Feel the heat at SkirtsAfire 2016

As many of you know, I am on the board of SkirtsAfire HerArts Festival, a festival providing opportunities for women to develop and showcase their work. This year’s festival is March 10 – 13 at various venues on and around 118 avenue. To try to remove any bias, I’ve transcribed my interview with festival founder and director Annette Loiselle in a question & answer format below.

For people who don’t know, what is SkirtsAfire herArts Festival all about? 

SkirtsAfire is a multidisciplinary festival that features the work of women. The main thrust of the festival is theatre – a lot of the work we do with SkirtsAfire is new play development, and we have a mainstage show that is a new play by a woman, Gidion’s Knot, which was at the Fringe. Having a mainstage show with a really strong woman’s story is the main idea. But come see Gidion’s Knot before the festival, that way you have the chance to see all the other shows in the festival.

The multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary aspect has to do with the events that happen over the four-day festival. The mainstage show happens a week ahead of the festival and is a lead up to our four-day festival, which has everything: it has our mainstage show, but then we’ve got some dance and spoken word and film sometimes, comedy, variety – a little bit of everything. We kick off the festival with our A-Line Variety Show, which gives a real sense of the whole festival. This year we programmed it so the variety show has a few acts in it that will be seen throughout the weekend.

Where is SkirtsAfire at this year versus previous years?

The A-Line Variety Show is becoming a happy habit – we did it in our first year and we did it last year, our third year. It’s a really great way to kick it off.

In terms of new stuff, we’re trying something kind of interesting, starting with the A-Line Variety Show and a group called The Dirrty Show. In the A-Line, we’ve got The Dirrty Show and the Secret Burlesque Society, so we’ve got this edgy, risqué shows that are opening the festival. I think they’re going to be a lot of fun without going over the top into the raunch world. They’re classy acts. That’s new – heading into the x-rated material.

Also new is having our gallery open a week ahead of the festival with the show Collaborations in Public Identities and Private Selves. Last year we had a mainstage show that opens a week ahead of the festival, and we’re doing that again, but we’re also opening the gallery which is really, really exciting. That’s visual art and I think there’ll be multimedia too because one of the artists does some multimedia stuff as well. I’m anxious to see what they’ve put together.

We’ve got The 11 O’Clock Number this year, which is cool. I got to see them before Christmas and they do such an awesome job, so I’m really excited they’ll be opening our cabaret. That’s a thing now too – we’ve got our black box theatre and our cabaret space and the cabaret space is for comedy and bands. We’re keeping to that tradition as well – you see the mainstage show and then you see a bit of comedy and then you finish the night with a band and a drink and popcorn!

The other thing that’s new this year is the Women’s Choir Festival. It’s four women’s choirs all performing in one night. They’ll each perform individually and then at the end of the night, they’re going to come together for a piece that’s being composed for the festival by Margaret King. 134 choristers – it’s going to be incredible. The other thing that’s new this year is a new venue – Saint Faith’s Church, filled with these incredible voices and you can still drink wine and eat popcorn there!

We’ve also got a film that we’ll be projecting outdoors during the festival called The Weightless Traveller, By Eva Colmers.

We’re following the same kind of template as previous years, so people know what to expect, but I think we’ll surprise them with the acts. We like to bring in new artists every year or, at least, artists that haven’t been at the festival for a couple of years. We’ve got some completely new artists this year. We’ve got a mother/daughter thing going on this year in that two of our artists are mother and daughter. Elsa Robinson is a visual artist featured in our installation in the gallery – Collaborations in Public Identities and Private Selves and Shima Robinson, her daughter is a spoken word poet, so the two of them are collaborating in Words UnzippedWords Unzipped will be really cool again this year – there will be a belly dancer and a few other unique performances integrated with the spoken word.

What were you looking for this year when you were programming the festival? I know we’ve talked a bit about it, how you chose the best formats that have worked in previous years as an outline. Can you expand on it a bit more?

Every year I’m looking for stuff that turns my head, catches my eye, that is being talked about in the community. That’s where Gidion’s Knot came from – I didn’t get to see it myself at the Fringe, but I kept hearing about it from people who had seen it saying how amazing it was. Then I read it and it blew me away. It’s one of those plays that makes you turn your head – it’s so well-written, it’s so topical. I’ve been working on a panel discussion for it, moderated by Paula Simons on Wednesday, March 9 after the show. On the panel we’ve got a grade 5 teacher, a counsellor from CASA Child and Family Mental Health, and someone from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate to talk about things like these kids who fall through the cracks, who are suffering from mental health issues. These 10-year-old kids. When I first read this play, I thought why didn’t she make this kid 13? And then when I was putting together the panel I started talking to the experts and they said, ‘No, this is reality. We know these kids. They are in school and they’re 10 years old.’ The question is who is responsible for these kids? Are the schools responsible for them or are the parents responsible or is the government? They’re falling through the cracks – whose job is it to take care of them? Who are the experts? The teacher in this play, instead of bringing in a mental health expert, she suspended him. Was that the right choice? What would anybody do in her shoes? She’s a teacher, not an expert in mental health. It’s very topical right now because schools are having to bring in mental health experts because there are so many kids dealing with anxiety and depression.

In terms of putting the festival together – I don’t have a theme every year. For me, it’s about who are the head turners? Who’s exciting in the community right now? I hear about a spoken word artist who’s doing this incredible stuff – I want her in my festival! I see or hear a singer-songwriter and I listen to them and if they get my attention because they’re great at what they do – that’s how I do it. That’s why it takes me all year to program the festival because I want to find out who these people are. People who are on the cutting edge and who are local. I think eventually I’d like to get people from across the country, but the majority of what we do will always be local. Gidion’s Knot is not written by a local playwright – not even a Canadian one, so it’s not my ideal, but it’s a cutting-edge story that is going to be extremely moving and that’s a big part of what I’m looking for as well. Of course, the rest of the team is local.

What are some of the events or performances that people might not have heard about yet? 

I think there’s a lot of people who haven’t heard about the festival yet. I still want to reach those people. I feel like that’s our biggest job every year is finding those people. I know that when people come, they will love the festival. There’s no question. That’s the biggest challenge.

For people who know the festival – The Dirrty Show and the Secret Burlesque Society that are brand new for us this year. Gidion’s Knot, of course. The gallery will be quite different than it’s been the last couple years. This year they’re creating new work based on the theme – it’s all being created for the festival, which is really cool.

There’s lots new in the A-Line Variety Show – Ainsley Hillyard is doing a brand new creation in the A-Line Variety Show. Same with Viva Dance in the A-Line Variety Show – the audience will get to see something that’s in the works with Viva Dance for a future show. There’s some experimenting that’s happening.

With Words Unzipped – you’ll see something like you’ve never seen before. It’s completely new, completely different. Again, it’s work that’s brand new, created for the festival. It’s a poet getting together with an artist and creating something new for the festival. The only ones that will have worked together before will be Elsa and Shima – the mother and daughter, but the rest are collaborating for the first time. So, the audience is seeing something new. Bringing all of those poets and artists together in one show, it’s like an explosion of brand new stuff that the audience gets to witness.

And then, of course, the new plays that are being developed as part of the festival. 

Yeah, the Peep Show and the Peep Show Unleashed. Peep Show Unleashed this year is a staged reading of Leslea Kroll’s play and it’s called Wellspring – it’s pretty exciting. Talking about being at the forefront of what’s happening, it’s about fracking and it takes place in a small town in Alberta. When I read it for the first time, it was like, “Is this for real?” – I didn’t know all the information about the earthquakes and the side effects that happen. It’s really informative and a great story filled with really interesting characters.

There are four Peep Shows this year: Fifty First Dates by Mari Chartier, The Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor by Savanna Harvey, Riverkeeper by Katherine Koller, and Pearls and Perils on the Chilkoot Trail by Linda Wood Edwards. It’s a great show – they’re brand new and that’s where Leslea’s play started. My goal is that one of these years, one of those Peep Show plays is one that gets a staged reading and then it’s a head turner that we want to do as a mainstage.

Any tips for people attending SkirtsAfire for the first time? I think probably the biggest tip is to go to the variety show. Any others?

The tip is to go to our website on the page where it gives suggested itineraries. For example, I just told my girlfriend who has a little girl and she asked me what else she can do. I said yes, the family show, but you should bring someone with you to look after your daughter while you do yoga and then after yoga, you and your daughter watch the family show and then after you watch the key of she. Itineraries like that, which are so easy. Or on Thursday, come to the opening ceremonies at 5, catch the Sirmen Trio and the Yana Loo Trio and the Skirt Cutting ceremonies, and then cross the street for the A-Line Variety Show. Or on Saturday go to the Women’s Choir Festival and then go to the cabaret afterwards and you’ll still catch the comedy show and the band. Or on Friday, go for dinner at Sloppy Hoggs and catch Justine Vandergrift, then go to Words Unzipped, cross the street after and go to the cabaret show and the band.

Don’t go just see one – it’s by donation, so see a couple of things. Don’t do what you do in your normal life where you see a show and go home. Plan to go for a show and have a drink after and you get to see a bit of comedy while you have a drink. You can still leave early, you don’t have to stay for the whole thing, but stay for some of it otherwise you’re cheating yourself of a great experience.

Where can people see sneak peeks of the festival?

We’ve got the media launch on Monday, February 29 where people can see a scene from Gidion’s Knot, Kimberley MacGregor, the Yana Loo Trio and Adrianne Samon will all perform a song, Marina Reid Hale will do a spoken word piece, an excerpt from The Dirrty Show, Ainsley Hillyard will perform a dance piece, and our curators will talk about the visual art and Words Unzipped.

On Tuesday, March 8 at the new You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down women’s film festival happening at Metro Cinema, we’re going to have Ainsley Hillyard (dance), Giselle Lemire (spoken word), Beth Portman (singer songwriter), and Celeigh Cardinal (singer songwriter) perform there.

CBC Centre Stage is the next day, on March 9 at noon in City Centre Mall. We’re going to have Anya (a belly dancer), singer songwriters Beth Portman, Celeigh Cardinal and Kimberley MacGregor, members of the Belle Voce Choir and dancers from Viva Dance.

Also, Sunday, March 6 at Alberta Playwright’s Network’s Edmonton Script Salon, there will be a reading of The Mommy Monologues. The hope is that the show happens in 2017, but it’s getting a reading at Script Salon. This will be the first time it has an audience for the whole thing.

Anything else you want people to know about SkirtsAfire?

Come to Gidion’s Knot before the festival and hear about the festival after the show. Don’t come solo – bring people with you, that’s the fun of the festival. Bring your significant other for sure, it’s not just for girlfriends. If your significant other is a girl, great! But, we want 50% women and 50% men coming to the festival. Don’t think of it as a girl’s night out – it can be a girl’s night out, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s equally good for the guys. Especially with The Dirrty Showthey could learn a few things!

For more information about SkirtsAfire herArts Festival, running March 10 – 13, check out SkirtsAfire’s new website – skirtsafire.com – where you’ll find the full festival schedule and lots of information about each event and venue. All events during the festival are by donation, however, if you’d like to see Gidion’s Knot in advance of the festival, tickets are $15 – $20 through Tix on the Square.

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