It’s all at SkirtsAfire: An interview with Annette Loiselle

As many of you know, I am on the board of the SkirtsAfire HerArts Festival, a festival providing opportunities for women to develop and showcase their work. This year’s festival is March 5 – 8 at various venues on 118 avenue. I’ve transcribed my interview with festival founder and director Annette Loiselle in a question & answer format as faithful to the actual interview as possible to try to avoid any bias I might have. 

Where is SkirtsAfire at this year vs. last year?

The biggest new thing for this year is that we’ve got a main production of The Mothers that has a 10 day theatrical run. That’s huge for us and that’s something we really hope to continue each year. To have a show that’s a première of a new play or something that’s created from SkirtsAfire, as opposed to bringing something in from the outside, with a 10 day run. Not only does that 10 day run give it it’s full value – the four days wouldn’t be enough – but it’s great promotion for the festival.

Brand new for this year – I’m so excited for it – is the black box theatre in the cabaret space [in the Alberta Avenue Community League]. Having a little black box theatre, an intimate space for a theatre production, is fantastic for us and we still have our cabaret space. Part of what I love about that is people will come see The Mothers, and it’s the kind of play that you need to digest and have a drink after anyway, so all they have to do is step outside and there’s the bar and they can have a drink and see a comedy show that will get their minds off The Mothers and then see a band. So, I hope people stay after the show and don’t go straight home – the show’s only an hour and a half. But just the fact that we’ve got this new theatre space is so great.

Something we’ve been moving towards this year is promoting the workshops more: the Asani workshop, the yoga workshop, and the bellydancing workshop. We’re not just a presentation festival, it’s performances, exhibitions, and workshops. Those are the three things we do.

The other new thing we have this year is our literary salon – it’s called A Place for Prose. I’m quite excited about it because I’ve known Astrid Blodgett and Audrey Whitson for quite a few years… and Astrid had invited me to this literary salon that she hosts in her home – she invites writers to read from their work. It’s not necessarily poetry because poets have so many places they can read, but fiction and nonfiction writers don’t have a lot of places to do their stuff. I was so impressed when I went. It’s so beautiful to hear authors read their work and then you talk about it after. It’s really a cool event… It’s kind of like a book club elevated.

I know one of the things you talk about is – you finish this show, then you go next door to another event and then you go down to The Carrot for another performance. And I know you talked about that last year. Why is that important to you to program it that way so there’s always something happening next?

My hope is that people will go to at least two events at the festival. It’s great if we can make it easier for them by having two events back-to-back – there’s nothing longer than 1.5 – 2 hours. I find that when people go to performances they need to debrief somehow. If that’s over a coffee at The Carrot or a drink in the cabaret space, [the schedule] allows for that to happen and we can still entertain them. And, if they come to see spoken word, for example, and then they go across the street afterwards, it’s like ‘Oh, comedy! Oh, a band!’ so people may not normally do those things. It gets people to try new things. And for me that’s all about building our audience for the work we’re doing – not just the theatre, not just the dance, but for everything so that people are going, ‘This is amazing!’.

You touched briefly on it while you were talking about The Mothers, but I know one of the things you wanted to do with the festival is to be an incubator and take these baby plays to full scale productions, could you talk a bit about that? I know we have the peep show and the staged readings – what are you doing in terms of developing plays this year?

We picked four plays for the peep show and we put out a call for submissions in the fall and chose the four we thought were in a good place writing-wise and also were something I could see potentially producing one day. Something that is an interesting story or something that has maybe three actors, which might be affordable for us one day to produce… That’s the thought behind the four that we chose. And also, one of the playwrights that we chose is just a young girl at university starting with writing and that’s exciting too. They’re fresh, young works and even if we aren’t going to produce their play, the hope is that it’s a springboard for them to keep developing their plays somewhere. So, that’s phase one.

Phase two is the staged reading. What’s becoming a pattern is that the staged reading is one that was part of the peep show the previous year. We managed to do that last year and we’re doing that again this year… The hope is that they get developed along and who knows, maybe we could produce one of them.

The third phase is the full production and it’s tricky because a lot of it has to do with what we can afford, how many actors we can have.

I know SkirtsAfire does the dramaturgy and works with playwrights, and I know Walterdale does too with From Cradle to Stage, but how unique is this opportunity in terms of the dramaturgy and staged readings?

I wouldn’t say it’s unique, there is a lot of opportunity for that in Edmonton. Well, not a lot – there is opportunity, but it’s not often a submission process. For example, with Workshop West, that’s what they do: they develop new plays, that’s their mandate. But they don’t put out a call for submissions. Playwrights just give their stuff to them and they choose. And same with the Citadel too, they’ve got an awesome playwriting program, but they just invite four or six playwrights that they work with every year. I don’t know of many others that have this open submission process, which I think is kind of nice.

What were you looking for when you were programming this year’s festival? Is there anything that ties the acts together in terms of a theme or idea?

You know, we don’t have a theme… Having the main stage production of The Mothers, it feels like we have our main event and everything else supports the main event in some way. The programming after The Mothers, getting those comedy acts and bands in, was a way to lighten it up again. I think the story of The Mothers is a very important story to tell, but I don’t want people to stay away from it because I know there are people who make a choice not to see a show because it’s too much of a downer. But I want people to come afterwards for the fun stuff.

It’s sort of a Sophie’s choice question, but is there anything at the festival you’re particularly excited for?

If we can get more participants for Asani’s jamming and song-creation workshop, I’m very excited for that. I think it’s kind of new for them – they’ve done it before, but maybe not in Edmonton.

The other thing is the panel discussion on equity in theatre. It’s following the Peep Show on the Sunday afternoon. This is a new movement that the Playwrights Guild of Canada is spearheading and basically what they’re doing is they’re looking at the statistics of women working in theatre and they’re going, ‘This is ridiculous.’ It’s about creating more equity in theatre – trying to figure out why there’s not equity in theatre and trying to figure out things that we can do as a community to try to change that. That’s what this discussion is about. Conni Massing is moderating it, she’s the president of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and it was her idea to do this. Other people on the panel are Michele Fleiger (an instructor and actor and director), Mieko Ouchi (Artistic Director of Concrete Theatre, filmmaker, playwright, teacher, director), and Dr. Cristina Stasia (from the Women’s Studies department at the University of Alberta). It’s not saying ‘Blame the men!’. It’s a look at the facts. The majority of people in university and college theatre programs are women and we’re sending them out into the world and apparently it’s less than 35% of women that we’re seeing in anything – directing, acting, anything. Why is that? It makes no sense, especially because our audiences are 60% women. So, it’s a bizarre thing and I’m quite excited about this movement that has started…. I guess maybe that’s my Sophie’s choice?

Oh! And my other choice for things I’m excited about are the opening ceremonies in the Nina. I think it’ll be so cool to have the art exhibit open and to have the string quartet there and to have Laura Raboud playing and have our bagpiper kick it off. And The Upper Crust is catering, I think it’ll be a beautiful event. I’m quite excited about that.

And then the festival opening leads into the Variety Show… tell us about what that is.

There’s 10 acts. They’re all 5 – 7 minutes long. Booming Tree – a Japanese drumming group- starts us off and gets everyone riled up. We’ve got Ask Aggie who is doing comedy on the Saturday night too. Bridget Ryan is MC-ing, she’ll be doing some of her cabaret tunes as well. We’ve got a group called Oh, Dear, it’s three women doing three part harmony of older songs, 40’s and 50s songs a capella. Our bellydancers who do the workshop on Sunday will be performing there. We’ve got Zephyr, which is a group of five women who do french stepdancing. Asani will be performing for that as well, a little glimpse before their workshop the Friday morning. Our bagpiper will play there and a highland dancer will perform while she pipes. Another dancer, Tatiana Cheladyn will be dancing a solo performance that’s being choreographed for the festival by a gal named Anastasia Maywood to the music of a singer-songwriter from Toronto. And spoken word is part of it too, Carolyn Gingrich and Megan Dart will perform.

I feel like I have to ask – people might see the festival and the skirts and the red and pink and think that it’s a festival is meant to showcase women in the arts so therefore it’s only for women. Let’s talk about why that’s not true!

Talking about theatre, 60% of theatre audiences are women often seeing men’s stories on stage. And we’re not staying home because it’s a male playwright or the artistic director is male. They’re good stories! So we’re all going to come see them. It’s the same thing here. These are great stories and they’re not stories that only women can relate to. They’re universal stories so everybody should come.

Where can people see sneak-peaks of the festival?

CBC Centre Stage is March 4 at noon – we’ve got Asani performing, Tatiana Cheladyn will be dancing, and Danielle Deighton will be playing and singing. We’ll be on Radio Active with Portia Clark on Monday, March 2nd. And Poeima Productions will be on CTV on Wednesday March 4.

The SkirtsAfire HerArts festival runs March 5 – 8 in various venues on 118 avenue. All events are by donation. Schedule and event information can be found on the SkirtsAfire website.

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