About Commemorations: Ideas Around A Civic Festival
January 30, 2014
On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival commissioned Placemaking: A Decade in the City, a collection of essays from artists and writers to explore the Festival’s ‘place’ in the public life of Vancouver. “About Commemorations” by Kris Nelson is one of these five essays. You can read the full collection as a PDF online.
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what a festival means to a city. In September I moved to Dublin to become director of Dublin Fringe Festival—it’s my first time being a festival director. Over the past few months I’ve been in deep research mode: learning as much as I can about my new city, seeing everything I can by its artists, spending time in the pubs and cafes, trying to guess if I’m hearing an accent from the north or south side of the Liffey. It’s all in order to gather enough context and knowledge to put my own program together for one of the world’s only curated fringes. Dublin Fringe Festival has become a defining moment on the Irish cultural calendar and a festival whose programming has earned distinction by hosting works that play with the notion of Dublin itself. Ideas of civic engagement are at the heart of the program. It’s a festival that has dared to speak for and to the city.
I started my career in Vancouver at the PuSh Festival, and my experience working on the first three editions of the Festival and in the Vancouver indie-performance community shaped my practice as a producer and programmer. When I moved to Montreal in 2008, I took the Vancouver way of doing things with me. Now as I take the plunge and try to become as much of a Dubliner as I can, thinking about my first artistic home helps me understand this new one.
I’ve also been thinking about anniversaries and commemorations, because in Dublin we’re having loads of them. 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the Dublin Lockout, a massive labour struggle. In 2014 Dublin Fringe Festival will hold its 20th edition and in 2015, our 21st (the 21st being the traditional age of majority in Ireland). In 2016 Ireland will commemorate the anniversary of the Easter Rising, the first in a series of difficult and bloody conflicts that ended in the Irish Republic winning its independence from the United Kingdom.
Festivals imprint something on a city’s mindscape. They begin to define a place. Many of the world’s great festivals began as post-WWII efforts to promote internationalism and tourism, and are anchored by their identities as city festivals. A few, like Avignon and Edinburgh, became so iconic they are synonymous with the city itself.
If having a festival can define a city, observing a birthday or a commemoration— like what we’ll be doing in Dublin, or what PuSh did with the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, Vancouver’s 125th in 2011, and now with its 10th anniversary—can be used to define such a festival. So what does it mean that PuSh is 10 years old?
PuSh is more a civic festival than a city festival. It gathers the momentum and desires of many in its festival-making. It contends with and redefines what Vancouver can be through the voices and interactions made between artists and audiences. A city festival consolidates the efforts of culture, tourism and business into one flagship endeavor. A civic festival supports artistic concepts, presents works that respond to the concerns of the civic sphere and builds recognition for local and international artists of import—all while questioning how their choices will fulfill their audiences, their city, and their home.
What makes PuSh civic (and unusually so) is its multi-vocality. The Festival’s program is porous—we can project our ideas of what PuSh is and should be onto the organization. We can imagine what a ‘PuSh’ show might or might not be, and are sometimes surprised by how the definition shifts. PuSh and its various partners do this all the time, hosting projects that fly multiple banners, brought to you by many. In most instances there’d be a risk that all these differing ideas would dilute the curatorial rigour or that egos would get in the way. Not so for PuSh.
I suppose this bold confidence around collaboration is the aspect of Vancouver that I want to draw upon most in my own work, no matter what city I’m in. That and the exposure to unforgettable performances and, in particular, a new trend in performance-making. My first PuSh experience was in 2004 when PuSh was a curated series—at Mammalian Diving Reflex’s A Suicide Site Guide to the City. I’ve since heard it’s a work that lead-artist Darren O’Donnell regards as a complicated turning point (after this the company veered away from stage-based productions, creating Haircuts by Children and Children’s Choice Awards; touring in local contexts with local kids turned performers, instead of touring shows featuring trained actors in theatres). I remember loving it for how it dealt with ideas around civics and desperation. That it crossed barriers between audience and performer in ways I hadn’t seen. That the lights were mostly on. That the Firehall Theatre was the perfect place to watch it. That how these Toronto artists were dealing with ‘the city’ meant something to me in Vancouver. That I was seeing a new kind of work that I wanted to see more of and be a part of.
It was a first for me, but not at all for the world, and only the beginning of Vancouver’s exposure to a defining ethos around performance creation in the past decade. Looking back at the past 10 years of PuSh, theatre-vérité—work that documents and performs personal politics and first-hand experiences, that places ‘expert’ non-actors on stage and actors as themselves, that uses verbatim texts or other elements that bring ‘real life’ on stage—has been the dominant genre internationally and a kind of artistic bread and butter for the Vancouver festival.
Ireland is no different. Artists at Dublin Fringe Festival have reimagined Dublin’s history and present and have placed their histories at the centre of their art-making. Like the Fringe Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival has also has been part of this trend. Visiting artists at both festivals have engaged with documenting reality on stage. Dublin Theatre Festival commissioned a book called That Was Us, a series of reflections of landmark moments from the past six or seven years (the time period of Ireland’s crushing recession) where the festival’s history and transformations in Irish theatre intersected.(ii) The book identifies a time in the city scene, at both festivals, when creations by Irish artists working in theatre-vérité had an immensely powerful impact on audiences and shaped the art that got made next. These projects dealt with personal stories, broken neighbourhoods, institutionalised poverty, identity and class conflicts, and usually featured artists interacting with subjects via personal testimony of some kind.
The genre has been an incredibly potent means for artists to explore the political, personal, and societal transformations of our era. But what is the next move for theatre-vérité? Will the important work of the coming 10 years be more devoted to artists implicating us in political and civic transformation and getting our hands dirty, as some have argued?(i) Festivals may become events where performance and activism meet in front of an audience of participants. Or will artists change tactics entirely? Will they engage with the public in the coming years by moving back towards the ‘play’ instead of the ‘performance,’ and reviving theatricality, drama, and actors-as-characters—with not a local ‘expert’ or personal testimony in sight?
The onus on a civic festival like PuSh will be to continue to address what is current, what is pressing, and what is artistically daring, because being engaged is part of the civic festival’s DNA. For years PuSh has attracted festival-goers who depend on it to present artists who question and illuminate contemporary and topical issues and experiences. As PuSh turns 10, celebrating this beloved festival asks us to reflect on how it has shaped Vancouver’s civic sphere, how it has advanced crucial artistic and political ideas and how it has introduced us to unforgettable performances. Maybe a bit of a complicated message to put on a birthday cake, but I’d be first in line to light the candles.
Kris Nelson is director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. Through his agency Antonym, Kris represented Canada’s leading touring theatre and dance artists and produced and curated the first three editions of PushOFF. He was Associate Producer for the PuSh Festival from 2005–2006, Assembly Associate Producer in 2007 and Curatorial Associate in 2012–2013.
(i) See Florian Malzacher, Put the urinal back into the restroom: Toward a Useful but Disobedient Art.
(ii) Fintan Walsh editor, That Was Us, Oberon Books, London, 2013.