This year's festival strived harder than usual for inclusiveness, accessibility and awareness.
It has been a pretty garbage year so far with regards to glimpses into the soul of humanity. But there is something beautiful and sublime about managing—without even realizing it—to find oneself in moments that serve to remind that we’ve still achieved some progression as a society, even if only in its smaller corners. With that in mind, SummerWorks found ways to live up to its mission statement pretty brilliantly this year.
After Michael Rubenfield’s departure, new artistic and managing director Laura Nanni became the head of a festival facing crucial questions of identity and direction. There were also issues of cost for such a sprawling undertaking. In an effort to refocus, SummerWorks began this year with a smaller slate of performances (52 to 69) and the hope of rediscovering a purpose and meaning in the curation beyond hitting a numerical benchmark.
“All of the programming was intentional, we created the program with those connections in mind,” said Nanni.
We applauded from the get-go SummerWorks’ increased commitment towards accessibility this year. As the festival unfolded, we took in shows that tackled everything from the impact of hidden disabilities, to social isolation, to the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people in Canada. While some of the presentations were hit or miss with regards to future staging potential, the degree to which SummerWorks explored and lived up to its core ideological pledge was undoubtable.
Here are some of the standout experiences (for good or ill), we observed this year:
Bringing Light to Hidden Disabilities
With ramps for ease of entry and several shows offering ASL translation, SummerWorks’ physical pledge towards accommodating patrons with disabilities definitely stood out.
But it was often the content of the shows themselves that expanded an understanding and acceptance of many less palpable conditions.
So-called “hidden disabilities”—ranging from chronic pain to depression—are physical and mental challenges that lack commonly understood visible cues, and often lack a full measure of acceptance, or even wide-scale acknowledgement. People with these conditions can feel a reluctance, or even shame, in drawing attention towards them. That is why, for me, as someone with both Crohn’s disease and a functional tremor, it was refreshing and fantastic to see so many shows not just willing to tackle the subject matter head on, but for these shows to be created and performed by people with various types of hidden disabilities.
Reassembled, Slightly Askew took audiences on an immersive journey to experience some measure of the effect suffering and recovering from an infection in the brain can have. Catacombs delved into the struggles with addiction and codependency through the lens of beekeeping. Let’s Try This Standing was as much about the PTSD that can come with a physically traumatic injury as the more tangible wake of the injury itself. Shows like Boys in Chairs discussed bipolar disorder, and The Only Good Indian featured an attempt to reconcile suicidality with cultural isolation. I could spend multiple articles talking about any one of these shows (and quite a few others) and the issues they gave a window into, but the really great thing is to be talking about them at all. The bravery of these artists to come forward and present their experiences with such an unabashed intimacy verges on awe-inspiring in the face of the awkwardness and fear that can prevent discussion in the first place. It is to SummerWorks’ credit to provide them a venue in which to reach audiences while doing so.
“Hidden disabilities fit within that [idea], to provide space for shows that might not otherwise have a platform, to have shows with a sense of vulnerability and risk,” said Nanni, speaking to how those performances were a key illustration of SummerWorks’ core theme this year.
A hope I share personally with some of this year’s creators is that this sort of attention and opportunity can encourage and give confidence towards further shows, exploration and acceptance.
“I hope this visibility fuels a positive trend—knowing there’s platforms and theatrical spaces in which this kind of work can be made helps to address the current imbalance on stages internationally,” said Shannon Yee, creator of Reassembled, Slightly Askew.
Strong Focus on Indigenous Shows and Issues
SummerWorks is no stranger to providing space for Indigenous-oriented performances, but there was just something about this year’s offerings that felt stronger than previous years. Some of it was what felt like an increased number of those shows, and some of it was certainly the sheer standout quality of performances being offered in plays like White Man’s Indian (see below for more on that). It might also be part of a larger cultural shift, education, and dialogue surrounding Canada 150 that have increased our own collective mindfulness and attention.
The Chemical Valley Project was a documentary on the difficulties faced by the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve in the face of the ever-intensifying industrial pollution from Sarnia’s Chemical Valley that surrounds their lands. Just a week before the staging of that show, the Chippewas of the Thames lost their case to prevent Enbridge Inc. from increasing the flow of crude oil through the Line 9 pipeline that runs through their territory. These issues are tragic and urgent, and happening in real time.
Helping that awareness was SummerWorks’ practice of having the majority of their shows be preceded by acknowledgements of the Indigenous nations that lived on the land that each of the festival’s theatres now stand. This year those acknowledgements were delivered often with a more personal touch, with many directors and producers stepping forward to deliver the acknowledgements, in addition to discussing the subject matter of their own shows.
“It speaks thematically to what I do as an artist, the intimacy of knowledge and interrogation of violence,” said Katie Sly, the playwright behind Serenity Wild, a show that looked into the boundaries between BDSM, abuse, and reconciling past traumas. For Sly, the ability to frame a native land acknowledgement in the context of her own play was the outgrowth of several months spent doing outreach and arts programs with queer and Indigenous youth in Vancouver.
“There’s an expectation that people of colour always have to be the ones calling out white supremacy and colonialism,” said Sly.
Darla Contois, writer and performer of White Man’s Indian, said, “The land acknowledgements this year were very much appreciated, and I’ve always felt that the connection to the land will always be where our roots lie. As a larger community, our moments of acknowledgement will always bring us closer than apart and I am grateful to SummerWorks artists for offering that to audiences. I believe it’s a step in the right direction.”
Boys in Chairs Created a Perfect Moment
During the very interactive The Smile Off Your Face, I was asked what I thought beauty was. I struggled a bit with the question trying to conjure up a definition. Beauty is a kind of sublime sort of feeling. Much like the intersection between disability and queer sexual identity, Boys in Chairs offered insight, humour, empathy, and some very filthy moments, but the beauty I found in it was only something I realized after the fact of seeing it.
Attending that performance with me was a highly diverse audience, and a deeply entertained one, moving between laughter and emotional impact, entirely caught up in the moment. That aspect of the experience was notable particularly for not feeling notable. It was really only sometime afterwards that I was struck by how perfectly natural everything felt.
When I went to see The Principle of Pleasure, there were a few moments at the beginning where my attention was drawn less to the spectacular, Janet Jackson-themed burlesque show about to ensue, than the poor fellow holding his T-shirt up to his face, struggling to breathe through the hazy smoke. They had to leave soon after the show started. I couldn’t help but think that a warning about those conditions could have spared the guy a wasted ticket and evening. I then noticed that while there were advisories on the website proper, but not the widely-spread printed program guides many patrons were using to make their festival picks.
There were, for instance, shows that dealt in heavy and intensely challenging ways with issues of child abuse, complete with disturbing scenes, that similarly could have probably used some warnings for potential triggering. The lack of that sort of thing was unfortunate, to say the least.
Yes, the website itself didn’t lack for advising people of the issues that they might find either physically or emotionally affecting, with a particular performance. If the Fringe Festival could find bits of space in its own program guide for some advisories, there’s no reason SummerWorks can’t do the same, or better. Especially when their guides are generally such slick and classy little numbers otherwise (that I keep like a pack rat).
It’s just respectful to let people know they might not be able to breathe well.
Catacombs was an in-depth look into one woman’s struggles with addiction using beekeeping as a metaphor. Catacombs was also an off-site play staged in a greenhouse in Trinity Bellwoods Park to add a touch of authenticity to the whole beekeeping angle. So far, so good. Catacombs was also an off-site play staged in a greenhouse in Trinity Bellwoods Park, where, at one point, a portable beehive was produced and set out, complete with glass window pane to let us have a glimpse into the many live bees moving about inside. Okaaayyyy…
Catacombs was ultimately an off-site play, staged in a greenhouse in Trinity Bellwoods Park, where, at one point, a live portable beehive was set out, and the female lead and playwright, Laena Brown, started doing an energetically wild and flailing dance in what felt like extreme close proximity to the beehive. I’m sure there was no real risk. I’m sure they had, in fact, rehearsed that part of the show without problem. I’m sure that beehive was pretty sturdy anyway. I’m also sure that my thoughts completely derailed for the rest of the show into terrified visions of liberated, angry swarms of bees emerging from a broken beehive out for extremely stingtastic revenge on their jailers, and also the human race generally while they’re at it.
“That’s a complete neurotic overreaction!” you say? Well, allow me to retort:
Remember These Names
With the festival returning somewhat to its roots—downsizing, and focusing on emerging artists, rather than on expansively ambitious new work—we took note of several performers who are in that nebulous category. Jeysa Caridad, a current Humber College student in their theatre performance program, anchored The Nails with a charismatic performance as a teen confused and angered by the bigotry in her new community. Kaleigh Gorka, who we had singled out for her role in And Now The End back at the 2014 SummerWorks Festival, made the wildly uneven Nashville Stories more watchable with a spirited portrayal of a chipper Trisha Yearwood. And Darla Contois, who appeared at the festival last year in Two Indians, impressed as both writer and performer of White Man’s Indian, winning the SummerWorks Emerging Artist Award at the festival’s closing ceremonies.
“Immersive Theatre” is a buzzphrase for lots of theatre creators these days. If your show is anything other than a proscenium-style presentation—with the audience seated watching a show, and the performers on stage, and in no way the two shall meet—there’s a possibility it might be “immersive.” The thinking is often that, in order to compete with the comfort of a couch and Netflix, that the show should be experiential; that the audience-participant’s interaction should be in some way unique and individual.
One might argue that, even in a traditional play with a fourth wall, there’s going to be a unique reaction and reception from each audience member. But, leaving that aside, the challenges of staging truly immersive shows are considerable, and not every company is up to the task. Noted local site-specific company Outside the March preps for months, and has often used dedicated locations; the international gold standard for immersive theatre, Punchdrunk and Emursive’s Sleep No More in New York City, has a massive five-floor warehouse for their show, and tinkered with it for years.
But it IS possible to do immersive theatre effectively on a festival budget, and several shows at this year’s SummerWorks managed it (while a few didn’t). The key seems to be imposing careful, natural limitations on the experience that don’t immediately cry out, “We couldn’t afford what we really wanted.” For Reassembled, Slightly Askew (a touring production from the U.K., by Shannon Yee) and The Smile Off Your Face (the winner of the 2017 SummerWorks Production Award, and one of our favourite shows), that limitation was on the audience member’s sense of sight. In both shows, audience members were blindfolded, forcing them to listen carefully to the pre-recorded audio in Yee’s show, or use all their other senses to interact with the cast of The Smile Off Your Face. Even with the limitations, immersive theatre carries some risk, and not just of someone twisting an ankle; cast members of The Smile Off Your Face told us they needed to take a pause to recover between performances after an audience member’s feedback moved them to weeping. But clearly, their risk was rewarded.
Ready To Move On Up
With the festivals contracting to a smaller scale, and a renewed focus on emerging voices (particularly and admirably, Indigenous and disabled creators), there are bound to be a few experiments that don’t work. But what surprised us with this year’s overall slate was the number of more established artists and companies whose work was still “half-baked” or needed more work (or workshopping) before appearing at the festival. In contrast, it was the younger and emerging artists who made the most out of their exposure, even if their work was still in progress. The Chemical Valley Project, for instance, was still clearly in development, running just 30 minutes, but the material that was presented by Kevin Matthew Wong and his off-stage collaborators was effective and engrossing; it’s ready to move on to another, longer iteration, perhaps under the umbrella of an established organization. Ditto for Shaista Latif’s The Archivist, in which she confidently interacted with her audience while detailing the very personal story of her cultural identity, and for Pearle Harbour (a.k.a. Justin Miller)’s Chautauqua, a revival tent experience that won the NOW Magazine Audience Choice Award; it’s ready to be rolled up and transported anywhere Miller and co. are willing to take it.