed speed reading, a prolonged cycle of wordless repeatedly circling of the book, and sharing the text (though no one went so far as to sing). I’m not going to say that anyone who dislikes audience participation should force themselves to reconsider the idea, but there was a worthwhile sense of shared experience in that reading. It likely helped that since everyone was participating, no one felt singled out for embarrassment. We could all be embarrassed together after all, which is a pretty great idea for performances to keep in mind if they want to draw on their audience.
6 More (Less?) Dance, Please
We found it challenging to see much dance at the festival this year. The two dance shows we did catch, NO FUN and Sara does a Solo, both had four performances each, so we had scheduling options. The rest of the dance shows in the festival had just two or three—some at very different times, some separated by a week. How much work did dance artists put into shows that were only seen twice?
We hope that next year the dance shows in the festival get a bit more exposure and a few more opportunities to build word of mouth, comparable to the live-art and theatre programming. If that means a few less dance shows total, but they get more than two or three performances each, that seems both prudent and fair.
5 Daughter Made Us Talk
I highly recommended Daughter to a family member, though I warned them that the show was going to have a devastating impact, and they sort of nodded. Shortly after the showing they attended, I got a text from them to the tune of “oh my god, we need to talk about this.” And we did—for more than an hour. As much as the misogyny and bullying Daughter explores is horrifying, I have to hope that Adam Lazarus and Pandemic Theatre are gratified by what seems like a common reaction to the performance. Whether interpersonally or an immediate spill of thoughts onto Twitter, it’s incredibly difficult not to talk about Daughter. It strikes too deeply, successfully demanding a re-examination of current viewpoints and personal history.
As much as I might wish that a culture of misogyny was not so deeply with us, Daughter, which is affiliated with the White Ribbon campaign, did a phenomenal job of making audiences take a lasting, difficult, and disturbing look toward it and within ourselves. It made us look at the how and why of our suffering from that culture and what we do to perpetuate it. The reminder of how much work needs to be done toward fostering healthy relationships and gender equality was powerful and shaking, but necessary and heartening.
4 Strong Storytelling
SummerWorks, being juried, has long held a rep for curating emerging playwrights and their ensemble shows. But it’s normally the Fringe Festival where we discover storytellers, as that festival (and the national circuit) lends itself to performers who can do their show anywhere and fit their set and props in a suitcase. So, it was a pleasure to see strong new (to us) work told in the deceptively simple style at SummerWorks. Thea-Fitz James’s Naked Ladies, which has already debuted at multiple Fringe Festivals, got its Toronto premiere, and we regretted forgetting our notepad as ideas on the intersection of feminism and nudity in art were expounded on by the unclothed performer at a rapid pace. We were also impressed by Graham Isador’s Situational Anarchy, which got an honourable mention in the best production award, and James Smith’s Lessons in Temperament, which won it.
Fitz-James had left by the last day of SummerWorks, performing a new show, Drunk Girl, at the Edmonton Fringe. Here’s hoping that that show will be in Toronto soon, and that Isador and Smith’s shows find new life outside of SummerWorks as well; all Smith needs to perform is an out-of-tune piano to work on, so there should be no shortage of opportunities.
3 Brilliant Technical Work: Nize It, Tomorrow’s Child
There were shows this year that stood out for their excellent atmospheres that went well beyond the performances at hand. Nize It dipped into the medium of comic books to tell a story about the difficulties faced by Black youth in Toronto, which made for some potential heavy lifting for the imagery in set design. Joseph Nguyen’s work provided a colourful and dynamic contrast for the grittier struggles in the narrative. His images came together piece by piece for a final, moving display. The dimensions added by his black, white, and grey real-world backdrops and bright dips into the fantastic framed add nuance to already high-quality performances, helping to set them more firmly in the mind.
Tomorrow’s Child, by contrast, worked entirely in sound with its blindfolded audience. The lack of visual display made it all the more important and necessary to create an entire world through that single sensation. The sound design from Matthew Waddell and Eric Rose had vivid depths crafted by deft hands. Tomorrow’s Child could almost be summed up as Foley Artists: The Play. The work was made all the more impressive by being an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury sci-fi story, meaning that sound alone had to make veering into unreality feel real all the same. From characters descending into alcoholism to dimensional distortions, the sound techniques held up their end of convincing the audience of the emotional and the fantastical.
2 Cool Music Collaboration
It seems like we say it every year, but one of the best aspects of SummerWorks is the artistic collaboration it promotes, especially between theatre artists and musicians. At the Music Series, we thrilled to see Maylee Todd backed by an all-female string and horn band, plus La-Nai Gabriel, who rearranged Todd’s music in a dazzling way. Outside of the Music Series, we were blown away by the virtuosity on stage in Mr. Shi And His Lover—a collaboration between artists from Toronto, Macau, and Beijing; it was SummerWorks’ first show performed entirely in a language other than English (Mandarin, with English subtitles).
While we miss the Musical Works in Concert series, it’s gratifying to see how much music has crept into the overall programming at the festival and the opportunities it affords bands, such as Zoo Owl and DATU, to experiment and find new audiences.
1 The Youth Performances Killed It: Nize It, SExT, Amanah
Paraphrasing a passing conversation during the festival, the youth performances this year gave me faith in the future of humanity. SummerWorks sets aside space and scheduling for works from teams of young performers each year, and the experience of that was an entertaining and rewarding one. High school students and recent graduates tackled the difficult issues of sexual education, Syrian immigration, and the struggles of Black youth. They did so with flair, understanding, and blazing talent.
Moving, empathetic, even hilarious when needs be, the shows underscored a layered depth of awareness often lacking in ages beyond those of the performers on stage. Amanah wove fairy tales through tragedies to convey the fraught emotions of a migrant crisis. SExT used a framing of often comedic skits and songs to make issues of race, gender identity, and developing sexuality approachable. Nize It and its incredibly charismatic actors was a particular standout in its use of comic book fantasy to emphasize the real world challenges Black youth face in Toronto.
All of the shows managed an honest experience that avoided bland preachiness, instead creating a memorable reach and very real inspiration.
Here are the winners of the 2016 SummerWorks awards:
- SummerWorks Prize for Production: Lessons in Temperament, directed by Mitchell Cushman. Honourable Mentions: Bleeders, Plucked, Situational Anarchy.
- The Contra Guys Award for Outstanding New Performance: Gabriel Dharmoo, for Imaginary Anthropologies.
Honourable Mentions: Falen Johnson, for Two Indians; Georgina Beaty, for Extremophiles.
- FADO Performance Art Centre Live Art Award: lo bil, for the root of the river runs darker than clouds.
- Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation: Wants&Needs danse, for Fame Prayer/EATING.
Honourable Mentions: Helen Simard, for NO FUN; Ellen Furey, for Performing Performance.
- Canadian Stage Award for Direction: Nova Bhattacharya, for Broken Lines.
Honourable Mentions: Mitchell Cushman, for Lessons in Temperament; Jennifer Quinn, for I’m Not Here.
- The Spotlight Award for Performance: Maddie Bautista, in My Nightmares Wear White.
Honourable Mentions: Adam Lazarus, in Daughter; Shadi Shahkhalili, in The Unbelievers; Thomas McKechnie, in 4 ½ (ig)noble truths.
- The Theatre Centre Emerging Artist Award: Drawing with Knives experimental shadow puppetry co, in IN UTERO OUT.
Honourable Mentions: Farah Merani, in Trompe-La-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century; Simon Portigal, in Aattitle; the creators of Inside.
- The NOW magazine Audience Choice Award: Bleeders by d’bi.young anitafrika.