Nextfest Anniversary Showcase an interesting dive into plays of Nextfest past

Nextfest has always stood out to me as the real kick-off of the festival season. It’s a mad orgy of all types of art crammed into a quick 10 days. Started by Theatre Network’s Artistic Director, Bradley Moss, the festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, which means a lot to Edmonton’s arts community. The Nextfest 20th Anniversary Showcase commemorate the festival’s milestone by Andrew Ritchie and Beth Dart the opportunity to bring a play from Nextfest’s past back to life at The Mercury Theatre (formerly The Livingroom Playhouse, 11315 106 avenue), May 7 – 17.

Nextfest holds a special place in the hearts of both directors. Beth Dart says, “I’ve been lucky enough to be part of NextFest for the last 9 years, I started as a stage manager and then I’ve been the curator for the Nextfest nightclubs for the past 8 years. What Nextfest means to me is building a community around emerging arts in Edmonton. It offers an opportunity for artists from all different disciplines to come together and see what is being created in the industry in Edmonton and I think as a whole overall Nextfest for the past 20 years has offered really great opportunities to young artists to take risks on original work and really give them a playground that they’re able to get their toes in the sand and really try out new things. Looking back on the cast lists and artist lists from previous years, you see some pretty big names on there, people who have gone on to become industry leaders in the arts across Canada so it’s a beautiful breeding ground for creative artists.”

Andrew Ritchie agrees, saying, “I’ve been involved since 2008, so this is my 8th summer of doing Nextfest. It was my first opportunity to direct something and to get paid to do theatre after school. It was my first professional credit… to me it’s always held such an important place of giving opportunities to people that don’t usually have them. It’s amazing what it has done for the arts community in Edmonton. It’s the main place for collaboration between a bunch of artistic disciplines with the way the Nextfest nightclubs have evolved and the dance and the artwalk and the theatre events… On 124 street now, it’s really becoming the place to be with shopping and restaurants and I think a lot of that comes from The Roxy being a cultural centre and I think one of the hearts of The Roxy is Nextfest.”

The two shows that are part of the Nextfest 20th Anniversary Showcase are Code Word: Time by Leah-Simone Bowen and No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally by Rosemary Rowe.

Because of how hectic my day job has been and how busy this month is for theatre, I’ve combined comments from Beth and Andrew and my own reaction to the piece into this article. The direct quotes are from interviews I had with Beth and Andrew, everything else is my own experience.

Code Word: Time

Written by: Leah-Simone Bowen, produced at Nextfest 2001.

Remount directed by Beth Dart, starring Bonnie Ings, Cliff Kelly, Graham Mothersill and Ben Gorodetsky

Code Word: Time is a reality television-style look at the interactions between three strangers stuck in an elevator for hours through the lens of a surveillance camera seen by a maintenance man who, for some reason, is taking a really long time to help.

Of the show, director Beth Dart says, “I think it’s really interesting because it’s almost as if Leah-Simone had a glimpse into the future with the pervasiveness of technology. It deals a lot with surveillence footage and the potential of reality television and how pervasive that can be. 2001 was kind of the start of it. I think it was the first time Big Brother came out and it was really the start of voyeurism as entertainment whereas now it’s almost constant… At the end of the show, I’d like the audience to walk away thinking about the power that technology holds in our life and how once we put something out there, whether it’s on the Internet or wherever, how much control we lose over it. Because it becomes such almost public property in a way that everyone has access to it.”

For Beth, Code Word: Time was one of those plays that got its nails into her as soon as she read it.”The first time I read it, I was really quite mad at the script. I put it down and I thought, ‘No, I don’t think that’s going to be the one I want to do’ and then I thought about it more and more and it’s relevance today and how small updates could make it really quite poignant. I kept thinking about it and it was the one script that kept popping up in my mind and I kept thinking about how important I think the message in the show is. I easily read 35 scripts from NextFest years past and this was the one that popped out for me.”

Code Word: Time definitely sticks with you, alternating between almost farcical to incredibly unsettling. The show does a good job of leading you to think it’s just three strangers in an elevator passing time until the maintenance man gets there, but from the looks that pass between the men trapped in the elevator, played by Cliff Kelly and Graham Mothersill, you can tell that something sinister is going on, it’s just hard to figure out what until the final moments of the play. As the maintenance man/aspiring director, Ben Gorodetsky was the perfect portrayal of the stereotypical loner who sees himself as being the puppet master. He’s got the technology and a directing certificate, so why shouldn’t he be a famous director, right?

I had a few problems with the character of Lucy (played by Bonnie Ings), the third person trapped in the elevator. At first my reaction was that as someone who works as an analyst, she should have read the situation differently than the character did in the script, however, looking at that reaction closer reveals how, even though I consider myself educated and a feminist, my first instinct was still to fall into the trap of victim-blaming. And maybe that’s the more subtle point of the story, beyond the commentary on our obsession with voyeurism.

Matt Schuurman’s video design for Code Word: Time is awesome. Going beyond live streaming surveillance footage, he also streams in the aspiring director’s soliloquies and interjects interviews with fans of the show that are pretty spot on re-enactments of what us Big Brother fans sound like. Matt’s live video feeds really complement the play’s commentary on today’s society and it’s obsession with celebrity and reality television – even that we’re now creating reality television with apps like Periscope. I’ll echo Beth’s earlier comments about Code Word: Time still being incredibly relevant, despite being premièred almost 15 years ago.

Code Word: Time runs for 1 hour and plays as a double bill with No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally. 

No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally

Written by Rosemary Rowe, produced at Nextfest 1998

Remount directed by Andrew Ritchie, starring Paula Humby, Marina Mair-Sanchez and Lianna Makuch

While Andrew was searching the stacks of previous Nextfest plays, he came across No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally and says, “Rosemary’s writing stood out to me right away because it very much deals with queer culture and that is something that I was really interested in investigating and doing a play that discusses that. That drew me to the piece, and it was super funny and made me laugh right away, but it also has this heart to it… It’s a roommate play about three young 20-something year olds all full of angst and pursuing what they think is most important to them in their lives in that moment and to me it rings true – it’s a very Nextfest-y Nextfest play. It’s about 20 year olds, who I think are the heart of Nextfest. Even though it’s written in ’98, in the third year of Nextfest, it’s still completely relevant today in what it talks about. It didn’t age itself in any way – it’s super exciting and rare.”

The show is about three female roommates, each of which is living her life in that completely passionate way that 20-somethings do. Andrew says, “They talk about what is important for young people – pursing your artistic or sexual or political passion and you’re so full of passion and energy and where do you take that? And finding that direction when you are the most directionless. It’s a very human thing about finding your own path and pursuing what you love. That doesn’t age and go away.”

The other thing No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally does incredibly well is normalize queer culture, says Andrew. “The forefront or the conflict of the play is not necessarily about queer politics, it showcases and normalizes it which is something in itself… There’s two girls in it who are completely, absolutely confident in their own sexual identity and it doesn’t come into any of their conflict in the play. They’re not questioning that or fighting with it in that moment. It’s interesting to show it on a stage that this should absolutely be a normal part of life and the world.”

That was one of the biggest things that stood out to me about No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally: it’s about three women who are going through struggles that are fairly typical of young women and oh, two of them happen to be lesbians. There are many important shows that talk about the particular challenges some people face when realizing their sexual orientation might fall somewhere else on the scale other than heterosexual, but the way that sexual identity is presented as a demographic trait that the characters aren’t conflicted about in No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally is equally important.

It’s also written in an extremely genuine way – although I didn’t graduate post-secondary school that long ago, the passion and the relationships between the roommates was written so realistically it brought up all this nostalgia in me for my post-secondary days. That realism carried through into the way Paula Humby, Marina Mair-Sanchez and Lianna Makuch interacted with each other. I’ve had twelve non-family/non-partner roommates in my life and I can say with absolute certainty that the way the three girls interacted was a perfect portrayal of that love/hate relationship you have with roommates, who essentially become your adopted family.

Code Word: Time and No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally play until May 17 at The Mercury Theatre (formerly The Livingroom Playhouse, 11315 106 avenue). The shows are a double bill and tickets are available for $13 – $20 through Tix on the Square. On May 8, Rosemary Rowe, writer of No One Showed Up to the Anarchist Rally will be attending the show and participating in a talkback after the show.

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