Meanwhile, In Toronto…

With about 200 plays packed into two festivals over seven weeks from June 30th to August 15th, there’s plenty to get caught up on in Canada’s biggest city. Alison Broverman is a playwright and journalist who covers theatre for The National Post and the Toronto Star. She also produces podcasts for the Praxis Theatre and 2am Theatre blogs. We spoke to her about the summer that was in Toronto and what she’s excited about for the fall.

Bridge: You’re a veteran of the Toronto Fringe, having won their New Play Contest and much acclaim for your play “Expiry Dating” back in 2007, so you’ve had a chance to watch the festival grow. How has it evolved, in your eyes, and where do you think it goes from here?

AB: The biggest growth at the Toronto Fringe in recent years was the 2008 addition of the Next Stage Festival, a smallish mid-winter juried festival featuring work by veteran Fringe companies. And I can’t remember the exact numbers, but the Fringe itself jumped in attendance by something like 20% between 2006 and 2009 – I think a lot of that had to do with the Broadway success of The Drowsy Chaperone – suddenly, the Toronto Fringe seemed like a pathway to success, a place to see something . And then in 2009, the big success story was My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which was immediately picked up by Mirvish Productions for a run on one of their mainstages, an unprecedented dream come true for Fringe kids.

This year, Gideon Arthurs moved the Fringe club from the dingy Tranzac to the larger and more open Honest Ed’s parking lot, and developed a relationship between the Fringe and the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts (a local theatre school), as well as a relationship with the Mirvishes, but the actual size of the festival and its attendance was about the same as last year. At this point, I think the festival is about as big as it should get (150-ish shows is very respectable, I think). Physically, the Fringe is very spread out all over Toronto, which can detract from a cohesive festival feel. But I don’t know that there’s much to be done about that, since that’s where the venues are…I think future growth and development will be about filling in those gaps in an interesting way. More site-specific theatre, maybe. Or plays on the streetcar. Actually, I wish that happened year round – I’d stop complaining about the cost of TTC fare!

Bridge: You’re also an avid Fringe patron, catching 16 shows this year alone. What entries really stood out for you?

AB: You know what, maybe I’m just getting better at choosing shows, because I didn’t really see anything terrible this year. Kissing Swinburne had awesomely inventive puppets and excellent performances. Craplicker (despite its awful title) was probably the best overall show I saw: funny, moving, and such a great cast. I was also very proud of my mom making her Fringe debut with Act 2 Studio’s Leacock Live.

Bridge: Moving on to the Toronto SummerWorks Festival, you wrote an article for the Toronto Star previewing this year’s fest and how Mr. Rubenfeld et al. have managed to set themselves apart from other theatre festivals (including the Fringe) by diversifying their program to include other disciplines (art instillations, cabarets, an indie music fest, etc.). Despite their own evolution, SW still boasts a theatrical program of 42 plays. How is it that both the Toronto Fringe and SummerWorks are able to co-exist when they reside only weeks from each other in the summer calendar? Are both festivals simply growing with their respective audiences, or will one festival invariably grow at the expense of the other (if that hasn’t happened already)?

AB: Toronto is a city big enough for as much theatre as artists are willing to throw at it, I think. (Of course, I’m very naive and idealistic. And I love theatre.) If they happened at the same time, it would be a problem, but Toronto’s memory is so short that by the time Summerworks rolls around in August, last month’s Fringe Fest might as well have been last year, as far as any potential audience members are concerned. Plus, the two festivals serve somewhat different purposes. The Fringe is a crazy theatre free-for-all, a chance for anyone to put on a show who has the desire to do so. Summerworks is more of an industry event – people enter Summerworks, for the most part, hoping that their work will get seen by someone who might be able to put them on a mainstage somewhere.

Bridge: This year’s incarnation of SW was ushered in under a cloud of controversy, with the Toronto Sun running a front-page story condemning the inclusion of Catherine Frid’s play “Homegrown”, which took (what the Sun described as) a “sympathetic” look at accused terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem, into the festival. While SW was likely a short-term beneficiary of all the attention, are there any long-term affects that the festival, if not the theatre community at-large, should be concerned about?

AB: Any logical person who followed that story to its conclusion knows that the brouhaha was simply absurd, and the people who remain convinced of the evils of funding the arts believed that to begin with. The Homegrown controversy might give some fuel to the anti-arts funding fire, but frankly, the Conservatives have been working away at eroding that anyway. I’m glad it helped Catherine sell tickets to the play, but really, it was just The Sun being lazy sensationalist assholes, as per usual. It caught everyone off guard because that paper doesn’t normally turn its attention on the arts community.

Bridge: Looking to the 2010-2011 season, what are you excited about that Toronto theatre audiences should be aware of? Anything in progress on your end we should keep an eye out for?

AB: Yeah! CanStage has a new artistic director, and this is the first season he’s programmed, and he’s bringing in a bunch of cool international and Canadian work, like Robert LePage’s The Andersen Project. A much more experimental and interesting looking season than CanStage has had in years, which is good, because that’s what they brought Matthew Jocelyn in for. At the Tarragon, I’m very excited to see Seana McKenna play Joan Didion in the stage adaptation of Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Passe Muraille is doing Maev Beaty and Erin Shields’ Montparnasse, which I loved at Summerworks last year.

As for me, I am working on some new things, but they are all very firmly in-progress. But I’ll let you know when I’m ready to show off!

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