Can I Bring Grandma to SummerWorks?

Image of "Terminus" provided by the SummerWorks FestivalEditors’ Note: The opinions expressed in featured op-eds are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the point of view of Mooney on Theatre. We publish them to create a dialogue and strive to feature a multitude of voices.

SummerWorks is under fire from all sides: the Ministry of Heritage has cancelled (and subsequently re-instated) the festival’s funding, the Toronto SUN is out for blood, and the latest Factory Theatre bust-up* threatens to chip away at the audience. Everyone from Stephen Harper to Fred Phelps has condemned the festival, and at this point the controversies and the festival are essentially indistinguishable.

Is SummerWorks just an exercise in fatuous, pretentious art-wank, full of indulgent plays about diabetic Aboriginal terrorist lesbians in wheelchairs, programmed purely to offend the mainstream? Or is it the best of Canadian performing arts: aggressive, uncensored, original, disquieting and stimulating?

A friend recently captured this debate in a single question: “Can I bring grandma to SummerWorks?”

The answer, of course, is yes. You can. And you should.

There’s no point in denying that a lot of what goes on at SummerWorks is inside baseball: artists getting together with other artists to agree that each other’s art is spectacular; artists interviewing other artists about the importance of the arts; artists presenting awards to other artists for achievements in artistry; and so on.

But when you step outside the bubble, a whole other world opens up. And it’s not the world the SUN wants you to see!

Take, for example, the young urban women of the AMY Project’s Derailed, who are about  as far away from the art establishment as you can get. This award-winning group has, with the assistance of several mentors, devised a show to tell a story which is uniquely theirs, exploring their own experiences and telling it all their own way. Identity theatre is one of the most exciting developments in modern performance, and this show is an excellent opportunity to see what it’s all about.

Or we might talk about Barrel Crank, which simply looks zany: a “vaudevillian romp” through the history of Niagara Falls and barrels, presented in a teeny tiny cabaret space. This lighthearted chunk of historical theatre might smell faintly of “fun for all ages”, but it’s also going to be a perfect antidote to some of the heavier and darker pieces on the bill–and its success so far suggests this is a prime opportunity to catch a Next Big Canadian Play while the tickets remain affordable.

My Pregnant Brother, one of the darker pieces, isn’t some pissant theatre student trying to offend her audience: it is, by most accounts, a damn good show. It’s won awards, it’s travelled all over North America, it’s been translated into other languages, and everywhere it goes, it seems to make people cry, and laugh, and think.

If you want to be challenged, SummerWorks can certainly do that: this year’s programme includes plays about cannibalism, murder, rape, honour killing and suicide. But there’s so much more here than calculated controversy. SummerWorks is undeniably aggressive, but it is also touching; it is sometimes pretentious, but often authentic; it can be dark, but just as often it is promising.

And perhaps above all else, SummerWorks is necessary. This isn’t just a theatre festival: it is a proving ground. This is where the promising young playwrights workshop their pieces before they make it big. This is where emerging performers and actors build their chops. This is where anyone with a good idea and some talent can attract an audience and have a conversation with them. This is as close to grassroots theatre as most of us ever get in Toronto, and this process of development and career-building is something we should all be supporting.

Don’t let the controversy scare you off. Take grandma. Take your parents. Take your children. Take your Great Aunt Marge who unexpectedly dropped into town from Fergus. It may not be the safest ticket in the city, but it’s usually one of the best.

It may make it sound like a used car lot, but SummerWorks really does have something for everyone. You just have to discover it, and that’s something SummerWorks has always done extremely well.

The 2012 SummerWorks Performance Festival runs August 9- 19.


*We do realize that the Factory Theatre boycott was not intended by its organizers to include the SummerWorks festival, but it does appear that at least a small number of people will be avoiding all shows at the Factory, including rentals and festivals, until the matter is resolved to their satisfaction. (Besides: as we all know, controversy is just as likely to attract an audience as frighten it off! Nobody knows what effect this will have until the box office numbers come in.)

Photograph of “Terminus” provided by the SummerWorks festival.