Norman Armour reflects on the building and buzz of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival

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      When Norman Armour finishes his job at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival on Friday (April 27), it will be hard, at first, for the city and its artsgoers to extricate the man’s name from the event. This may be in part because, in the early days, the festival’s cofounder would often have to introduce himself at the same time he introduced the event.

      “The first five years of PuSh were tough, travelling around, introducing myself and saying ‘I’m from Vancouver, my name is Norman Armour, and I’m with something you’ve never heard of called the PuSh festival,” he recalls with a laugh, sitting in the Post at 750, the mod downtown arts space the organization helped get built in 2014 and shares with Touchstone Theatre, Music on Main, and DOXA.

      Nowadays, not only do droves of arts aficionados know exactly what PuSh is—more than 17,000 of them attended this year—many artists in places as far-flung as Melbourne and Brussels instantly recognize the fest’s name. And, very often, Armour’s too.

      But Armour, who is heading to a post with the Australia Council for the Arts, wants to stress that PuSh has a strong-enough identity of its own to build on the success it’s already had. There is still progress to be made—in getting government and corporate funders to step up to match PuSh’s potential, for a start, he says—but the fest is a huge success by any measure.

      “It can be easy to associate the things at the festival with me,” he admits, adjusting the cashmere scarf given to him by Taiwanese dance icon Lin Lee-Chen at this year’s fest. “But the values are in the festival, they’re in the organization. It’s in all the staff. It’s in the DNA of the organization, you know—it doesn’t get here unless it is, it doesn’t breathe it in the way the festival does. So those values will continue.”

      Those values have been there from its modest beginnings in 2003, when Armour, coming from Rumble Theatre, and Katrina Dunn, from Touchstone Theatre, sought to fill a gap in the Vancouver scene. Not much was happening on the cultural calendar in January and February, and they saw a need for more interdisciplinary, challenging work, from here and around the world—stuff like you might see at the Six Stages Festival in Toronto or at Next Wave in Melbourne, but rarely in Vancouver, where dance and music and theatre audiences were largely siloed. They also saw a chance for local companies to collaborate with each other and with artists from abroad.

      In the ensuing years, as PuSh moved from a small series to a citywide happening, it built a trust in audience members that made them willing to shell out for shows by artists they might never have heard of. And you can thank the festival, in part, for expanding their tastes.

      “They’re an incredibly discerning audience. They’re open, and the artists will say the same thing,” Armour observes, recalling how, in 2010, he had to turn away crowds from a show that was not, on the surface, an easy sell: KAMP, a grim and wordless re-enactment of Auschwitz performed with thousands of tiny grey figurines and scale models across the stage floor at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. “Artists have always told us that Vancouver audiences are amazing—incredibly diverse, incredibly attuned and listening.”

      Almost five years ago, when PuSh was feting its 10th anniversary, playwright and actor Marcus Youssef explained to the Straight that the fest has actually changed the performances now created here, at the same time exposing artists and presenters from around the world to our creations. “It’s transformed the city. It’s connected us to the world. It’s had an impact on the kind of work being made and where we’re able to take our work around the world.”

      Jack Charles v the Crown, from the 2016 PuSh Festival.
      Bindi Cole

      Armour has many of his own fond memories. One of them is a 2016 production of Jack Charles v. the Crown, in which an aging member of Australia’s Aboriginal Stolen Generation recounted his traumatic past. “It was that power of theatre, of an individual who has travelled such great distances,” Armour says, remarking on the relevance of that story to the stolen Indigenous children here, and on seeing Charles take the impressive Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre stage. “You hope that this idea—of inviting a show and staging it in a certain place—that it will be something, and hopefully more than what you imagined.”

      Another standout was the locally created Crime and Punishment, which turned the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel into musical theatre, integrating a cast of mature artists, theatre students, and people from the Downtown Eastside. “They were tackling this mammoth, iconic work and making it so alive and contemporary,” he says, marvelling at this production featured at the first PuSh fest, in 2005. “That was, for me, one of the key changing points where I said, ‘Man, this work could stand up anywhere in the world.’ ”

      And he warmly remembers staging the 2008 launch of his colleague Veda Hille’s album This Riot Life, based on personal trauma she’d endured the previous year. “When we premiered it at the Cultch, I was sitting there just so proud,” he says. “She’s worked with so many people in the city in theatre and dance, and to honour her craft there—it’s like, why wouldn’t we? And it’s a great acoustic room. I’ll never forget that.”

      The concert was a perfect example of the way Armour excels at parlaying his personal connections into unique artistic partnerships. “It comes down to people and relationships. People connect to the festival because the fest is grounded in a very human way,” he says.

      That ability to connect and to see untapped artistic possibilities helped make him a strong candidate for the Australian post. In his new role, he will lead the development and implementation of the Australia Council’s international strategy in North America. Most importantly, he will stay based in Vancouver, and continue some of his extracurricular work—say, sitting on an advisory committee for Vancouver’s new Creative City Strategy. He’ll fly to Australia, he says, maybe five or six times a year, travelling frequently throughout North America to meet with artistic and governmental groups.

      Notably, his post in North America, one of four the Aussies fund globally, has been located in New York City or Los Angeles before. “I very expressly said basing it in Vancouver would be a statement that had real substance to it, in terms of the scene here, in terms of it being a Pacific Rim city, in terms of its desire to connect outwards, and its interdisciplinary scene, the visual-art scene, the music scene, the literary scene,” says Armour, who’s always programmed strong Australian work at his festival. “I said, ‘If you were to choose a place that would make people pay attention, make it Vancouver,’ and they said yes.”

      That’s Armour, always pushing people’s expectations and presumptions. And perhaps the presumptions he finds himself pushing most these days are his ideas about his own identity. And the fact that he is more than the festival that has so consumed his life for the past 15 years.

      “You know, PuSh was not to be the last thing I would do,” Armour reflects. “I mean, I had 15 years at Rumble and 14 years at PuSh. This felt like an opportunity for me to take a break from fundraising, take a break from committees, take a break from supervising staff, take a break from all the pressures of the last 29 years of cofounding and leading up to the building of two organizations. But I get to take all of that thinking that gets me going and all that excitement into a situation that is challenging in a different way. I really want to get into that space of not knowing a lot and tapping back into that sense of curiosity.”

      Think of it as a chance to introduce himself again.