SummerWorks: An Exhibit of Performance Art

You’ve wandered the Luminato art exhibits, drank too many beers at the Fringe Tent, caught free Jazz Fest shows at Nathan Phillips Square, and saw an impressive amount of skin at the Pride Parade. You may be exhausted from ticket websites, show schedules, and plot synopses, but there is at least one more performance-driven festival that is worth checking out.

SummerWorks is more like an exhibit than a series of shows – one that is dynamic and driven, and asks questions about the what constitutes performance and its nature. “The work is often very challenging; questioning contemporary systems of thinking,” says SummerWorks‘ Artistic Producer, Michael Rubenfeld. “So while it’s always very strong, entertaining, and exciting, it’s also very socio-political.”

SummerWorks is a juried festival that has historically placed a strong emphasis on theatre. Indeed, theatre has been the leader in the conversation in years past but that’s starting to change. This is the first year it is being called a “performance festival” to highlight this evolution. The music, live art series and the performance bar are taking a bigger part in the festival.

SummerWorks started in 1991 by a group of friends. It was originally lotteried, much like the Fringe festival. This changed about 10 or 11 years ago when Franco Boni (now artistic director of the Theatre Centre), who was running the festival at the time, asked how SummerWorks could differentiate itself from Fringe.

“That’s when he decided to evolve the festival into a juried festival,” says Rubenfeld, “That’s really when the current identity was formed.”

Artists participate in SummerWorks in a few different ways. For theatre artists, the main route is proposals: every year SummerWorks receives approximately 200 proposals by the February 1 deadline, after which about 33 pieces are chosen.

The jury consists of arts professionals whose work Rubenfeld values. After two months of reading through proposals they put together the SummerWorks line-up by the beginning of April.

They evaluate proposals, the CVs of the creators and artists involved, and occasionally DVDs if the work has been performed before. Although they tend not to invite shows previously produced in Toronto there are exceptions.

For example, 2011 SummerWorks featured a piece called Shudder, a dance-based piece that was performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. “I thought it was brilliant and I know that not many people had seen it,” says Rubenfeld, “I really felt that it was a show that fit perfectly with the SummerWorks mandate.”

They also have partnerships with Ontario Sears Festival and the AMY Project (Artists Mentoring Youth) so show slots are reserved for those two groups. In addition, Rubenfeld will often encourage artists whose work he has seen and admired to apply to the festival. Rubenfeld also curates the National Series.

The other areas are curated slightly differently. For music, the SummerWorks team selected a series of musicians that they wanted to be a part of the festival including three partnerships between musicians and performance-based artists: Buck 65 & Ame Henderson, The Magic with Jordan Tannahill., and Evening Hymns with designer Sean Frey.

Collaboration is an important theme for Rubenfeld – it appears in all aspects of how SummerWorks is put together. The team of jurors, the artists, and the performances in general all display how collaboration can lead to a great product.

“I think the forms have a lot to learn from each other,” says Rubenfeld. “We sometimes get trapped in one idea of how to make a performance, so it’s really about exploring possibilities.”

The merging of different art forms is becoming an important part of the SummerWorks conversation, crossing boundaries and transgressing previously held ideas of what art is, exploring what it can be instead.

The Live Art series is new this year, and features very experimental pieces that examine the role of the audience in a piece. “The idea to have the series came out of a number of conversations I’ve had with a woman named Deborah Pearson,” says Rubenfeld.

Pearson is co-founder of the Forest Fringe, a venue for very risky and avant-garde theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This year she will be curating this series.

The last piece of SummerWorks is the Performance Bar. “I wanted a place where people could see performance but they could also hang out, they could drink,” says Rubenfeld, “the work is still very good, very strong, very serious.” It will be like a cabaret variety show.

This year it will be hosted by member of the Ron Pederson, and Atomic Vaudeville (creators of 2010 SummerWorks sensation Ride The Cyclone.”

The show is called Captain Ron’s Ship of Friendship. Captain Ron (Ron Pederson) is searching the world looking for a magical thing he has heard of called theatre. Although he has never seen it, he continues his search and ends up docked at the Lower Ossington theatre.

One of the things Rubenfeld stresses towards the end of our conversation is the role that SummerWorks plays in launching these productions that may have been unknown.

“This past year, there’ve been 20 or 30 productions that have played around Canada that either came through SummerWorks or originated at SummerWorks,” says Rubenfeld (primary among them Ride The Cyclone, about to embark on a National Tour.) “I think it’s really important to recognize the kind of value that the festival has, for helping to expose companies to Toronto but also really to the rest of the country.”

With the sorts of boundaries that Rubenfeld and his team are pushing, it will be interesting to see what we conceive of as mainstream in ten or fifteen or twenty years, and how it will differ than it does today.

The 2012 SummerWorks Festival runs August 9- 19.

Photo Credit:

Photo of Cara Gee and Shannon Kook by Alex Felipe