3 min

After 38 years, the Rhubarb Festival is still pushing artists to their creative limits

Each year artists return to test boundaries and showcase new work

Sarap is one of Rhubarb’s performances about Ms Nookie (Patrick Salvani),  a Filipinx drag cooking show that “re-imagines the taste and tales that bring us home.” Credit: Courtesy Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Now in its 38th year, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Rhubarb Festival returns with an impressive roster of emerging and seasoned artists. Canada’s longest-running festival of new works is an opportunity to witness a diverse set of artists performing in a variety of different disciplines, including dance, theatre and performance art.

For decades, the experimental theatre festival has nurtured the visions of emerging artists by facilitating a space for their work and allowing their art to come to life. Scores of queer artists who have performed at the festival have gone on to have fruitful careers. A staggering 25 percent of all Governor General’s Award–winners for theatre recipients are alumni of Rhubarb.

Nicolas Billon is one such artist whose work was performed at Rhubarb in 2011 and 2013 for Godwin’s Law and Faroe Islands respectively. Fault Lines, his trilogy of plays, consists of Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands and won Billon the 2013 Governor General’s Award for drama.

The playwright, whose work has been produced in Toronto, Stratford, New York and Paris, says Rhubarb’s experimental atmosphere has challenged him as an artist.

Performing the pieces at Rhubarb gave the playwright the opportunity to experiment with each project and ultimately made Iceland a stronger piece. Billon credits the supportive and creatively unorthodox environment at Rhubarb for allowing his work to grow.

“Rhubarb was a proof-of-concept for Iceland. The feedback we got from Godwin’s Law changed how we approached the longer piece, and ultimately made Iceland a better play.”

“This is why I love Rhubarb, and why it’s an invaluable home for artists. It encourages unorthodox and experimental work, provides support for it, and brings in an audience that is active and engaged,” Billon says.

Leah Fay Goldstein is a Toronto-based artist and musician who co-founded the live art collective WIVES. The collective originally staged its piece, Sea Foam Blue, at Rhubarb in 2012. Since then, the work has been remounted at Sala Rosa in Montreal and at SummerWorks in Toronto.

WIVES collective performed Sea Foam Blue at the 2012 Rhubarb Festival.
Courtesy Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

The Juno Award–winning artist says a power outage on opening night nearly ruined the performance, but that the participation of the audience saved the show from certain death.

“On opening night we had blown all the power we needed to start the show and were left in pitch black as a multi-coloured under the sea landscape was supposed to be forming around us to set the tone of the piece. We filled our mouths with water and began gargling the melody of “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen along to my autoharp in an act of desperation,” Goldstein says.

“Justin Vivian Bond was one of the first people in the audience to break the tension by singing along, clapping and yelling in encouragement. Within minutes the whole crowd was on our side,” Goldstein says. “It was likely their positivity that got the power working again.”

“That’s kind of what the whole festival felt like, one giant warm blankety love fest where experimental and queer art could thrive.”

This year’s Rhubarb includes promising new works from emerging artists. Gitanjali Lena’s Mesh explores the theme of intimacy among queer and trans people of colour while Izad Etemadi’s Kooni examines what the artist’s life might resemble had his parents not emigrated from Iran in the mid-’90s.

Mel Hague is the festival director and says that while Rhubarb has been a launching pad for emerging artist’s careers, it’s also fertile ground for established artists whose work is still evolving.

“I think Rhubarb can act as a launching pad and it can act as a return place for artists who’ve already gone out in the world and made themselves and want to find a space to do what is not expected of them, to experiment,” Hague says. “I think that that’s the key. I think it’s very important for emerging artists to work out what their voice is, what they want to focus on as part of their art and that is what Rhubarb is.”

“Rhubarb is also a space for trying something new in the simplest way, so we try to encourage as much returning as we do for new artists just coming out.”