Feature: Rhubarb Festival (Buddies In Bad Times)

Rhubarb Festival at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times builds community through the arts


The Department of Canadian Heritage has recently asserted – foolishly, I believe – that the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times does not build community through the arts. Balderdash, I say, and also fiddlesticks and hornswoggle and a lot of other ejaculations of incredulity that I started using only once I had a small child. Rhubarb Festival is, if nothing else, a tremendous feat of community engagement in experimental performance work and with the artistic process. It is a delightful example of what happens when you let a variety of artists across and between disciplines just… do their thing.

You get the powerhouse duo of Gein Wong and Catherine Hernandez, joined by Rehana Tejpar, making queer work about family and community, choices and certainties – in a swimming pool, specifically in the swimming pool of a sex club, with the tremendous underwater ballet projected bigger-than-lifesize onto the wall. You get venerable theatre risk-taker Bruce Dow composing the bones (and teeth) of an opera in order to tell the story of teenagers loving and hating in a very dangerous time. You get Sharron Matthews, who could make a Beefeater laugh until he peed his crimson trousers, walk on the dark side of cabaret and sing her discontents and disappointments along with a live band. And you get kumari giles, a well-known and talented member of Ill Na Na/DiverseCity Dance Company, branching out into solo performance with their work Things I Cannot Speak.

Meanwhile, emerging artists get a chance to share an audience with, for example, the people who will go anywhere that clown duo Morro & Jasp might be doing anything at all, or that community of aerial admirers whose primary theatrical orientation is people declaiming while hanging by their toes (as the actor in Susannah Bird does). With a $20 ticket good for all night (I remain hopeful that the tickets for Rhubarb will someday be brothel-style wooden nickels imprinted with the phrase) there’s plenty of opportunity to see other work once you’re in the door. Gay drag sex opera while we’re here, dear? Why not.

(also, dear nerds, I would be remiss not to advise you that although it requires a jaunt out of the way, the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archive is hosting short performances on a historical theme each night. Want to slow-dance while an actor murmurs memories of the Ye Olde Gaye Days in your ear? Or sit through a version of post-bathhouse-raid processing? Do it.)

While not everyone is working outside their usual idiom here, it’s easy to see where Rhubarb‘s short format and fast pace gives artists a chance to show a little bit of something new to a much bigger, much more varied audience than they otherwise would. And the audience, for our delighted part, gets to peek in on work that’s still damp and wobbly, still finding its legs and voice. Some of the Rhubarb work has gone on to full-length performance and great acclaim, while some are ideally suited for exactly what they are here at Rhubarb: tiny jewels.


  • Rhubarb Festival plays through 22 February on a highly irregular and totally delightful schedule. Visit the website to see what’s when, and where it happens.
  • Ticket price is $20 per evening at Buddies In Bad Times, with offsite events being Pay What You Can.
  • Tickets may be had at the box office (12 Alexander Street), by phone at 416-975-8555 or online.