The Rhubarb Festival offers three very different types of performance this year
Toronto offers an abundance of affordably-priced entertainment, be it music, theatre or dance. We’re particularly lucky to have a vibrant indie-theatre scene, with annual festivals like Toronto Fringe, Summerworks and this month’s Rhubarb Festival hosted by the fine folks at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
With the so-called mainstream theatre’s increasing forays into LGBT themes, Buddies has been steadily shifting its focus towards more experimental fare the past few years, as evidenced by three very different flavours of Rhubarb on offer this year: more standard theatre and cabaret fare, dance and performances for one person only. Perhaps most exciting is Rhubarb’s One-to-One Performances series. The premise is simple: one performer, one audience member, one room. The possibilities (and potential pitfalls) are both promising and terrifying.
“The dynamic is so very different from a larger piece,” says playwright and director Bruce Barton, whose piece All Good Things will be premiering at this year’s festival. “The relationship with the audience is profoundly different, and they’re drawn into the performance in a very real way.”
The solo performance features Toronto actor Martin Julien, and centres around his character’s discussion of a near-death experience. As details of the incident emerge, the sole audience member is brought into the story and invited to share their own related experiences.
“I was inspired by an experience I had a year and a half ago, where I came as close to dying as anybody gets, and is still able to talk about it afterward,” Barton says. “I was swimming in a lake near Manitoulin Island. I’m a fairly good swimmer, and I was familiar with the lake, but I got caught in a current in uncommonly cold water. It was the spiral of exhaustion and hypothermia that did me in.”
Pulled from the water and resuscitated, Barton was left pondering the nature of life and death. His conclusions may seem somewhat surprising. “It didn’t leave me with a sense of trauma,” says Barton. “Instead I was left with a sense of self-awareness and calm about things. But there are people in my family that were left very traumatized by it all.”
Barton is quick to point out that All Good Things isn’t really about the details of his own experience, but rather an exploration of how people respond to these reminders that our bodies are not indestructible.
“Martin will be playing both himself and a version of me, a construct that will invite the audience to take part in his story. Inevitably, this is a very personal piece, but it’s less about me and more about how we and the people in our lives handle these things. When you come close to almost passing, nothing is ever quite the same. Life is very much altered.”
All Good things runs Fri, Feb 22 to 24 at 6pm, 7pm, 8pm and 9pm at the 519 Community Centre (519 Church St). Each performance is 30 minutes and admission is pay-what-you-can.
Mortality was much on George Stamos’ mind when he began construction of Dandy Decay, a sweeping examination of aging, activism and queer history told from his own perspective. Woven throughout is an interview between Stamos and Quentin Crisp filmed two years before Crisp’s death in 1999.
“I’ve kind of sat on this video for 16 years,” says Stamos. “It’s been part of a puzzle that I’ve spent years trying to piece together, the puzzle of intergenerational stories, a bigger picture of AIDS activism in the ’80s, and the evolution of gay Pride over the last hundred years.
“Quentin was definitely part of the puzzle, as I tried to understand his temperament and views which felt so out of place in the ’90s when I interviewed him, and certainly not in step with the kind of ‘let’s tear down the walls and have a revolution’ spirit that I was part of in the ’80s.”
Given that Crisp was nearing his 90th year at the time of their meeting, Stamos feels it’s understandable that his elderly subject’s take on homosexuality came from a very different social climate.
“In the ’80s there was a kind of visceral energy happening when people were dying all around us,” Stamos says. “Whereas in Quentin’s time, it was more waiting things out and trying not to get killed. Back in the ‘80s, if you said something smart they wouldn’t kill you. They might beat you up, but they wouldn’t kill you.”
In the nearly two decades that have passed since the interview, Stamos feels a stronger sense of understanding towards the infamous Naked Civil Servant. “I think I was really kind of naïve when I interviewed Quentin,” he says. “I had enough instinct to know that I was interested in the intergenerational thing, but I was still in my 20s and, frankly, hadn’t lived enough to know for myself, and to be asking those questions. Now I respond, I think, with more compassion towards him, where then I might have respected him as a sort of elderly aunt.”
And does viewing his 20-year-old self on film give the performer pause when thinking of his own future, 50 years hence, at the age Quentin had reached when they first met? “Oh God. All the fucking time. I’m happy that my genetics and the fact I’ve had vigorous dance practice as part of my life has kept me healthy, but I can easily imagine Quentin’s life in a small, dank apartment somewhere if I let myself go.”
Dandy Decay plays Fri, Mar 1 and 2 at 9:30pm in the Chamber at Buddies.
Discrimination. Homophobia. Racisim. Sexism. They’re crimes perpetrated upon us, certainly, but they are sadly also crimes we are guilty of within our own community. Dance troupe Ill Nana explores their own experiences with these issues in their newest show, Fire.
“These are all very personal, intimate stories that the dancers are telling,” says Gein Wong, who acted as dramaturge during the piece’s creation. “They’re talking about growing up as queer folks of colour, navigating life in a way that is complicated and frightening and inspiring.”
Fire is actually the first part of what will be a dance trilogy, and features the troupe both as soloists and an ensemble. For the tightly-woven group, collaboration is key.
“All three of us co-created the piece and choreographed our own solos,” says dancer Jelani Ade-Lam. “It takes such a lot of trust to do our work safely, and to hold each other if we get triggered by what we’re working on. It’s essential that we have a safe environment.”
Ade-Lam and troupe co-founder Sze-Yang Ade-Lam created the collective in 2007, with the goal of fostering supportive spaces for other dancers and artists. “My piece is about the way I experienced racism, as well as the racism within coming out, in relationships and in different gay and queer communities,” says Sze-Yang. “It’s also how I experienced homophobia, racism and body image in both dance school and the dance industry.”
Newest member Kumari Giles empathizes with her co-members, having received a fair (or rather, unfair) share of negative judgment in both her personal life and her dance career.
“I grew up in a very regulated atmosphere,” she says. “I’ve had to discover what my skin colour, my body, my race, my gender and my sexuality mean to other people and to myself. All of those negative judgments that I’ve internalized don’t have to exist in an angry way. There are other possibilities of moving through the world in a much kinder, loving way.”
Fire runs Wed, Feb 20 to 24 at 9pm in the Chamber at Buddies.
RHUBARB $20 per evening. Wed-Sun. Wed, Feb 20–Mar 3. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. 12 Alexander St. (416) 975-9130. buddiesinbadtimes.com.