Rhubarb is a place of firsts. Buddies in Bad Times’ annual performance festival has gone through countless incarnations in its 36 years. But what’s consistent is that it’s always a space where things begin: shows, companies and careers. Thousands of artists from Canada and abroad have taken part. Its alumni have gone on to win Doras and Governor General’s Awards and play stages from Broadway to Tokyo.
While this year’s fest will undoubtedly launch a new crop of artists and projects, there’s also something unique about its newly appointed director, Mel Hague. The York University graduate (who also serves as play development coordinator for Obsidian Theatre) will be the first person to lead the festival who’s younger than the festival itself.
“When I was a kid, someone said 36 was a woman’s sexual peak, so I used to say I wanted to hit that as quickly as possible to get it over with,” she says, laughing. “The fact that I’m younger than the festival is more of a mind game I play with myself than a significant marker of where it is right now. What I will say is that Canadian theatre is entering its first generational clash. Other communities have had it, but here almost all the artistic directors who started what we have today are still around and making work. If anything, I think it just speaks to the fact that our history is catching up to itself.”
Working with the tagline Transgressions in Performance, more than 100 artists have come together to create more than 30 works of theatre, dance and performance art. Part of what’s made the festival such fertile ground throughout its history is a consistent focus on process over product, giving artists permission to experiment and fail.
“I looked for work that’s a departure or a challenge for the individual artists who are creating it,” Hague says. “Finding things that were transgressing not just conventional artistic forms or society, but often their expectations of their own practice.”
There’s one thing that’s not new for Rhubarb: for the second year in a row, the Department of Canadian Heritage (one of the event’s principal financial backers) has denied funding without explanation. Though it’s not an easy pill to swallow, especially the first year on the job, if it’s causing Hague any stress you wouldn’t know it by talking to her.
“In basic terms, less funding means less artists and less projects,” she says. “It’s easy for theatre artists to get bogged down with these questions of money and audience numbers and space. But in the end, all we can be responsible for is our art. That’s what’s really relevant.”