2 min

Dare you to Rhubarb

As far as I am concerned, the Rhubarb Festival is the best indie theatre festival Toronto has. The list of big and small artists who are Rhubarb alumni is staggering: Atom Egoyan, d’bi.young, Mihra Soleil-Ross, Taylor Mac and Ryan Kelly, who’s emerged as the go-to “it” boy of Toronto gay theatre.  

This year’s lineup is no less stellar.

That the festival continues to draw heavy hitters is a good hint that it offers something unique: Fringe Festival shows are chosen by lottery, SummerWorks can feel a bit insider-y, but Rhubarb stands out because you can come for the party or you can come for the show.

The connection between nightlife and Rhubarb is palpable. You won’t find a series of gentle matinees, but you will find risk, danger, hedonism and the kind of glamour that happens only after the sun goes down.  

Festival director Laura Nanni states unequivocally that Rhubarb is where “different forms of performance converge. There’s a mixture of work, from intimate narrative theatre and one-on-one performance to large-scale participatory dance and nightclub cabaret.”  

It’s this blend of form that keeps me coming back year after year and makes Rhubarb more accessible than your standard-issue theatre festival. In gay parlance? You get more bang for your buck.  

Rhubarb audiences tend not to come for one specific artist or show but for an entire night. In the case of Tom and Gary’s Decentralized Dance Party, the audience will actually start somewhere else in the city (the secret location will be announced online Feb 15), then move toward Buddies, ending up inside the cabaret for a party. Got that? Party-hardy clubbers who aren’t aware that Buddies is a theatre (yes, unfortunately they exist) sharing space with hardened theatregoers.  I can’t wait!

Another reason I love Rhubarb is because of the way it nurtures artists.

Last year Morgan Norwich played a giant pink telephone in Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You? (A Slumber Party for Boys), by Nobody’s Business. This year Norwich returns as festival assistant and is thrilled: “From giant pink phone to paying job — not too shabby!”

Participating in the festival last year gave Norwich “a real professional curiosity.” Learning how “something that seems like a hot mess on paper turns into a really enjoyable festival” is an invaluable experience for any theatre artist, but she is emphatic that Rhubarb is “definitely not a ‘theatre’ festival, or at least a ‘play’ festival. The stuff that you’ll experience purposely pushes the boundaries of theatre, performance and the audience experience. Is it a party? Absolutely.”

Full disclosure: if it’s not entirely obvious, I’m not impartial when it comes to Rhubarb. I’ve had the experience of acting in someone else’s show, creating my own and participating in a workshop/performance with visiting artists over a number of years.

Each time I have come away with experience, wisdom and respect for the process. Creating a performance isn’t easy, but it’s not about making a hit or surviving a flop: it’s about the process and the freedom to create. No reviews to worry about, no ticket minimum to hit . . . just go and create.

You should buy a ticket and attend this year, but why not go the extra step and apply for next year? Listen to that little voice in your head that wants to make something ugly or beautiful or funny or sad or unknown. Use this year’s festival to inspire you, and take the festival director’s advice: “Risk and venture into new and unfamiliar territory.”