A festival reimagined, over and over: SkirtsAfire 2021

Makings of a Voice, by and starring Dana Wylie. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Reimagine. Repeat. Reimagine. Repeat….

What does it take to open a theatre and multidisciplinary, multi-location arts festival in the ever-shifting COVID-ian landscape of March 2021? The 9th annual edition of SkirtsAfire, Edmonton’s ever-expanding wide-embrace showcase of the talents, the stories, the voices of women and non-binary artists, is something of a test case.

A rare and exquisite combination of adaptability, creativity and unstoppable persistence, the kind possessed only by the species Artist, in short, seems to be de rigueur. As the indefatigable festival director Annette Loiselle attests en route to Thursday’s “opening night” ceremonies, the exact configuration of online and live in this year’s 10-day SkirtsAfire, has been recalibrated constantly since the new year began. Not least because (a) the festivities include performance and exhibition: theatre, musical, poetry, dance, visual arts, in innovative combos, and (b) the official Alberta government Covid restrictions are bafflingly inconsistent when it comes to theatre.

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Loiselle, an actor/ director/ playwright herself of buoyant personality who was a founding parent of another of E-town’s seminal cultural institutions (the Freewill Shakespeare Festival), knows what it’s like to back up the back-up plan of the back-up plan. The mainstage premiere of Makings of a Voice, Dana Wylie’s “theatrical song cycle,” an original musical exploration of intergenerational identity,  happens Monday, International Women’s Day, online in a film version — instead of a live-streamed version from the Westbury Theatre, instead of a live run for a reduced, socially distanced live audience in that venue. Tickets: skirtsafire.com.

Annette Loiselle, artistic director of SkirtsAfire Festival. Photo by April MacDonald Killins.

As Loiselle tells it, the route to Monday’s opening has been an arc of hopes and hopes dashed,  adjustments and readjustments.The AHS restrictions of December, which forbade gatherings of a live audience in theatres, allowed for exemptions for theatrical livestreaming, for solo shows with a distanced and reduced crew (like Northern Light Theatre’s The Look). Those exemptions were pulled in January. “So we started rehearsals on Zoom,” says Loiselle of Vanessa Sabourin’s production. “We had to lose the three live musicians,” she sighs, “not knowing if we could even use the Westbury.…” By January 29, all theatre venues were off-limits, unlike say hair salons or churches or film sets — ah, or markets. Enter the old Army and Navy in Strathcona.

The Key of Me, SkirtsAfire 2021. Photo by April MacDonald Killins

In a collaboration with the Wild Heart Collective, that venue is where filming of Makings of a Voice happened. “And we’re having a live music stage there, in the display window pumping music out into Strathcona,” says Loiselle. The Key Of Me stage features pop-up performances (Thursday through Sunday, and March 11 to 14), by a whole gallery of singer-songwriters, including two of the three musicians originally slated to play alongside Wylie in Makings of A Voice (Bille Zizi and Kirsten Elliott). They’re safely behind glass; the sound is for you to savour as you stroll by (masked and distanced, natch).

There’s irony attached, of course. “It goes against all our natural instincts to tell the audience not to gather,” as Loiselle says of the 10-person maximum on the street. But if there’s a silver lining, she thinks, it’s this: “having the festival out in the street is a chance to build a new audience.”

Visible from the street, as well, mounted in the A&N display windows (with The Key of Me musical accompaniment), is SkirtAfire’s visual art exhibition, Systemic Contractions. Curated by Stephanie Florence, its focus is our urgent need for connection, heightened by the crisis in which we live., which disproportionately affects the economically and racially disenfranchised, the elderly, front-line workers. Florence’s audio tour for your device is available to accompany your visit to the exhibition at skirtsafire.com.

This year, in a collaboration with the Old Strathcona Business Association, the finalists in the festival’s signature skirt design competition are displayed in six Strathcona retail establishments: the Bamboo Ballroom, C’est Sera, Woodrack Cafe, Red Pony Consignment, the Plaid Giraffe, and the Paint Spot — all visible from the windows with lighting by star theatre designer T. Erin Gruber. And your vote (either by email or on Instagram, #myskirtvote @skirtsafire) determines the winner.

Since last June, SkirtsAfire has assigned four diverse “story collectors” — Mackenzie Brown, Lebogang Disele, Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, Sang Sang Lee — to gather personal stories from people whose voices are rarely heard in the theatres of the land. The idea, says Loiselle, is a first-hand documentation of real-life experiences in this strange time, unfiltered by the literary or theatrical. The result is Covid Collections, a 25-minute film that offers us glimpses into communities we might never encounter day to day. And, times being what they are, we find these 12 storytellers Zoomed in from their own homes.

Says Loiselle, who directed the film (original music by Binaifer Kapadia, sound by Aaron Macri, videography by Katie Hudson), we meet, among others, “a high school teacher who runs the schools GSA (gay-straight alliance), a respiratory therapist, an elder from the Maskwacis Reserve, a mother who’s a long-term care worker and her daughter, a front-line care worker, an Indigenous drummer and activist, a South Asian consultant with a Jamaican husband. Loiselle’s own sister Rachel O’Brien, who had Covid in the fall and is suffering still its lingering effects, is included, “a good story and an important one,” as Loiselle says. The ethnicities and perspectives are widely varied. Only one contributor is a theatre artist. Lebogang Disele’s story, says Loiselle, “was just too good not to be included.”

Actor/writer Disele returned to her native Botswana last winter for a wedding, and was to have returned to Canada a week after her husband and kids did. Meanwhile, on March 31, the borders closed; she’s still in Africa separated from them.

Says Loiselle, “the end of the film is quite uplifting … a spark of something good that’s come out of Covid.” Covid Collections is available Thursday through March 31 at skirtsafire.com.

Body of Words, Ballet Edmonton. Photo supplied.

The 2021 festival includes a debut SkirtsAfire collaboration with Ballet Edmonton. In Body of Words, originally designed for live performance on (or from) the Westbury stage and now available for streaming March 7 to 14, choreographer Karissa Barry fuses poetry (by Edmonton poet laureate Nisha Patel and Medgine Mathurin) with dance, and sets it to music. A seven-dancer ensemble performs as part of the Ballet Edmonton season. Loiselle sought out the collaboration; she says “it grabbed me and shook me to the core!” Pay-what-you-can tickets are available at skirtsafire.com.

Thursday, 5 p.m., is showtime for this year’s festival. The opening ceremonies, which happen around the Fringe’s fire pit, include an excerpt from SkirtsAfire’s 2022 mainstage premiere, Ayita by Teniel Whiskeyjack, and remarks from Loiselle and this year’s “Honorary Skirt” Wanda Costen, dean of McEwan University’s school of business. You can see it all live on SkirtsAfire’s Facebook account.


SkirtsAFire Festival 2021

Running: March 4 to 14

Where: online (skirtsafire.com) and live on Whyte Avenue, in the Army and Navy display windows and 6 Strathcona retail outfits

Tickets and schedule: skirtsafire.com

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