By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“What would be the craziest thing that could happen next?”
That’s the question — a very Nextfest sort of question — that playwright Ashleigh Hicks asked herself, moment by moment, as she was writing Garnish, premiering Thursday at Edmonton’s unique multi-disciplinary celebration of emerging artists, one of six mainstage productions. And it has something in common with the bold group improvisations that find their way into Nest, a collective creation that makes it debut on the festival mainstage Saturday.
The one is a scripted play, by a writer who was emboldened to “create a play by the seat of my pants…. It was like the closet doors that open in Monster Inc,” Hicks says, amused.
The other is a collection of vignettes devised by a five-member ensemble, the In Arms Collective, who did their brainstorming physically, up on their feet. Stuart McDougall, laughing, calls it “bodystorming.”
“We knew we’d be building a nest onstage,” he says, as a response to queer identity and gender expression, and the need to choose your own family and make yourself a home. After that, though, the In Arms Collective — artists in their early ‘20s who met at the U of A — was prepared to be surprised.
“We didn’t see a lot of queer performance going on,” says McDougall, a recent acting grad. “So, this is Edmonton, make your own! That’s what we did…. There’s nothing more Edmonton than taking a risk, and just doing it!” he declares. “We use theatre as our medium — it’s play, and ritual, and the opportunity to share a live experience with someone who’s there for you!”
The vignettes, “which range from the absolutely ridiculous to the heartbreakingly simple,” all explore the queer experience in some way. “We’re trying to reflect our own experiences, and connect to our community. We not trying to represent all gay people…. After all, most of us are very white,” says McDougall, who made his Nextfest debut five years ago as an actor. He’s been back every June since.
There’s a certain freewheeling elastic quality to the show McDougall describes. Every performance of Nest has dance breaks, audience participation in choosing costumes and doing make-up, and a 10-minute slot for a guest. Says McDougall, “each show will have its own flavour, be its own event.”
The guests include musical acts, one dance performance, and, intriguingly, “one philosophy essay,” accompanied by projections and singing.
Hicks, born and raised in Cape Breton before she came west, thinks that “Nextfest is the reason I decided to pursue playwriting in the first place!”
Last year Hicks’s play Wolves premiered on the Nextfest mainstage. In January 2016 she was working on another show — “75 pages of a play I hated, to meet a deadline” — when Garnish upstaged it in a three-day outburst of creativity. “I started with a bunch of boxes onstage,” Hick says, along with the thought that “whatever prop I need can come out of a box — an umbrella, a microwave, a functional poster. Ah, or a character….”
And so it began. Now there are 50 boxes, of all shapes and sizes. “And four actors pop out of boxes; it’s very sweaty in there, I think!”
The premise of Garnish, says Hicks, “is two good friends who discover that one of them is telling a lie, which puts a crimp in their friendship. And that gets worse ….. I hope it’s funny. But there’s a sad core to the play, based on the unravelling of this close companionship.”
“It’s goofy, nonsensical. Musical instruments get played badly. Which I find hilarious.” Hicks laughs. “I’ve written nothing like it before. Or after.”
“I think Garnish is a very Nextfest sort of play…. It’s colourful, messy, loud, chaotic. It never stands still.”
For the full schedule of Garnish and Nest performances on the Roxy stage at Nextfest, see nextfest.org. Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca, or in person at the Theatre Network box office, 8529 Gateway Blvd.