Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Cultivating Rhubarb

After 35 years, the annual queer theatre festival is as hardy as ever — no thanks to the government

Gerard Reyes presents The Principle of Pleasure. Credit: Damián Siqueiros

Suck it, Department of Canadian Heritage! Despite the still-unexplained loss of the federal agency’s annual grant, Buddies’ annual performance festival is back and bigger than ever. Though it took some creative accounting and difficult decisions, the team, helmed by festival director Laura Nanni, not only managed to keep the festival alive through its 35th year, but put together one of the most diverse programs ever.

“The funding cut didn’t influence my approach to programming at all,” Nanni says. “I’m still committed to making space for artists engaging in boundary-pushing work. Rhubarb provides a crucial testing ground for new ideas and experiments, and I was particularly interested in artists invested in process who consider the festival a laboratory, not only a platform to showcase new work.”

Dance artist Gerard Reyes (formerly of Compagnie Marie Chouinard) brings his solo The Principle of Pleasure to the stage. Inspired by nights out with his boyfriend dancing at Montreal’s CitiBar (a dive-y joint catering to trans sex workers and the men who love them), the piece is a movement-based de/reconstruction of gender-norms.

“CitiBar is an odd place, which is what makes it so wonderful,” Reyes says. “We like to get dressed up and hit the town as gender-fuck creatures, and it’s a great place to go because no one there gives a fuck about who you are, what you look like or who you sleep with. I was dancing to Beyoncé in my dress and heels, shaved head and beard, admiring myself in the mirror while my friends were leaning against the bar watching me. When the song ended, they told me I’d just discovered my new piece.”

Rhubarb mainstay Hope Thompson (who penned past festival standouts She Walks the Line and Green) is back with her trademark genre-queering exploits in Trapped!, a high-estrogen spin on film noir. Set in an imaginary 1950s, where gay marriage is the norm, the play tells the story of a bedridden heiress who overhears a murder plot in which she’s the intended victim and must act to save her own life before it’s too late.

“I wanted to look at that classic set-up where one spouse plots to knock off the other for their money so that they can run off with a lover,” Thompson says. “It’s usually depicted as happening in a straight relationship. I wanted to create a story using this familiar plot but with scheming, murderous, sexy lesbians.”

The festival will also see Light Fires’ fabulous front-woman Regina the Gentlelady (aka Reg Vermue) in her first solo show. Vermue has dubbed his debut theatrical offering — a mashup of poetry, standup, improv and music, with plenty of banter with the audience and high kicks — Do I Have To Do Everything My Fucking Self?

“As an independent artist, that’s truly how I feel half the time,” Vermue says. “If I stop for a week, everything stops. There’s no machine, no managers or agents. I get gig offers, but generally if I’m not turning the wheels, they’re not turning. It’s amazing since the announcement of the show how many people have said to me, ‘That’s exactly how I feel!’ The title obviously strikes a chord.”

In addition to achieving official music-industry veteran status (he’s been at it since 1996), Vermue’s had his share of acting gigs, including turns in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus and Maggie MacDonald’s The Rat King. Branching out to create his own work for the stage seemed the logical next step.

“It’s long overdue,” Vermue says. “The music industry is extremely demanding and challenging and is often virtually impossible to make a living from. I’ve been releasing albums and touring the world for over a decade, and this past year I’d never felt more unstable in my life. I was living off grants and part-time jobs while pretending I had a music career, when in fact what I really had was perseverance. Part of creating Regina and Light Fires was a way to try and get out of this. Like, if I can’t make a living as one person, maybe if I’m two people I can pull it off!”

Rhubarb is unquestionably one of the country’s most important development platforms for new performance pieces. Its alumnae list reads like a who’s who of Canadian theatre: Ann-Marie MacDonald, Daniel MacIvor, Brad Fraser, Hannah Moscovitch and countless others have taken part. But whether or not the Harper government wants to support it, the team at Buddies is committed to keeping it part of our national theatrical landscape.

“Having to scale back our programming was particularly unfortunate, given we received a record number of submissions this year,” Nanni says. “But thanks to the hard work and resourcefulness of our team, I’m proud to say this year’s Rhubarb promises to be as loud and epic as ever.” 

For more information about the Open Space Project, part of Rhubarb this year, check out our guide.