Zombies, controversial dogs, Death and an apocalypse. All this and more will appear at the Guild Hall next week—and it’s partly David Skelton’s fault.
As artistic director for Nakai Theatre, Skelton has been helping put together the company’s fifth Homegrown Theatre Festival.
Billed as the “only fringe-style festival in Northern Canada,” Homegrown provides a showcase for local artists to stage things that are unique, surprising and often bizarre.
“By doing the Homegrown, we are saying to the community, if you have an idea to do something, to do some theatre or some kind of performance, come and participate,” Skelton says.
Back in 2004 Skelton and a group of artists who had experienced fringe festivals elsewhere decided that Northern artists could put together a similar kind of show.
Homegrown became a venue for people to pursue any artistic vision they had. Rants, monologues, one-person shows and larger productions formed the core of the early festival. The current lineup preserves that ideal.
“In this kind of format, everything is unique. The things I’m sure audiences will really dig are things likeDogtown, which is Roy Ness and Grant Simpson’s thing about Trevor the Dog,” Skelton says.
“And of course Anthony Trombetta’s Undying. He calls it a Rom-Zom-Com.”
Another favourite act of Skelton’s is Ynklude, made up of women from the Yukon Association for Community Living.
The core group, whose members have intellectual and physical disabilities, has been together since 2007. Working with a vocal coach and director, Ynclude has become a fixture at Homegrown.
“Homegrown was the first place Ynklude ever performed,” explains creator Julie Robinson.
“It gave us the permission and the courage to continue to create art that challenges the status quo. The response has been what we have wanted. They are moved to change, not by pity, but by the depth of the art.”
No fringe festival would be complete without experimental acts, such as One Act; 1 Hour, by Sam Bergmann-Good.
The Whitehorse native will have five writers collaborate on a single script in real time via Google Documents.
In the first half hour, the audience will watch a projection of the script, and each writer will be permitted to ask the audience for one suggestion. Performers will then act out the results over the remaining half hour.
Skelton has seen plays produced over 24 hours, but never like this.
“So much of what is going to make this really work is how Sam as an emcee is going to be able to control a situation. The audience has to go into this with much different considerations. Certainly there’s no fourth wall there. It’s going to be a challenge for the performers to make something out of this script.”
Another for the strange and wonderful is Echoes from the Rabbit Hole, by Kim Melton, Nicole Baubergerand Shannon Olson. Their performance is a musical piece that draws inspiration from the works of Lewis Carroll.
Melton sees Homegrown as “an opportunity to explore my creativity in a new way, in an extremely encouraging and supportive environment.”
Experimental theatre is often viewed as separate from classical theatre. As far as Skelton is concerned, any experiment is worthwhile.
“I would say, yes, an inexperienced artist who goes ‘I’m just going to be weird for the sake of weird’ may crash and burn. But if he or she is really committed to the art form, they’ll go, ‘Well, I’m not going to do that again,’ and it causes them to learn.”
Skelton is quick to point out the benefits of trying and failing may not be immediately evident. Audiences might wait 20 years for the fruits of a young artist’s early struggles.
“Risk is part of innovation, and failure… to get going forward you have to have failure. And people are going to fail,” he says.
“Every audience member has to know that. Every sponsor has to know, every funder has to know that failure is part of what makes things ultimately succeed.”
Risk is not confined only to theatre newcomers.
Michael Healey learned this during his eleventh year as playwright-in-residence at Toronto-based Tarragon Theatre.
His play, The Drawer Boy, which Nakai presented professionally in 2002, has won numerous awards and been translated into five languages.
None of this isolated Healey’s latest effort, PROUD, from the effects of political fear.
The satire of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in draft stage last January when Healey took it to Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose. Rose brought the play to the attention of the board, which halted the production.
Healey ultimately quit over the decision. The themes of self-censorship, political interference and risk made the play irresistible to Skelton, who decided to open the Homegrown Theatre Festival with a reading of PROUD.
“It’s an example of cultural organizations and other organizations in Canada having a chill on because they feel that they can’t do anything that offends the PM or the PM’s office, for fear of having their funding cut,” Skelton says.
“This is a play that is obviously a satire. People should be able to make their own decisions about whether it’s libellous.”
Skelton will help facilitate a discussion after the public reading. The right of citizens to criticize governing figures is a matter he wants to open for wider debate.
“I’m going to be putting out a call to people who might not normally come to this thing. I don’t want just the converted. There needs to be a conversation. Homegrown is about, ‘OK, let’s say what we want to say,’ and PROUD is about saying what you want to say.”
Skelton promises festivalgoers something for every taste, something that will surprise them, and something they’ve never seen before.
“What it turns out to be, and how people are enjoying it is something that is so exciting for me… to go, ‘Yeah, I helped make this happen.'”
The Nakai Homegrown Theatre Festival runs May 8-12 at the Guild Hall.