Toronto's Top 10 Arts and Culture Moments in 2016
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Toronto’s Top 10 Arts and Culture Moments in 2016

We take a look at Toronto's most significant cultural touchstones in 2016.

Smile! Left to right, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Soo Ram Kim, and Jean Yoon, in a still from CBC's Kim's Convenience.

Smile! Left to right, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Soo Ram Kim, and Jean Yoon, in a still from CBC’s Kim’s Convenience.

Politics and current events may have a deep impact on how our lives change, but some of our deepest year-to-year memories are those we create for ourselves, with others, seeing and doing things in our city. We looked over the past year in arts and culture to come up with this list, arranged chronologically, of memorable moments, events, and performances, on our stages, screens, and fields. There may be a few noteworthy exclusions—but wait until you see our annual Heroes and Villains list later this month before crying foul.

Choir! Choir! Choir! Sing Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (January 16)

It was the first of what felt like a bumper crop of significant celebrity deaths this year; we’re referring, of course, to the unexpected passing of David Bowie, who hid his illness from the public until the end. Local “non-singer” collective Choir! Choir! Choir! and staff at the Art Gallery of Ontario swiftly arranged to perform “Space Oddity” there. After putting out a call for participants, more than 500 showed up. The resulting video went viral, as did C! C! C!, who have since sung with celebrity fans like Cyndi Lauper and Rufus Wainwright. They’ve continued to arrange large-scale tributes to musicians both alive and dead, including a 2,000-strong singalong to Prince’s “When Doves Cry”; but as co-founders Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman told us when we profiled them on their five-year anniversary, it’s the Bowie recording they’ll be “talking about for years.”

Neil Patrick Harris Does the Toronto Fringe (July 9–10)

The creative team of Bright Lights, with a fan. Photo by Erin Birkenbergs.

The creative team of Bright Lights, with a fan. Photo by Erin Birkenbergs.

It’s a trite truth that often in Canada we judge our talent based on the attention paid to it by Americans or others from outside our borders. But when the man who hosts the Tony Awards spends his weekend off seeing multiple Fringe shows—theatre created on a shoestring budget—it’s worth noting. Neil Patrick Harris, in the area filming, tossed off a tweet asking what he should do in Toronto, and the Fringe sounded like a good idea. Harris took playwright Kat Sandler up on her offer to see her alien abduction comedy Bright Lights and enjoyed it so much he attended two more Fringe shows the next day; improvised crime procedural True Blue and Shakespeare-slasher film mash-up Romeo & Juliet Chainsaw Massacre. In doing so, Harris managed to see a terrific cross-section of independent and locally created comedic work, some of the highlights of the summer festival; here’s hoping he’ll be back again next year.

That (Final) Night in Toronto with The Tragically Hip (August 11–14)

The Tragically Hip may hail from Kingston, but they have a special connection to our city, both in their lyrics and their history. On the eve of their three night stand here during their (almost certainly) final tour, the mayor proclaimed August 10 Tragically Hip Day; on the final night, lead singer Gord Downie, in a performance that went viral on social media, gave a series of primal screams during “Grace, Too” that many interpreted as a emotional response to his terminal cancer diagnosis. Whatever Downie was thinking at the time, the shows, as well as the live simulcast on August 20th that tens of thousands of Torontonians (and tens of millions of Canadians) watched in parks, bars, cinemas, and living rooms, touched viewers to their core. (Downie has since gone on to devote his year to the Secret Path project, advocating for better living conditions and justice for Indigenous peoples, and it’s landing him on many artist of the year lists.)

Director X’s Death Of The Sun (October 1–10)

We made a case that smaller was better regarding this year’s Nuit Blanche (provided it’s well supported by local institutions), but there’s no denying that Death Of The Sun was the biggest and most popular art exhibit this year, both during the all-night art event, and for 10 nights after. We sped by the giant glowing orb on the night of Nuit Blanche, so visited several times at night in the following week, watching it go through its inconceivably sped up life cycle, and there were always other Torontonians there, doing the same. It’s been a big year for Director X, who entered the year coasting on the success of his “Hotline Bling” video and had another huge hit this summer with Rhianna’s “Work,” shot in the beloved east end restaurant The Real Jerk. But for locals, it was his art installation that they had the chance to get up close and personal with.

Edwin Encarnacion’s Home Run in the AL Wild Card Game (October 4)

They didn’t have the run they did in 2015, but the Blue Jays still made it to the post-season and won a memorable extra-innings wild card win against the Baltimore Orioles. It was Edwin Encarnacion, the popular parrot-arm free agent whose future with the team remains in serious doubt, that clinched the win, crushing a three run homer in the 11th inning to send the Jays to the American League Divisional Series against the Texas Rangers (which they also won, before losing to Cleveland in the American League Championship Series). The Jays may not have overcome the admittedly high expectations we set for them, but they were still our team and better than most.

The Kite Story in “Master Harold”… and the boys (October 8–23)

Left to right, Andre Sills, James Daly, and Allan Louis star in Master Harold... and the boys. Photo by David Cooper.

Left to right, André Sills, James Daly, and Allan Louis star in “Master Harold”… and the boys. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s extraordinarily hard to distill the best Toronto theatre (or #TheaTO) of 2016 down to one moment. There were several truly exceptional “moments” on stage this year: the endlessly surprising suitcase in Acquiesce, the arterial spray in Pomona, d’bi.young anitafrika’s shout out to Black Lives Matter in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage. But if we have to pick just one dramatic moment, we’ll go with the kite story in Obsidian Theatre’s “Master Harold”… and the boys, their co-production with the Shaw Festival, that received a too-brief run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The story makes two appearances in Athol Fugard’s play; once, as a rose-tinged childhood reminiscence by Hally (James Daly) and again as a heartbreaking reveal of the boys naiveté by Sam (André Sills). In between, a gulf widens between the two, caused by systematic racism—though the fact that an older and wiser Fugard recognized it and wrote so devastatingly about the supposedly semi-autobiographical rift is cause for optimism.

The Premiere of CBC’s Kim’s Convenience (October 11)

It’s been a very, very long time since there’s been a Canadian sitcom like Kim’s Convenience. Our hit comedic shows, particularly on CBC, have for the past few decades focused on more remote areas (or time periods) of our enormous country: the tiny prairie locales of Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, the particularly St. John’s mix of small town and city in Republic of Doyle; the sordid Trailer Park Boys, set outside Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. One could even argue that there hasn’t been a truly Toronto-set comedy hit in Canada since King of Kensington in the 1970s. That deep connection that Al Waxman’s Larry King shared with his neighbourhood? Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s Appa Kim and his family have that with Regent Park, where their not-entirely fictional store is located at Queen Street East and Seaton Street. The opening credits for the show are a love letter to the neighbourhood and to the downtown core of Toronto, showing the Kims at work, school (Andrea Bang’s Janet Kim attends the Ontario College of Art and Design), and play.

Much has been made of the fact that the series centres on an Asian-Canadian family, and that’s definitely a welcome development. But the series also deserves credit for so clearly setting the show in Toronto, which many film and TV productions, with the notable exception of Orphan Black, continue to avoid. We’d argue that that specificity is one key to the series’ success, along with Lee’s charisma (he originated the role of Appa onstage). The series has just had its second season announced, and we look forward to seeing how the Kims’ lives expand across our city.

The Opening Night of Come From Away (November 23)

2016 has been a banner year for Canadian musicals. Ride The Cyclone, which debuted at the SummerWorks Festival and enjoyed several sold out runs at Theatre Passe Muraille, just made the New York TimesBest Theatre of 2016 list for their off-Broadway staging; Counting Sheep, the interactive activist experience created by Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra and initially produced by SummerWorks, made WhatsOnStage‘s Top 10 list in the UK, won the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First award, and was shortlisted for Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award.

But the biggest story in Canadian musical history may be yet to come. After enjoying rave reviews in San Francisco and Washington, Come From Away, written by East End couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff and workshopped in Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project, had its proper Toronto premiere to a resounding standing ovation. The show subsequently sold out its entire run here in advance of its February 2017 premiere on Broadway.

Will Come From Away take New York by storm in 2017? This writer thinks so. As Gander’s mayor, Claude Elliott, said on stage on opening night, after watching the show he was portrayed in: “I think the world we live in today needs the good stories, and this is certainly a good story.”

Toronto FC Win the Eastern Conference Final (November 30)

The Toronto Football Club made history this year as the first Canadian team to reach the Major League Soccer’s Cup finals, though they lost the cup to a stultifying defensive shut down—and a subsequent penalty kick shootout—by the Seattle Sounders. The definite highlight of the season happened in front of a capacity crowd at BMO Field, when the FC scored two extra time goals to lock up the series against the Montreal Impact, despite star player Sebastian Giovinco having left the game injured.

Spirits Comedy Celebrates 20 Years of Stand-Up (December 14)

Cal Post hosted the 20th anniversary show of Spirits Comedy this month. Photo by Ryan Dillon.

Cal Post hosted the 20th anniversary show of Spirits Comedy this month. Photo by Ryan Dillon.

Toronto’s comedy community reacted with deep sorrow at the passing of Jo-Anna Downey this month, after several years battling ALS. The stand-up, known by most comics as “Momma,” launched a weekly open mic at Spirits in 1996 and maintained the show for a remarkable 17 years, encouraging and helping develop hundreds of Toronto comics before handing hosting duties over to Cal Post when Lou Gehrig’s disease robbed her of her previously boisterous voice. Downey died on December 1; the December 7 edition of Spirits Comedy was a rowdy wake for her, and the December 14 edition marked 20 years of the show she’d created. Post intends for the show to carry on, week by week, for years to come: “It’s an honour to carry on Jo-Anna’s legacy and continue the playground she built 20 years ago,” he told us.