SummerWorks Does Away With “Local” Category

SummerWorks issued its call for submissions to the 2013 festival this week and there’s a new catch. Whereas in previous years the festival featured two geographically distinct categories – the “local” category for companies from the greater Toronto area and a much smaller “national” category featuring artists from the rest of Canada who the festival would pay to travel and host – this year the festival has decided to mix it up. Now the two categories are confusingly named “theatre” and “national.”

“Theatre” artists are no longer limited to local acts; artists from the rest of Canada can apply, but they’ll have to pay their own way to get here. “National” artists are theatre artists from anywhere but Toronto who, if selected, get their travel costs covered as well.

While SummerWorks has been slowly mutating for several years – away from a Fringe-y style festival, away from a theatre-focused festival, away from an emerging artist festival, towards a festival of more established artists (and alumni of National Theatre School) – this latest development is disappointing because it marks the end of the festival as a celebration of Toronto’s theatre scene specifically.

While I was travelling around the country this past summer, I was struck by how it seemed that every major city/province in the country has festivals exclusively for local playwrights and theatre companies (OK, I marked this because I was looking for other festival opportunities for myself, and frustrated every time I found out I wouldn’t qualify because I wasn’t based in whatever city).

Except for Toronto/Ontario. To a certain extent that speaks to the way Torontonians and Ontarians don’t really identify themselves with their city or province, choosing “Canadian” as their primary marker, unlike most other Canadians, for whom maintaining their regional grudges ranks just below hockey as the major pastime.

But it really does expose a missing link in the Toronto scene, and it’s important for two reasons: one, because these sorts of festivals are a great opportunity to tell uniquely local stories; and two, because these sorts of festivals are a key stepping stone for theatre artists to move up the career chain, and here in Toronto, the opportunities for emerging artists to get their work seen in a “legitimate” festival are few and dwindling.

I mentioned this on Twitter last night and got a few complaints, so let me just explain why I say that Toronto doesn’t have a real juried local theatre festival despite the abundance of festivals in the city:

Fringe – Not juried. While I’ll continue to defend the possibilities that can arise from Fringe when you’re lucky, for many in the theatre community, the festival remains a kind of unprofessional ghetto.

Next Stage – Increasingly important as a festival, but it too is moving to a “national” model of scheduling. In fact, the Next Stage web site bills it as “12 days of the best indie theatre in Canada.” I’ll concede that this year’s lineup appears to be exclusively local. Next Stage really does need to figure out what it is as a festival, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

Rhubarb – Not a venue for finished works, and not a venue where artists can get media coverage.

Paprika – Sure, if you’re under 21. Would you seriously call this a venue for professionals though?

Bring the Buzz – Does this count as a festival? I thought this was just a way for Theatre Passe Muraille to fill out a season without paying anyone or doing anything. While it’s a nice opportunity – in fact, the technical possibilities of a successful Bring The Buzz show far exceed a festival show – it doesn’t have the volume or reach or critical mass of a festival. It’s also, like Rhubarb, more of a developmental opportunity rather than the presentation of complete works.

Festival of Ideas and Creation – I think this relatively new one from CanStage has some promise, but it’s not a festival of local creations. It’s a festival of works from around the world as explicitly described on its web site. And it’s centred on a specific theme that means it’s not really about showcasing the best work so much as it about showcasing the best research/ideas in a specified area each year. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not the criteria I’m looking for.

Lab Cab – Is this still going? The web site says the last installment was last year. Anyway, a two-day multidisciplinary installation/cabaret festival, where the theatre works range from 5-30 minutes, doesn’t really count either. You couldn’t present a full show here and there’s no pay. You may as well count an cabaret night in the city if you’re counting this.

Again, I’m not saying that these festivals are bad. They’re all great parts of the ecology of our theatre community.

And there are other development opportunities in Toronto as well, mostly in the form of writing contests/circles and development groups  run by smaller companies, or companies with an identity-based mandate like Buddies, Nightwood, or Harold Green.

And perhaps Toronto really did need a festival for the best of theatre groups from all over Canada. And perhaps the pool of companies willing to gamble on travelling to Toronto to participate in a festival where the artist take-home is usually quite small is going to be so small that it won’t have a huge impact on the number of local companies that successfully apply to the festival.

But it’s a shame that this new national theatre festival came at the expense of losing the only festival the city had that was dedicated to producing high-quality, professional work from local theatre artists.

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2 thoughts on “SummerWorks Does Away With “Local” Category

  1. Rob, the only thing that has changed is the name. Anyone has always been able to apply to the local series, and non-local companies have been applying to the Local Series for years. We changed the name so that it represents what it actually has always been.

  2. Hey Michael, thanks for your feedback. I was unaware that was SummerWorks’ previous policy, but thanks for clarifying. It seems confusing.
    But I think my point stands in the broader sense that unlike every other province in Canada, we lack a singularly local juried theatre festival. Perhaps it’s because our size and general cultural dominance of the rest of Canada makes us look outward rather than inward. Perhaps its because there’s so many other opportunities for play development in the city, and because festivals like Next Stage and SummerWorks — although not branded that way — are largely local, so the absence isn’t as marked.

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