Labour Of Shove
The Monthlong Push Festival Makes A Passionate Case For Bringing The Performing Arts Together
Here are some of the things I thought PuSh might stand for: 1) Puppets, unicycles, Satire, hoopla! 2) Please understand Shit happens. 3) Put up (or) Shut up. But according to Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn, coproducer of the third annual PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, it doesn't stand for anything. "It's not an acronym," she says at a Granville Island restaurant. "PuSh just seemed to encapsulate what we're trying to do in Vancouver--just push the boundaries a little bit."
Dunn and her fellow artistic director, Norman Armour of Rumble Productions, have packaged a PuSh 2005 that augurs well for the new year. With a multidisciplinary, internationally flavoured menu of five main-stage offerings plus four "satellite" shows, play readings from Scotland, and a conference, the month-long festival (Tuesday [January 11] to February 12) raises the bar for theatre in a town that can sometimes seem culturally stodgy and isolationist. Nothing wrong with being a little PuShy once in a while.
Promising "transformative explorations of dark themes", PuSh opens with The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets (January 11 to 15 at the Waterfront Theatre), an expressionist operetta with an irresistible pedigree. Cocreated in 1990 by hallucinogenicist William S. Burroughs, musical angstmeister Tom Waits, and avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson, The Black Rider recently played San Francisco in a production starring Marianne Faithfull. It comes to PuSh from Edmonton's November Theatre, which has toured the show since 1998. Adapted from a German folktale about a man who sells his soul to the devil to secure a good marriage for his daughter, The Black Rider has been described by critics as The Threepenny Opera on acid, or Diane Arbus meets Moulin Rouge. The devil sings: "Come on along with the Black Rider/We'll have a gay old time/Take off your skin and dance around in your bones/I'll drink your blood like wine."
Two other shows arrive from London. Say Nothing, an absurdist take on culture and politics in Northern Ireland by Ridiculusmus (January 18 to 22 at Performance Works), comes with a suitcase full of international awards and reviews like "bleakly hilarious" (the Guardian). FRANK is virtuoso dance theatre from Nigel Charnock of DV8 Physical Theatre fame (January 27 to 29 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre), programmed by the Dance Centre, a PuSh partner.
"I've always believed an international festival in this town was going to happen through partnership," says Armour, interviewed at a downtown coffee shop. "If you thought you could do it alone, parachute in somebody from Ottawa and just buy this venue and rent that thing, it would never work. You had to get venues and producers that were already invested." It didn't hurt that the British Council (the U.K. equivalent of the Canada Council for the Arts) decided to underwrite a major cultural initiative for Vancouver this year. "If there's one flavour for PuSh 2005," says Dunn, "it would definitely be the British invasion."
The British come together with festival partner Playwrights Theatre Centre in Under the Kilt, a showcase of contemporary Scottish playwriting (January 21 to 23 at Playwrights Theatre Centre Studio). Local actors and directors will stage readings of plays by David Greig (San Diego), Henry Adam (The People Next Door), and Linda McLean (Shimmer), who will be in attendance along with the directors of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre and Glasgow's Tron Theatre.
PTC executive director Martin Kinch predicts that Vancouver audiences will feel a jolt of recognition from the Scots. "Both Canada and Scotland have had to define their own cultural identity in relation to the British Empire, and then, for us, the American Empire. It seems to have created similar kinds of writing," he says at his Granville Island office. "I think people will see stylistic connections with writers like George Walker, David French, and Morris Panych that come out of attempting to define yourself at least partially in the language that is other than yours and melding that with the language that is yours."
Rounding out the main-stage series, two local productions push boundaries in different ways. As if anticipating Stratford's forthcoming premiere of Jason Sherman's The Brothers Karamazov, PuSh is offering Feodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in an ambitious new musical adaptation by director James Fagan Tait (January 27 to February 6 at the Roundhouse Community Centre). Coproduced by NeWorld Theatre in association with Vancouver Moving Theatre, it promises spectacular design elements and a stellar cast of 22 from A (Patti Allan) to Z (Allan Zinyk). Because Rumble had an entry in last year's festival, Touchstone takes a turn this year with Katrina Dunn directing Carmen Aguirre's The Trigger (February 2 to 12 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre), a dark new play about rape that features a trapeze artist and live music from Dewi Minden of the Minden Ensemble.
"Katrina and I wanted to be sure that the local work is there along with the stuff from elsewhere," says Armour, so PuSh 2005 has added satellite shows from some of the city's most adventurous small companies. Dances for a Small Stage IX (January 18 and 19 at Crush Champagne Lounge) brings short dance pieces by a variety of local choreographers to a downtown bar. In Final Viewing, Radix Theatre's site-specific exercise in theatrical voyeurism (January 25 to February 5, venue to be announced), the audience in one building watches through windows a play taking place in another.
Theatre Replacement's karaoke love story, The Empty Orchestra (February 4 to 12 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre), unites hot young actors James Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto with music by Veda Hille. And Euripidean tragedy meets underground DJ culture in Screaming Weenie Productions' remount of The Bacchae, an "electronic opera" (January 18 to 29 at Open Studio). As Dunn describes it, "Your right to be ecstatic and to party is not something the state should control. You don't sit down, you dance. It's an experienced production." The Straight's Ben Nevile found the show less clear when he reviewed it in 2003, but acknowledged that "Audience members were either much smarter or much drunker than I was."
The final event is A New Ecology for Performance (February 4 to 6 at the Roundhouse), a conference that brings together artistic directors, producers, and presenters in a variety of performance disciplines from across Canada and the U.S. to network, build bridges, and break down barriers. "We're trying to put the performance-art community and the theatre community together," says Dunn, "two communities that have traditionally hated each other and each other's work." The conference has an additional practical component for Armour: "When we bring in presenters, it's as much about the work going out as the work coming in." Martin Kinch agrees. "What we hope will happen is that this will grow into exchanges of Canadian writers being sent over to other countries."
But their hope is tempered by realism. Armour and Dunn have expanded PuSh gradually from three main-stage shows in 2003 to this year's five, with six planned for 2006, including theatre, dance, performance art, and new music commissioned from the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. They aspire to the size, breadth, and success of Calgary's High Performance Rodeo festival. "But things that seem to work in other cities don't always work here," Dunn sighs. "That's why we haven't started with a huge festival. The High Performance Rodeo is like a miracle in Calgary. It's sold out all the time. Ideally, that should be the case here, too, but..."
Her voice trails off. Nothing to do but keep on PuShing.
A $60 PuSh Pass buys four tickets to main-stage shows and discounts for satellite performances. For more info, call 604-709-9973 or visit www.pushfestival.ca/.