Making indie theatre just got less lonely: RISER goes national and comes to Edmonton

Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava in Mouthpiece, RISER Toronto 2015. Photo by Joel Clifton.

By Liz Nicholls,

Even at the best of times (which I think we can all agree this is not) It’s hard, high-risk work producing indie theatre.

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Bright creative innovative ideas that find their natural habitat in independent theatre arrive onstage, if they do, trailing an exhausting to-do list: raising money, finding rehearsal space and a venue for the show, marketing, publicity, gathering an audience…. Every indie project starts from ground zero, at the bottom of a very high hill.

So here’s news to gladden the heart (and there’s a certain buoyancy attached to its name): RISER Edmonton. This theatre town will be the launch for a planned national expansion of a visionary 2014 initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre. It’s “a collaborative producing model,” designed to address the daunting challenges of producing independent theatre.

Beth Dart, of Common Ground Arts Society, RISER’s host company in Edmonton, describes it as “helping to support independent artists and companies by reducing production costs and proving them with ongoing specialized mentorship throughout the process…. It collects, in a centralized place, the resources that already exist in our community.”

Which brings us to the crucial arts relationships that the program brokers. RISER is a tangible example of artists helping artists. RISER Edmonton has four very different inaugural senior theatre partners, leaders all in the Edmonton scene: Fringe Theatre, the Citadel, Catalyst, and Azimuth. So the relationships will be custom-tailored to the project.

“It’s all about bringing a community together and sharing resources the lighten the risk that’s incurred by producing independently,” says Dart.  In Toronto, the metric RISER uses is that the program reduces indie production costs by, on the average, a third. “The whole purpose is to give artists the opportunity to experiment, to take their project beyond …” beyond that first workshop or Fringe production, and into the future on a broader stage.

The world of theatre is full of indie shows that took an arduous year to produce, excited an audience once, and were never seen again. RISER is all about stepping up to that chilly truth. As Dart puts it, the gist is “seeing the work have a life, and be financially supported, outside of just the first production.”

A show like Mouthpiece, a witty and insightful two-hander from Toronto’s Quote Unquote Collective, by and starring Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, is an example. Originally a RISER Toronto project, it played the inaugural Chinook Series here in 2016, and has travelled widely ever since.

The well-named Why Not Theatre came to Edmonton in late 2019 to consult with the community, explains Dart. “They met with a whole bunch of companies, big and small, to assess whether Edmonton would be a good place to launch RISER National, and to develop relationships with some of our senior partners.” Given its presenter cred, a network of connections with both indie experimenters and established companies, Common Ground Arts (home of the Found Festival) was a natural choice for host.

1111, RISER Toronto 2019. Photo by Brett Haynes.

And as for Edmonton, where theatre is the leading arts industry,  “there’s so much incredible work that comes out of the community here, and doesn’t go on to be shared with the rest of the country… We’re hoping RISER bridges that gap!” Dart says.

“Emerging, emerged … that doesn’t really apply here. This is about indie artists at any stage of their careers,” she says. “Experimental and new work is really the focus, but nothing is off-limits either…. We’re putting together a jury of folks dedicated to the Edmonton community to assess the submissions.” The deadline for those is April 16.

There are four main criteria, Dart explains, starting with need. “Will RISER be essential to the show’s trajectory? We’re open to projects at any stage of development. It doesn’t have to be a brand new idea, or a rehearsal-ready draft.”

Diversity is the second criterion, “identity and cultural, as well as form and content.” The third is “feasibility, financial and logistical.” In the current age, feasibility is a multi-faceted question for theatre. As Dart says, “we’re at an interesting moment in theatre creation when many artists are leaping into the digital hybrid…. how can that move forward even when we’re able to have (live) audiences in the seats?”  And the fourth criterion is experience, “what are you bringing to the table?”

The inaugural RISER Edmonton will support the development of four Edmonton shows this year, with productions slated for February  2022. It’s a win-win for artists and us audiences; the Backstage Theatre is already booked for all four, two running in rep for two weeks starting Feb. 4, the other two after that.

And there’s this: “it’s a huge positive for us, in national visibility,” says Dart. “We’ll be inviting artistic directors and presenters from across the country to come and see our RISER productions,” with marketing to match.

“What we wouldn’t have given for a program like this when we were starting out,” sighs Dart, who’s half (along with her sister Megan Dart) of Catch The Keys Productions, creators of Dead Centre of Town and other immersive indie ventures.

The loneliness of the long-distance indie theatre artists just got less lonely.

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