Festivals, arts events experiment this fall, bringing big experiences to tiny audiences

The 2020 edition of POP Montreal was always going to be drastically different. The coronavirus pandemic basically guaranteed it. But in early August, as Quebec lifted its ban on festivals, the organizers knew they’d avoided the worst-case scenario, which was no POP Montreal at all. 

On Sept. 23, the long-running indie arts and music festival begins five days of “hybrid” programming. There will be digital offerings, such as live-streamed concerts and films. (These days, what event would be without them?) But for less risk-averse music fans, there’s an opportunity to see some real, live, aspirating musicians.

Some 45 acts will be playing in-person shows at select locations, and the lineup boasts Canadian notables including Lido Pimienta, Jeremy Dutcher, Plants and Animals and Land of Talk.

Audiences will, of course, be smaller. The festival’s largest indoor venue, the Rialto Theatre, typically holds 1,200, but for POP Montreal, it will seat 200. And gone are the days of club-hopping all night. Shows are limited to half an hour to reduce any risk of exposure.

There will also be no bar on premises, which should, in theory, make the mandatory mask rule easier to follow. And if the experience feels a bit alien, so be it. 

“It was important to do something this year,” said Dan Seligman, POP Montreal’s co-founder and creative director. “Someone needs to be doing it [live music] and doing it safely. We have to start somewhere, right? So to me, it’s about rebuilding.”

Polaris Music Prize-winning artist Jeremy Dutcher will be appearing at the 2020 edition of POP Montreal, along with such Canadian artists as Plants and Animals and Land of Talk. In addition to in-person shows at select locations, there will be digital offerings, such as livestreamed concerts and films. (Sean Brocklehurst/CBC)

What’s on this fall

Like every innovation of the COVID-19 era so far — from Zoom shows to drive-in concerts — what happens over the next few months might well shape the future of live entertainment. Because while the pandemic more or less snuffed the 2020 summer festival season, a handful of large-scale events, including POP Montreal, are on the horizon for the fall — and they’re courting an in-person, butts-in-seats audience.

It might seem like a slow, creeping return to the way things were, but as organizers accept and even embrace the current reality, they’ve had to innovate — testing new venues and formats and even redefining how they think of things like theatre. It could usher in a new status quo.

A few more examples on deck: MUTEK (also based in Montreal) launched its 21st annual electronic music and arts festival on Sept. 8. Like POP Montreal, organizers have come up with a hybrid model. They’re presenting in-person performances at the Society for Arts and Technology and Cinquième Salle at Place des Arts, and the concerts will be live-streamed, too.

Montreal’s Centaur Theatre will present the Portico Project, a new series of plays performed from its front steps starting Sept. 24. (@centaurtheatre/Instagram)

The Portico Project at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre is a series of short plays generated from an early-pandemic call for proposals. The twist: they’re performed from the theatre’s porch, or “portico.” It runs Sept. 24-Oct. 4. 

Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre recently wrapped a similar festival of 10-minute works. Called Horizon Lab, it played to audiences of 100 (Alberta’s maximum) at the Citadel’s 650-seat Shoctor Theatre space. Earlier in the summer, the same company offered a theatrical home-delivery service called Road Shows.

In form, the idea was a lot like Tapestry Opera’s Box Concerts — curbside opera on demand that’s become the centrepiece of the Toronto-based company’s summer season. It’s happening until Oct. 1.

Also in Edmonton, the Kaleido Festival took this year’s family-friendly program outside. For the grand finale, mobile stages — read: flatbed trucks — will move through the Alberta Avenue district Sept. 11-13.

Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre recently completed Horizon Lab, a festival of 10-minute works. It played to audiences of 100 (Alberta’s maximum) at the Citadel’s 650-seat Shoctor Theatre space. Earlier in the summer, the same company offered a theatrical home-delivery service called Road Shows. (Supplied)

Differing rules around indoor gatherings might explain why some regions seem to be experimenting more than others. The limit is 250 people in Quebec, but 100 in Alberta and 50 in Ontario and British Columbia. However, one of the more ambitious-sounding projects to debut this fall is happening Canada-wide. 

On Sept. 13, the National Arts Centre launches an all-new endeavour called Grand Acts of Theatre, a series of 11 one-off performances created by theatre companies from across the country. 

Created and curated by Jillian Keiley, the NAC English Theatre’s artistic director, in collaboration with Sherry Yoon, the artistic director of Boca del Lupo in Vancouver, the word “theatre” has a generous definition here.

Keiley favours descriptors like “high impact” and “high aesthetic” when talking about the lineup of spectacle-heavy, outdoor happenings — shows that probably have more in common with a performance-art thing at Nuit Blanche. Said Keiley: “It’s not like sitting down at Shakespeare in the Park.”

The first piece, Something Bubbled, Something Blue, is a riff on a pandemic wedding. The bridal party will be ensconced in those clear, inflatable, human hamster-ball “zorbs,” and 30 physically distanced audience members can attend the scripted nuptials. It will all transpire at a secret location in Barrie, Ont. 

As part of the National Arts Centre’s Grand Acts of Theatre, Regina’s Curtain Razors will perform Trespassers Waltz. A series of 11 one-off performances created by theatre companies from across the country launches on Sept. 13. (Andrew Parry)

Like all 11 works in the series, video of the event will be shared online at some later date, but according to Keiley, the live component’s the thing. She began brainstorming the project shortly after Canada Performs, the NAC’s pandemic-borne livestream series, was launched. Those broadcasts were great, she said, but they were missing something: “real theatre.”

“I think a live, in-person audience is really essential for real theatre,” Keiley said. “When you think of theatre or an event, [it’s] an event where people really remember what it looked like, what it felt like in the room. That’s what we’re missing: that kinetic energy.”

“So that was what inspired this,” she said. “I just missed it.”

No crowd is too small 

Nobody can argue with her there, not even a Zoom investor. And the same reasoning drove Seligman at POP Montreal. “Just having 100 per cent virtual without any kind of in-person experience is not ideal,” he said. “I’ve been at shows with three people in the audience, and even that — there is something about that experience that has some sort of meaning.” 

The gathering limits aren’t anywhere near that stingy, of course. Still, reduced audience sizes have been a dealbreaker for commercial event producers.

“If we were a for-profit enterprise, there’s no way we would be able to do what we’re doing,” Seligman said. As a non-profit organization, government grants cover much of POP Montreal’s funding, and it can take a hit on tickets.

The NAC’s Grand Acts of Theatre was made possible through $ 700,000 in funding from the Jenepher Hooper Fund for Theatre (a one-time gift to the NAC) and support from the RBC Foundation. (Admission is free, but spots must be reserved in advance.)

The Vancouver Fringe Festival‘s budget doesn’t rely on ticket sales, either, according to Rohit Chokhani, executive director of the Vancouver Fringe Theatre Society. And this week, it returns for its 37th annual festival. In a year when most Canadian fringe festivals tapped out or went virtual — and even the Edinburgh Festival Fringe pivoted to video — Vancouver has found a way to go live.

Reinventing the shape of live events

Traditionally a September event, festival organizers had enough time to plan a pandemic edition, Chokhani said, and they’ve created a new “staggered” format that effectively stretches the 2020 program over four “micro-festivals.” They’ll pop up Sept. 10-20, Oct. 1-10, Oct. 29-Nov. 8 and Nov. 26-Dec. 6. 

For the September sprint, the festival will present three shows for in-person audiences, including a one-person play from a performer who survived COVID-19 (among other things). It’s the only production that will appear at an indoor venue.

Rohit Chokhani, executive director of the Vancouver Fringe Theatre Society. Traditionally a September event, organizers of the 37th annual festival have created a new format that stretches the 2020 program over four ‘micro-festivals.’ They’ll pop up Sept. 10-20, Oct. 1-10, Oct. 29-Nov. 8 and Nov. 26-Dec. 6. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

At a typical Fringe, 90 to 100 shows might be running at the same time, Chokhani said, but the reduced schedule makes it possible for staff to manage venues and stay on top of the health and safety requirements. Plus, the staggered format lets them run this year’s festival like an experiment. 

“We’re reinventing the wheel in terms of what live events are going to look like,” Chokhani said. “So we wanted to take small baby steps so that we have an ability to learn.” 

Depending on the results, this extended version of the Fringe could potentially outlast the pandemic, he said. “If it’s a concept that works, then maybe there is something that we can do in the long run. I mean, the festival in September will continue, but what more could we do in the other months to support more artists?”

We’re reinventing the wheel in terms of what live events are going to look like.– Rohit Chokhani, executive director, Vancouver Fringe Theatre Society

In Toronto, the Luminato Festival is also testing a fresh year-long format called Creative Current. “The way I like to describe it is it’s intimate performances in unique spaces,” said Alex Rand, the lead programmer and producer on the project. And to that point, the first edition — a one-night event designed for 30 people — is a bike ride through the Junction Triangle. 

Happening Sept. 19, it features a cast of local dancers, musicians and spoken-word artists. They’ve created original work responding to the neighbourhood’s history — performances that will be surprise stops on the tour.

According to Rand, future editions will look totally different, and Luminato plans to run three or four Creative Current shows before June, when the festival is traditionally scheduled.

Creative Current isn’t a substitute for the performing-arts festival, Rand explained. “But it’s an enhancement, I would say.” 

New venues and formats: will they outlast the pandemic?

The project’s also been a bit of a sandbox for developing future festival ideas. The program allows organizers to build relationships with local artists who have yet to appear on a Luminato stage. And designing a show for dozens, not thousands, has let Rand experiment with alternative venues.

“It does open up a lot of new spaces for us,” he said.

Toronto’s Luminato Festival will launch a year-long program on Sept. 19 called Creative Current. The first edition will take an audience of 30 on a sunset bike ride. Along the way, they’ll encounter pop-up performances by local musicians, dancers and spoken-word artists. (Luminato)

Securing safe venues has been an exciting proposition for the folks at POP Montreal, too. Beyond the three main stages — at the Rialto Theatre, Ursa and Le Ministère — shows will be popping up in secret locations.

“We’re doing three or four shows in backyard/alleyway types of places,” Seligman said.

It’s not exactly a new approach for the festival, but the pandemic forced him to get creative. “It was just a little kick in the butt to think that way, to find new spaces.”

Certainly, the NAC’s Grand Acts of Theatre has been all about leaving traditional venues behind. If the approach sticks, could happenings like these — imaginative spectacles in public spaces — be the future of how Canadians think about theatre? A giant buffalo galumphing through Calgary? A spontaneous rap battle in Montreal? Jillian Keiley wouldn’t object. 

I’m so excited about what’s possible with these ideas, about how we can revolutionize the theatre.– Jillian Keiley, artistic director, NAC English Theatre

“I think theatre sometimes forgets…. They forget the impact of it being a happening, the impact of it being an event, a must-see — you had to be there,” she said.

“I’m so excited about what’s possible with these ideas, about how we can revolutionize the theatre so that it can have a greater public impact. I’m so excited about that possibility that right now I’m crossing my fingers and praying that we’re just going to be able to pull this off.”

Nobody’s ever been able to predict the future, but this much is certain about live events: as Chokhani put it, “We’re all going to have to define what the new norm is.”

CBC | Arts News

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