As many of you know, I was on the board of SkirtsAfire HerArts Festival, a festival providing opportunities for women to develop and showcase their work, up until this year. This year’s festival is March 9 – 12 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 somehow don’t know, what is SkirtsAfire herArts Festival all about?
SkirtsAfire is a multidisciplinary arts festival featuring the work of women. Theatre is the anchor of the festival and we have a mainstage production – The Mommy Monologues – that opens a week ahead of the festival. The festival itself is a four-day festival. We still have our mainstage show running during the festival, but we have a variety of other things – our variety show, spoken word, two cabarets (one night we have a stand-up comic, we have bands both nights), singer-songwriters, and we have a family show and a play. We do lots of play development as well since a lot of what we’re trying to do is developing new plays by women with a female voice coming through and female stories coming through that reflect the audience and their experiences.
Why was it important to you that the festival be multidisciplinary?
We originally just thought it would be a theatre festival, but as we talked about it more, we realised it would make it more interesting and unique to be multidisciplinary. There is already a women’s theatre company in Edmonton, so we didn’t want to compete, we wanted to be a festival. The other elements make it more interesting, more fun, and build new audiences for all disciplines. Each discipline, whether it’s dance, spoken word, singer-songwriter, each discipline has an audience with it and our hope is that those audiences cross a little bit and see other things as well, even if it’s only one other thing they might not normally see or do.
What is new with the festival this year?
The biggest thing this year that’s new is we’re premièring a play that we’ve commissioned, The Mommy Monologues. We’ve never done that before. We’ve premièred a play by a local playwright, but this is the first time we’ve commissioned a piece. We’ve been working with it for over a year and a half now… It’s super exciting, and a little nerve-wracking. It’s really what we set out to do with SkirtsAfire from the beginning – develop new plays and première them at SkirtsAfire and hope they have a life beyond SkirtsAfire. The Mommy Monologues is a brand new play with 10 playwrights and 1 singer-songwriter, all writing about motherhood in some way. When the topic was presented, it was made very clear that it could be a wide open topic, not the stereotype of a mother. It could have been from a son’s perspective, a grandparent’s perspective, a LGBTQ mother, someone who chooses not to have children, someone who’s unable to have children, and so out of it we have ten 8-10 minute monologues that are each unique and interesting and really looking at motherhood from so many different angles. Some are funny, some are sad, one is in the horror genre, so it’s kind of scary – but, I think it just gets people thinking about motherhood in a very different light. A lot evoke the questions of when do you become a mother and what does it mean to be a mother and if somebody miscarries are they still a mother? It’s lots of interesting perspectives.
Another new thing is we have t-shirts and pins this year. We have lots of new partnerships this year so that’s what those came out of – we have a partnership with Women’s Initiative Edmonton and they’re providing us with the t-shirts and pins. On International Women’s Day, they have a special event in City Hall and we’ll have a table there and present Andrea House, our singer-songwriter for The Mommy Monologues, who will sing the song for that event and talk about The Mommy Monologues. We have also partnered with Mommy Connections and Edmonton Child Magazine, who both have a really strong online presence.
We’re also bringing something back from our first two years, but we’re doing it better. With our main stage venue, we’re calling it our cabaret theatre, so instead of separating the theatre from the cabaret space, we’re going back to what we did in our first two years which was having them as a combined space. Tessa Stamp has come up with a fabulous design where you still feel like you’re in a theatre, not the community hall. She’s creating a space that works as a theatre, and then we lift up the curtains and it becomes a cabaret space.
In terms of programming, though, we’re sticking to a formula that’s been working for us – we have the A-Line Variety Show, our mainstage production, our family show, our literary events, and the choir festival is back for its second year.
Otto Food & Drink on 95 street and 114 avenue and is huge right now – it’s jam-packed every night – Edwin Donszelmann, who runs it, is really community-minded and used to be with Culina and struck out on his own to start this restaurant. The space is fabulous, with a huge selection of craft beer and the main effect is local, gourmet fancy sausages. They’ve come on board with The Key of She at Otto, in addition to The Key of She at The Carrot, that’ll be on Friday and Saturday night between 5:30 – 6:30, we’ll have singer-songwriters at the restaurant. That’s a really exciting partnership!
Back to The Mommy Monologues, what drove you to commission this piece?
Back in the early days – in 2012 when we were talking about starting SkirtsAfire before we even called it SkirtsAfire – when we were planning and talking about the big picture, I went for a run and I was thinking, I want to create a piece like The Vagina Monologues but The Mommy Monologues. What got me thinking that was I was and am in a place where our kids are getting older and are in school, and as parents, we’re busy with our kids but we need nights out. It struck me that we need to find something that would be a great draw for a lot of moms in the community. That’s how I originally thought of it was a mom’s night out. Once I started thinking seriously about the project and how we get the word out, I realised it’s not just for moms, because everybody has a mom. So we started to think about it more and realize it’s a much bigger play than that. In choosing the playwrights, I wanted to choose people in Edmonton who had been writing for a long time, but a wide variety – some moms and not moms – so we can get as many perspectives as possible. That was the impetus. It’s interesting because I didn’t tell them what to write about. I wanted them to throw paint at the wall and see what comes out, rather than envision what it is and try to steer it that way.
Can you talk about the two plays that are being given a staged reading at The Peep Show?
SkirtsAfire used to have a three part process for play development. Part 1, we called The Peep Show – we took four submissions and all four would get a 10 minute read in the festival. Part 2, out of the four submissions, the following year we would choose one for a full staged reading. Part 3 our hope was to eventually produce one as a mainstage show. We discovered that three-year process was too long for playwrights. Playwrights want to write their show, develop it quickly, and get a production. This year we condensed it all into one year and called it The Peep Show. I think we’ve now tapped into a big market of plays that have already been produced but still need work. We have two categories – brand new, unproduced plays and the other is plays that have had a production but still need work. There are a lot of plays out there that are in that place.
The one we chose in the unproduced category is Conni Massing’s Matara. It’s kind of epic because she’s taken a Calgary story and an Edmonton story and put them together – the flood of the Calgary zoo put together with what’s been happening at Edmonton’s Valley Zoo with Lucy the Elephant and created a really strong story. I’m excited to see how it develops and see how they stage it.
Our other show is Maria Colonescu who produced this play called Unsuspicious at the Fringe last year. It’s a really neat play, it’s generational, which we love. It’s three mothers but is really fitting this year because all of the events in the festival this year relate to motherhood. Unsuspicious is three mothers from three generations talking about a mystery that gets revealed through the play. It’s a little creepy and is a neat piece with strong women.
Lastly, we have the family show The Remarkably True, Real Life Adventures of Callie Montgomery: Renaissance Girl, Ghost Ally and Modern Day Marvel by Ellen Chorley of Promise Productions. What’s that one all about?
We’ve had a family show in the festival for the last three years. We’ve asked individual artists that we know who are good at putting together kids shows to participate and they’ve created really beautiful pieces. This year we decided to partner with Promise Productions who’s an established company. Ellen Chorley has been writing plays for many years, and we met with her and she was really keen on it since she had an idea that had been simmering for a while, so it was great timing. Both of us came together at the right time and place and a grant came through. I’m excited about the play – it’s a one-woman show with Mari Chartier acting and Lana Hughes directing, so it’s a great team. It’s a great topic – it’s about a girl with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and how she’s managing in her world, so I’m excited to see it.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about SkirtsAfire herArts Festival?
Come to The Mommy Monologues early – it runs March 2 – 12 – so you can see other shows during the festival, March 9 – 12. If people do come to The Mommy Monologues during the festival, I’d encourage them to stay for the cabaret after the show, it’s going to be really fun. It’s a good chance to stay and talk about what you’ve seen – that’s what’s so wonderful about theatre is you want to talk about it after. The cabaret space is for that.
SkirtsAfire herArts Festival runs March 9 – 12 at various venues on 118 avenue. Check out 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 The Mommy Monologues in advance of the festival, tickets are $17 – $22 through Tix on the Square.