By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
When you ask Nextfest artistic director Ellen Chorley what’s new at the festival this year, she laughs. “Everything!” she says of the 27th annual edition of the influential multi-disciplinary festival that showcases and celebrates emerging artists.
“Really, the whole thing is about being new — new projects, new artists, new connections, new building!” Yes, after two years of its creative captures of live-ness online, not only is Nextfest back live Thursday, it’s in a deluxe new building, Theatre Network’s Roxy Theatre on 124th Street. “Really, the only thing that’s constant about the festival,” as Chorley says, “is that it’s still 11 days (and nights).”
Starting Thursday, Nextfest will be happening “in a wealth of venues … under one roof!” And not just under but on that roof. “It’s so beautifully built for a return to live; we’re so excited to be gathering! There’s nothing like being in the same room with people,” says Chorley, from her new location in the glass-walled office on the Roxy’s second floor. “Folks can show up at 10 a.m. and stay in the building all day long. And pop out to The Duchess for a coffee and a treat and then keep going with us till 2 a.m.!”
Nextfest artists, who number just over 500 at the moment, are poised to invade every nook and cranny of the building. No, there’s nothing officially programmed in the deluxe, very elegant Art Deco-inspired bathroom at the moment. But the curators of Nextfest’s signature themed performance Nite Clubs “are talking about it… Maybe you’d go into a stall and have a moment to write down your biggest fear or something like that,” declares Chorley, a multi-faceted theatre artist herself (actor/ playwright/ director/ producer/ mentor) who’s an indefatigable talent scout and perpetually in brainstorming mode.
As she explains, three of the six mainstage theatre offerings, and all the dance (some nine new pieces grouped into three productions), happens in the Nancy, the 200-seat Nancy Power Theatre. The three other mainstage theatre productions, and all the high school theatre shows, are in the Lorne, the re-configurable “close and personal” downstairs black box Lorne Cardinal Theatre. It’s attached to the lobby bar where Nextfest artists and audiences will congregate.
The multi-disciplinary festival and its 50-plus “events” are our window into the creative minds of the next generation of artists: game-changers in theatre, music, dance, film, visual arts, comedy, poetry…. and the performance art that resists every category.
It all happens under the banner “come for the art, stay for the party.” Says Chorley, “meeting new people, introducing people, making new connections and starting collaborations that go on for decades … is a big part of what we do.” She points to her own theatre career which dates back to high school involvement in Nextfest.
“Nothing is based on ticket sales…. It’s a presentation model. We pay projects an honorarium to be part of the festival (Theatre Network keeps the ticket sales), and they divide it how they want…. Artists just have to be in charge of making the art, not the selling of the art, filling seats, marketing.”
Theatre at Nextfest exists in a three-tiered way, tailored to scripts at every stage of development. The bright, airy above-ground rehearsal hall is the site of four ‘workshop readings’. For a playwright, “it’s a first opportunity to hear their play read out loud to an audience — by actors, not just the voices in their head,” as Chorley puts it.
There are three ‘progress showings’, which Chorley describes as involving “a little bit of tech … a bit past a workshop reading but not a whole mainstage production.” Two of the three creators have been at Nextfest before, with other projects. For the last two years Lauren Brady, for example, has done “clown-based movement work in our online festivals. InterWEBBED, billed as “a sci-fi clown thriller,” capitalizes on that experience. It’s “a solo show about the uses of technology through the eyes of a clown,” as Chorley describes the piece, en route to a fully realized stage version.
The six high-contrast “mainstage shows” each with four performances, vary in their Nextfest history and development. Gabby Bernard’s Stone and Soil, for example, has a Nextfest history: it was an online reading last year. One, Host Town, is a concert/ song cycle. Chuckle Ruckus is sketch comedy. Moonie and Maybee is set in a graveyard by moonlight. The Shadow and the Fool; a Progress Showing for a Process Growing is billed as a “hybrid lecture-performance.”
“It’s important to us to meet a project where it’s at,” says Chorley. Shyanne Duquette’s Omisimawiw (Cree for older sister) tells a remarkable sibling story, “one that’s really important to the playwright so we didn’t want to rush it…. It was about getting the script in front of the audience and getting their feedback.” It will be on the Nancy Power stage as a workshop reading.
You’ll meet Nexfest playwrights in upcoming 12thnight posts.
In an age where creating and producing are more closely linked than ever before — and on the extremely persuasive theory that producers are taught not born — Nextfest’s new “emerging producer” program fills a niche. The two traditional routes — maxing your credit card for a Fringe show (“I’m still paying it off!” says Chorley) and taking arts admin at MacEwan University — aren’t accessible to everyone.
Six participants took Producing 101 every Monday evening starting in January. And now, thanks to a provincial multi-cultural Indigenous inclusion grant, they’re “assistant producers” in charge of hands-on projects at festivals (Nextfest, SkirtsAfire, Found Fest, and the Fringe).
“The pandemic forced people to ask themselves what kind of artist am I going to be? And how am I going to get my art out there?” says Chorley, a playwright who started a kids’ theatre company and a burlesque troupe to produce her own work. “I love producing! And producing really changed the game for me,”
When you come to Nextfest you can see visual art exhibitions and installations in three gallery spaces. You can watch films made by up-and-comers (or save those experiences for online). There’s a choose-your-own-journey podcast (created by playwright Hayley Moorhouse); there are talkbacks, workshops, showcases. There’s even online content (“we had to learn so much the last two years”). And back live, which is where they work best, there are four niteclubs (including the time-honoured Smut Cabaret and a Pride night), fashioned and produced by young arts presenters and troupes. They’ll have the run of the building.
But first there’s opening night. It starts across 124th St. at The Lot Thursday night, and moves back into the Roxy. Says Chorley, “a lot of artists will be in the building for the first time during the festival. I betcha by next year, there’ll be a show in the elevator, or on the stairs!”
Theatre: Nextfest Arts Company
Where: Theatre Network‘s Roxy Theatre, 10708 124 St.
Running: Thursday through June 12
Tickets and complete schedule: nextfest.ca