Nextfest at 26: catching the drift of the new wave of artists, online again for a second year

It’s the eve of Nextfest, the freewheeling multi-disciplinary Edmonton festival that for more than a quarter of a century has sought out, showcased, and celebrated the original creative ideas of the next generation of emerging artists. You’ll meet some of them in upcoming 12thnight posts. But first, meet Nextfest Director Ellen Chorley and survey the festivities with her. 

Nextfest 2021 image by Taylor Danielle. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

What’s happening? What’s next? Those are the very questions that are Nextfest’s raison d’être, both for its artists and for us. The idea dreamed up at Theatre Network in 1996 has been a way of connecting with creative minds and possible answers.

That has never seemed more crucial. In a year of grinding devastation in the arts, when the past seems mythical and the future has never seemed less knowable, Nextfest’s coterie of 400-plus artists have taken up the festival’s invitation to collaborate and experiment — online. And come Thursday for 11 days (through June 13) we’ll find them on you computer screen playing with others across the wide spectrum of theatre, dance, clowning, burlesque, comedy, music, film, poetry, spoken word, visual arts.…

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“Just to see the diversity, how many ways artists have gone about telling their stories … it’s really beautiful!” says Ellen Chorley, director of Nextfest and — as playwright/ actor/ director/ dramaturg/ mentor/ curator/ artistic director — an artist of prodigious versatility herself.       

Nextfest turned 25 last June by taking its multi-limbed self entirely online, an impressively transformational high-speed two-month pivot of a whole festival of live performances to the digital realm. “‘It’s April 1; can you come up with something digital?’ we asked our artists,” says Chorley. “And they all said yes.”

Year 26 is different. “There were so many factors at play we decided in December to go all online,” she says of this year’s edition, restriction-proof in an unpredictable world. “Right from the start, with every submission, we asked ‘how is your idea going to be an online digital project?’ And we partnered with GIFT (Girls in Film and TV, an organization devoted to providing tools and instruction in film-making) who supplied free equipment and mentorship…. Quality is definitely enhanced!”

Submissions for the January deadline came from all over the world, says Chorley. “In theatre (alone) 120 scripts arrived in my inbox,” at least as many as usual, maybe more. Which is also a sign of theatre deprivation, “a comment on the situation of people eager to practice their art during the pandemic.”

If you’re in “whither theatre?” pondering mode, tune in to Nextfest’s range of “mainstage” offerings. As Chorley surveys, the new generation of theatre artists are inventive in the ways they go about connecting digitally with an audience. There is, for example, “a short play that’s completely animated” (Butterflies: A Broadcast From The Digital Neon Jungle by Caitlin Kelly). Emily Anne Corcoran’s Artists & Love: the Instagram Miniseries is “a three-part series designed specially to be watched on Instagram’s “story” function. There’s even “a nature podcast,” Sam Jefferey’s Would You Wander, six stories to be experienced while you’re walking outdoors in nature.

And there are plays (Liam Salmon’s sci/fi horror production Arkangel) and solo performances (among them Lebogang Disele’s The Space Between, a movement and poetry meditation on “being Black, African, and a Woman”).

Chorley, a theatre artist by experience who discovered her career more than half a lifetime ago at Nextfest, has been particularly fascinated to see how other art forms imagine virtual performance. “I don’t know as much about dance and film,” she says of the lineup curated by Rebecca Sadowski. “And dance films are blowing my mind! So artfully done…. I love the way that art form makes you zero in on specific movement, on what they want you to look at. The lighting choices! Fascinating. It’s made me fall in love with that form.”

Because the Nextfest offerings were rehearsed and filmed in socially distanced ways during the pandemic — mostly since January and mostly outdoors, an achievement in fortitude, to say the least — and “the regulations changed so often,” the cast sizes are smaller than other years. And the projects are shorter. “People have learned more about digital storytelling,” says Chorley, “more efficient storytelling.”

A celebration of innovators it may be, but Nextfest has always had its  traditions. Arts industry mentoring workshops for artists crossing the fateful theshold into the professional world — on everything from voice acting to audio engineering to decolonizing the arts, are back. Chorley herself coaches ‘playwriting basics’.

Back, too, are the signature Nextfest performance Nite Clubs. The spontaneous intermingling on the dance floor of audience and performance artists is a fantastical impossibility at the moment. But the nite clubs have been reinvented for the times as online “variety shows, hosted live,” as Chorley describes. The Pride edition of the three, June 12, is Hot Mustard, a veritable extravaganza of fast food allusions presented by Hot Girl Accounting. Party-ers are encouraged to “dress to impress” (sequins are appreciated).

And, yes, for the sixth year, Nextfest contributes an original wall mural to the scene: look for Haylee Fortin’s work on the Backstage Theatre shop doors.

Nextfest is one of those festivals that eludes easy quantification. But in all, there are about 90 events, six or so more projects than last year. After a 2020 edition in which they weren’t included, the visual arts are back. As Chorley explains, the work of 10 artists is  showcased in three festival galleries: the windows at the defunct Strathcona Army and Navy (for street viewing), the Next Act Pub (restrictions permitting, six in-person viewers at a time may be allowed in), and Lowlands Project Space in Highlands (single-household groups, by appointment only). And curator Rebecca Pickard has created a film round-up (available June 11 and 13).

Nextfest (ASL-captioned in every particular) is free for the watching; you don’t need a ticket — thanks to the continuing support of Theatre Network, funders, the adopt-an-artist program, and your welcome donations. All you need to ride the next wave is your wi-fi connection.


Nextfest 2021

Theatre: Nextfest Arts Company

Where to watch: free online

Running: Thursday through June 13

Full schedule and program:


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