The Belfry’s Spark Festival celebrates innovative, independent theatre
It’s fitting that the Belfry’s Spark Festival is hosting a musical about Craigslist. After all, both the classified-ad website and the two-week theatre festival have something for everyone — whatever their tastes may be.
In addition to a workshop production of Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantana (written by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson; directed by Amiel Gladstone), Spark also features three stage plays, ranging in topic from youth homelessness to a movement-based exploration of the everywoman. Throw in the always-popular free mini-plays found in the nooks and crannies of the Belfry building, new play readings, professional development workshops, plus opening, mid-way and closing parties and you have the recipe for the Belfry’s annual celebration of innovative Canadian theatre.
Not that everything you’ll see on stage is brand new. Take Sign Language, performed by Denise Clarke of Calgary’s famed One Yellow Rabbit theatre company. Clarke says she only performs the largely physical piece, which she describes as “a very intuitive study of myself as an artist and a human,” by special invitation.
“I tried to get into the skin of the everywoman, or the everyperson and let that condition of the 21st century kind of speak through me,” she says. “It’s me moving through various costumes and personas in search of some kind of salvation. So there’s a lot of humour, but it’s also a very honest investigation into what it’s like to be a little bit fearful in today’s world.”
While part of the reason Clarke only does the piece by request is because it’s very close to her, another reason is it’s extremely physically demanding.
“It demands all of my skills,” says Clarke, who has trained as a dancer her whole life, but moved into theatre three decades ago. “It takes me one week to get it ready. I stay in pretty good shape, as a rule, and funnily enough, I would say that probably one of my personal benchmarks is to keep in good enough shape to be able to pull Sign Language out of my pocket.”
Another play that arguably looks at the condition of the 21st century — albeit in a different way — is The Middle Place, a verbatim theatre piece assembled from interviews with homeless youth in Rexdale, Ont. Playwright Andrew Kushnir got the idea for the project when Toronto’s Project Humanity theatre company started doing drama workshops in a youth shelter in the rough neighbourhood.
“I really came face to face with a lot of prejudices and I thought, ‘I’m not really comfortable with that, so why don’t I sit across from these youth and have a conversation and get to know them and start dismantling those assumptions?’” he says. The play — which has been performed at Canadian Stage and Theatre Passe Murraille in Toronto, as well as 21 high schools and several shelters in the city — is taken word-for-word from interviews, and forced Kushnir himself to come face-to-face with his own preconceptions.
“I was 27 years old when I started the interview process and at that point in my life, if I saw a group of youth on Yonge Street in Toronto, I would strongly consider going to the other side of the street to just avoid any sort of harassment,” he says. “What I realised early on in this process of engaging with these youth is that it’s not the youth that compel the person to cross the street, it’s truly things that we have inside us that make us want to move away from those youth. As one youth articulates in the play, witnessing that or experiencing people looking at you as though you are otherworldly or lesser than makes it very compelling to embody that, to fulfill that energy you’re getting thrown at you on a daily basis.”
Kushnir hopes the play has as big an impact on audiences as it did on him — and so far, the feedback has pointed in that direction. “Almost every urban centre in the country is seeing a rise in youth homelessness and homelessness in general. Hopefully this is one little way a group of artists can shed some light and get people to activate a little bit,” he says. “Hopefully, people can recognize the humour and the beauty and the struggle of these people ... That’s the ride that we hopefully take audiences on, is taking them into this world, into this non-traditional family, and allowing all of us as a group to wrestle with hope.” M
The Spark FestivalTo March 20The Belfry, 1291 GladstoneVarious prices (some events free)sparkfestival.ca