By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
So, what’s happening? What’s new? What’s next?
There’s a festival in Edmonton that’s all about the answers. Yes, Nextfest is back in Old Strathcona Thursday for 11 days (and nights) of showcasing and celebrating the next generation of emerging artists.
They’re a battalion, 500-plus strong, of experimenters, risk-takers, and potential game-changers. And, as you’ll see in the 24th annual edition, with its 90-some-odd events, these up-and-comers create across a spectrum of disciplines that spans theatre, music, dance, the visual arts, film, spoken word poetry, comedy — and performance art that resists every known label, including performance art.
There’s even a Collaboration Project, back for a second year, that brokers a four-artist team from different disciples (mentored by former Nextfest director Steve Pirot), to create something new together in the course of the free-wheeling cross-pollinating festivities. Will it be a performance? A play? An installation? An exhibition that’s both? They showcase the new creation on the last day of the Nextfest; no one knows in advance what will happen. Pure Nextfest that.
When festival director Ellen Chorley, the theatre artist who landed the gig in 2017, declares “I’ve got my dream job!” (as she is wont to do) she’s not just waxing rhetorical. She made her start as an artist at the innovative multi-disciplinary festival. And, hey, look how that turned out for the award-winning playwright/ actor/ director/ artistic director/ dramaturg/ teacher/ producer/ curator.
“Nextfest is where I had all my firsts,” says the multi-faceted Chorley, who’s founded both a kids theatre (Promise Productions) and a burlesque troupe (Send In The Girls). Her latest play Everybody Loves Robbie premieres next season at Northern Light Theatre. “There was so much learning for me, so many connections,” she says of the Nextfest experience.
A pro-active dynamo who seeks out young talent all year round, Chorley inherited a festival that, however free-wheeling, is not without its venerable traditions. The annual Nextfest Nite Clubs, for example, are late-night one-off themed performance parties that are all about jostling artists and audiences into new and startling encounters with each other.
The first of four, Secrets of the Universe, happens Friday (9:30 p.m. at the Roxy). “The Secrets of the Universe will be illuminated,” as promised. “Space attire encouraged.” Aggregation (June 6), Smut Nite: Garden of Earthly Delights (June 7), and Club Kids, Redux Nite Club (June 8) follow.
Lobby installations are another tradition: original paintings, live theatre … the possibilities are huge. Ongoing in the Roxy lobby, the fashion/ visual artist Dom Fool is creating fashion on the spot, in Shipwreck. “You can see it get built, and there are moments when it’s modelled and performed in,” says Chorley. The grand finale is a fashion show at the Club Kids, Redux Nite Club.
In the Backstage lobby, Eight Bridget Studies, created by by Jen Mesch and performed by dancer Bridget Jessome, is a performance installation, happening at specific times as part of Nextfest’s dance programming.
And, yes, Strathcona is getting a new wall mural, courtesy of Nextfest artists Colleen Ulliac and Deanne Lee of Trashhecticcollective. Look for it in the alley behind 8215 102 St.
One of Chorley’s innovations last year, inspired by her own life experience, was a free workshop series, how-to’s for young artists on the brink of careers negotiating the daunting gap between the post-secondary art school life and a bona fide arts career. Practical stuff, led by pros: how to create site-specific performances in found spaces (Catch the Keys’ Megan and Beth Dart are experts), or how to get grants or representation from a gallery, or how to make rehearsals more affirming….
Nextfest has a protective nurturing instinct when it comes to creators. Theatre happens at three different levels of development. The least elaborate are play readings. There are four, including Josh Languedoc’s Civil Blood: A Treaty Story, whose “found space” is the great outdoors. Directed by Neil Kuefler of the site-specific company Thou Art Here!, it takes you into the river valley, with a Romeo and Juliet tale of “a Blackfoot huntress and “a scholarly French boy,” set at the end of the fur trade. It is the only Nextfest offering that comes with advice to “wear sensible shoes, clothing, bug spray, and sun screen.”
The four “progressive showings” have some movement, staging and design ideas attached to them. Not to mention intriguing premises: the protagonist of Justin Shaw’s solo show The Wrestling Play is an English teacher torn between his wanderlust and his “deep-seated love for professional wrestling.”
Some artists in the six-show mainstage lineup of full productions are new to Nextfest. More often, though, artists “work their way through the layers,” as Chorley puts it. Mac Brock is one. His play Tracks was a ‘progress showing’ last year; this year his Boy Trouble opens the festival Thursday night.
The mainstage shows, divided between the Roxy stage and the Backstage Theatre just across Gateway Blvd., are wildly diverse in creation, aesthetic, and performance style, from the queer coming-of-age tale of Boy Trouble to the spiritual self-discoveries of Teneil Whiskeyjack’s Ayita, which explores the matrilineal continuity of three generations of Cree women. The playwright joins her 15-year-old dancer daughter Miika onstage, in Nextfest’s first-ever mother-daughter pairing.
Once We Were Queens, by and directed by Sarah Emslie, gives us “a relationship trapped in a weird world,” as Chorley puts it, “with two questioners and two movers.” There’s new musical, Marnie Day, a challenging exploration of grief and closure by Sue Groberdhan and Matt Graham, who’ve written musicals together before (Almost Heroes played the Fringe).There’s a bouffon clown satire: Weal Thyman The Third (named for its filthy rich title capitalist) by the team of Philip Geller, Jessy Ardern and Emily Howard, revels in the grotesque. Chorley, delighted at the prospect, describes it as “outrageous!”
The most category-resistant mainstage offering of all might well be NIUBOI X Earth, billed as “part pop concert part late-night talk show.” Chorley describes it as a “variety show/ performance/ late-night” fusion. Guests, back-up dancers, musicians … Every performance will be different. “I’d recommend seeing it twice,” says Chorley.
There are no far-flung performance venues for this Nextfest edition, a plus for festival focus, Chorley thinks. The Roxy, done up cabaret-style for the occasion (tables, sofas, armchairs), and the Backstage Theatre are close neighbours. Get yourself a $20 day pass, hang out, and sample widely from the bright ideas of the next wave of creators.
“Artists will get to see each other’s work,” Chorley says. The multi-disciplinary impulse is contagious: that kind of networking gets to the heart of Nextfest.
The Nextfest Arts Co.
Where: The Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd) and Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Thursday through June 9, full schedule and show descriptions at nextfest.org
Tickets: in person at the Roxy (8529 Gateway Blvd), by phone at 780-453-2440, or online at nextfest.org.