Experimental and avant-garde
Canoe Theatre Festival highlights ground-breaking works
By: Anna Borowiecki
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013 06:00 am
Canoe Theatre Festival
Various Edmonton venues
Runs from Jan. 29 to Feb. 3
Dancing with Rage
plays Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8 p.m.
at the Myer Horowitz Theatre
8900 114 St.
Tickets: $30 to $45.
Tudor Queens, a burlesque;Vice Versa; Northern Soul; A Western;
White Rabbit Red Rabbit
Tickets: $18 to $20.
Call 780-477-5755 ext. 301 or purchase online at www.workshopwest.org
Alternative and experimental theatre – what is it exactly? It’s a difficult model to grasp, especially since every artist, critic and theatre company describes it differently.
Workshop West has taken on the challenge of presenting the season’s most avant-garde and unconventional theatre pieces during the 2013 Canoe Theatre Festival running Jan. 24 to Feb. 3.
Rapidly turning into one of Edmonton’s signature events, the curated festival fosters groundbreaking new work. Its main goal is to broaden the horizons of both artists and audiences with live theatre that is visionary, genre bending, irreverent and disquieting.
“Workshop West is a company dedicated to creating new Canadian plays. For many years, playwrights would write a play and then it would be workshopped with actors,” says Workshop West artistic director and co-curator Michael Clark.
“But I realized there was a whole new type of theatre that hadn’t taken root in Edmonton, and I felt I had a job to do. I wanted to diversify a broad theatre palette of practices and challenges. It was really about bringing really cool shows to Edmonton,” he adds.
Canoe provides a playing space for noted international, Canadian and local artists, and mixes them in a brew that in past years has awed theatre goers, reinvigorated performers and forged alliances across the globe.
“It’s difficult to break out of the Fringe circuit and into mainstream stages. We see this as a jumping off point for alternative theatre that doesn’t have another place to find its feet,” says festival co-curator Keltie Brown.
In an evolution away from traditional playwright-based plays, the festival’s six experimental productions are collective creations. No main playwright is involved. The art of the collective allows a group of actors to develop a work from their ideas and experiences. Everyone involved becomes a hybrid actor/writer/director/designer.
Headlining the festival is Mary Walsh’s one-woman performance of Dancing with Rage on Saturday, Feb. 2 at Myer Horowitz Theatre.
Canada’s favourite comedienne from This Hour Has 22 Minutes is widely known for ambushing politicians for the public’s right to know. In a mock-up costume of Xena warrior princess, Walsh’s alter ego Marg Delahunty faces off with the great and near great wearing only cone-shaped, armour-plated breasts and a razor-sharp wit.
In the typical outrageous, original and totally honest Walsh style, Delahunty searches for a missing part of her past. She is now suffering from macular degeneration, a disease that can lead to blindness. Like Delahunty, Walsh too suffers the effects of the eye disease.
“Of the macular degeneration, you just go on being hopeful. You have eye injections weekly and in 87 to 90 per cent of cases you stop the degeneration. You can actually cure the damaged tissue. Since I’ve been taking Lucentis, I haven’t had an episode,” says Walsh, speaking candidly in a no-nonsense Newfoundland lilt.
Delahunty, on the other hand, is going blind. Before her sight is lost she goes on a road trip searching for a child she gave up for adoption during her brash teenage years.
“She went from Newfoundland to Expo ’67 and got knocked up,” Walsh explains, giving a brief outline of the teenage romance.
“Marg goes on an adventure to find her child. When you go on a quest, you usually find trolls, warriors and gnomes. In Marg’s adventure, the bank, the phone company and RCMP all get in her way.”
But along the odyssey she meets up with familiar characters Dakey Dunn, Miss Eulalia Turpin, Mom Reardon and Connie Blue, who help navigate a rage fuelled by pop culture, politics and capitalism.
The second part of her show is The Little Girl Who Grew Up Next Door to Her Family. Born in St. John’s, Nfld., Walsh was given to her aunt and uncle when she was eight months old. Walsh had developed pneumonia and her parents’ house was considered too damp for her to live there. Fortunately, Walsh’s aunt and uncle lived next door to her family.
“It’s going to be fun,” she said of the upcoming show. “It’s au courant and very touching. It’s what life is like. Lots of the time when we live in the middle of a tragedy there’s something really funny.”
At the local level, Send in the Girls Burlesque remounts the wildly successful 2011 Edmonton Fringe Festival hit Tudor Queens, a burlesque.
Henry VIII’s six wives are trapped in purgatory where they are forced to repeatedly retell their stories in a never ending burlesque. But during tonight’s bump and grind repetition, things unravel as they piece together their experiences to one of England’s bloodiest kings.
“It wasn’t just burlesque. It tackled history. It was successful in making the characters deeply moving in their journey. It transcended the genres and made very strange burlesque in that it was done with incredible deftness. The unexpected thing was the emotional connection,” notes Brown.
A second Edmonton-based production, Punctuate Theatre’s Vice Versa, creates a transformative experience through clowning.
Inspired by the Canadian clowns of horror, Mump and Smoot, artists Adam Coyne and Elliot James explore a complicated father-son relationship with humour, honesty and whole lot of physicality.
Tonk and Fozby, a father and son, stand at the edge of a cliff with a funeral urn. They have arrived to spread the ashes of a dead wife and mother, and they’re screwing up the courage to say goodbye. Tonk wants his son to act manly. Fozby just wants Dad’s love. And he’s getting hungry.
“They have a difficult relationship and they’re required to deal with a difficult situation. And what happens is in the moment,” Clark says.
“The other thing is that it’s been done before. They (Coyne and James) continue to refine the characters. They try to ensure that the story has more moments of truth that spring out of what’s going on.”
A key trend in Britain is the rise of immersive theatre. From across the pond, the festival welcomes Victoria Melody’s Northern Soul. Melody finds people doing what they like to do, joins in and creates material to put on the stage.
Inspired by the American soul movement, she spent time dancing with people who dance in England’s northern soul music scene and lived with pigeon fanciers for a year.
Her comedy and charm is filled out with a multi-media treasure of films, photos, pigeon tales and northern soul tunes, a blend of African American soul music.
“She relates her story of different communities in idiosyncratic satire,” Clarke says. “It’s a view into a world I know nothing about. It’s a compassionate view, but also a critique. She’s funny and very endearing.”
Another immersion theatre production is A Western produced by British-based Action Hero. The founding duo, Gemma Paintin and James Stemhouse, were looking “to create something exciting, something that had its own rules,” writes Paintin in an e-mail to the Gazette.
Unlike traditional westerns, with transparent good guys and bad guys, this saga celebrates the genre’s failure. But like any good western it has a gambler cheating at cards, a whore desperate for love, and someone who dies in a bloody gun battle.
The duo developed the show over a two-year period by attending bars and using the unsuspecting audience as collaborators and co-conspirators.
“What I love about live performance and theatre is that it can be many things at the same time,” Paintin comments.
An equally radical approach to theatre is Nassim’s Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit. As a 26-year-old, the Iranian playwright refused military conscription. As a conscientious objector, he was barred from leaving the country.
Refusing to be shut down and isolated, he wrote White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a play that requires no set, no director and a different actor each time it’s performed.
The actor, speaking as a proxy for Soleimanpour, is given a monologue sealed in an envelope and does not read the script until he’s onstage in front of the audience.
“It’s about isolation and losing control and could lead to the death of the actor. It’s a metaphor. It asks, ‘what are you going to do about it?’” Clark explains.
As an incubator of the avant-garde, the Canoe Theatre Festival is infused with a spirit of innovation and trail-blazing collaboration. Brown, among many others, is pumped to see the fresh perspectives targeted to push the envelope.
“It’s the kind of plays we would never see anywhere else, yet they’re not threatening. For some people, it’s still scary when they hear ‘experimental’ or ‘alternative’ but these shows are all energetic, funny and moving.”
A complete list of dates and times is available at www.workshopwest.org.