By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“O my gosh!” declares Nextfest director Ellen Chorley, who has a great and natural talent for celebration. “I’m absolutely blown away by how special and magical it is! I’m so thrilled!”
The playwright/ actor/ director/ mentor/ dramaturg/ curator/ artistic director is talking, in her inimitably energetic fashion, about the influential annual festival that has, for a quarter of a century, given us an insight into the creative minds and souls of the next generation of emerging artists.
True, every edition of the festival dreamed up at Theatre Network lo these many years ago has its own personality, as it plays across the pliable spectrum of theatre, dance, music, poetry, film, design, comedy, drag, multi-media. Still, safe to say that the 2020 edition, the 25th anniversary of the 11-day festivities that starts Thursday, is like no other.
For the first time you don’t go to Nextfest; Nextfest comes to you. It happens at your place, available entirely for free at the click of a button. Some 450-plus emerging artists — “more like 600 by opening night” says Chorley — have raised the bar (and possibly the barre, depending on the show) dramatically on creative risk-taking.
They’ve taken the entire festival online, every live performance, production, workshop, coaching session, niteclub, lobby gabfest. And they’ve done it whilst maintaining social distance. Which takes some figuring, in a world of rehearsals
“It’s a daily march of new problems and problem-solving,” says Chorley, who’s been part of Nextfest, in one way or another, since she was 16 — and who has often given the festival credit for launching her artist career. “It’s been an incredible learning journey about how to transform art for a digital platform, how to support digital art…. So enlightening!”
Even when audiences can show up again in person, “I know for a fact we’ll keep some of the things we’ve learned,” she says happily. For one thing, “it opens up our audience! Widens our circle! They can be all over Canada, and the world, and that’s exciting, eye-opening!” — especially since a prime Nextfest goals has always been enhancing artist profiles and expanding career possibilities. One of the Nextfest playwrights, Lebogang Disele, went home to Botswana when the pandemic started, and she’s been creating and interacting from there ever since. “Yes! I guess we’re an international festival now!” says Chorley.
The ease of captioning has redefined accessibility, and opened up the audience in other ways, too, to housebound or deaf audiences for example. And every Nextfest theatre artist has ended up with a useful digital version or excerpt of their work to present to theatre companies as an archival calling card.
Here’s the challenge offered to Nextfest theatre artists by Chorley on April 1 — to wit, “we’re going online … are you in?” Amazingly, they all said yes, and came up with a variety of ways to transform their work (you’ll meet three of them in future 12thnight posts). “They’ve all had to go ‘OK, I imagined this piece as a live performance; how does it change in video format?’ It’s been fascinating to see,” Chorley says. Some shows are live-streamed; some have been captured. Each gets a single performance, plus Chorley’s offer of a live Nextfest slot next year — “if you’re still working on the piece.”
“And we’ve paid everyone to do it,” Chorley says. “I’m so pleased about that… As I well know, it’s very rare to get paid to write a play. And emerging artists are the first to lose their gig.”
How has that been possible without ticket sales? “We have a great presentation model,” says Chorley, who points out that Nextfest was “set up to not be about ticket sales.. Artists don’t have to reach a bottom line or spend any of their energy getting people in the door. Nextfest is ‘presented’ by Theatre Network; they provide us with resources, a venue, some of the tech (technical expertise and equipment), the marketing. And they take the ticket sales….” The Nextfest budget, $160,000 or so, is underwritten by sponsors, like Syncrude, the CBC, the dating app Bumble, the Old Strathcona Business Association, and government funders. When the festival went online, they all stayed in.
Of all the art forms that go into the Nextfest mosaic, theatre arguably poses the biggest challenge for digital transformations, as Chorley points out. “It’s the live element that is so special in theatre, the interplay (of the storytelling) with the audience. How do you do that?”
Amongst the many streaming services available, Chorley et al picked Twitch, mainly because “it comes with a chat box to go along with live content … a way for audiences to engage with what they’re seeing, while it’s happening, and for artists to engage with the audience. We lose our lobby, but we have a chat room. And even if the content isn’t live, the artist can jump in and say ‘I wrote this, or choreographed it, and it you have any questions I’m here’.” This pleases Chorley mightily.
“I do miss the sound of an audience, though, the laughing, the breathing,” says Chorley, permitting herself a rare sigh. “But there’s an interesting intimacy…. I’m sitting in front of my computer right now and I feel like it’s being performed just for me!”
Nextfest’s “performance niteclubs” have required a makeover for the online world, too. The always popular Smut Niteclub has been reinvented by curator Sarah Culkin: All Gender Speed Dating For The End Of The World. Chorley describes it as “half workshop half performance…. Basically, you just get to meet people. Not romantically per se.” Thirty-six people max register, and meet this or that person” in one of Zoom’s break-out rooms. “It’s a cool, funky online meet-and-greet.”
“Connection between people is such an important part of what we do. And that is still happening,” says Chorley of a festival that’s an invaluable networking forum for young artists in addition to its benefits as a showcase.
The other two niteclubs have become online experiences too. The artists invited by curator Mackenzie Brown to The Extreme Supreme Quarantine PJ Party on Friday will in their pyjamas, at home natch. Emergent Emancipations on June 13, designed to coordinated with Pride weekend, is an interdisciplinary assortment of artists invited by Simone A. Medina Polo. Chorley predicts the focus will be music, “lots of it, and DJs!”
There are workshops (the most requested topic is on the business of art and the sustainability of arts careers, subjects not invariably covered in theatre and film school). New this year are free mentorship sessions for participants, one-on-ones with an arts pro of their choice. The most-requested list is topped by actor/ playwright/ artistic director Kristi Hansen (of Azimuth and The Maggie Tree). Chorley calls her “the mentorship queen of Edmonton.”
“I feel like this festival is a time capsule of what emerging artists wanted to make during this pandemic. What was it like creating art while social distancing? Or creating art when you feel disconnected from people? We’ve asked these artists to be so vulnerable, so brave. They’ve had to think so quickly!”
“I just don’t think we could done this, even close, even two years ago…. The technology has developed so much.”
That’s what you’ll discover when you press the Watch Nextfest button at www.nextfest.org every evening at 6 or 7 p.m. and meet a live host. What you get after that is three or four hours of every possible permutation and fusion of the “next,” as imagined by young artists whose urge to create is pretty much unstoppable. Just pray for a good wi-fi connection.
Nextfest, 25th aniversary edition
Theatre: Nextfest Arts Company
Directed by: Ellen Chorley
Running: Thursday through June 14
Where: online at nextfest.org.