National arts community brings back Magnetic North Festival

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      (This story is sponsored by Magnetic North Festival.)

      After nearly facing its final curtain call, the is back.

      The fest will take place June 1 to 9 at various Vancouver venues. With a focus on independent theatre, it will also feature other genres, ranging from live music to dance, and it’s very much about the freedom to explore new ideas and involve the audience in the creation process.

      The event’s future had been in jeopardy after Magnetic North’s 2017 edition was cancelled due to accumulated debt. However, a new board head by Cultch executive director Heather Redfern has resurrected the showcase of national work.

      Amy Lynn Strilchuk is among those who helped revive the beloved festival. The general manager of Touchstone Theatre hadn’t been involved in Magnetic North previously, aside from being an ardent supporter of the festival and the local theatre community in general. But the thought of the multidisciplinary event not going ahead saddened her.

      “The festival plays a unique and vital role in advocating for new Canadian theatre creation and moving that work across the country,” Strilchuk says. “But it’s more than just a presentation festival; it’s a true gathering for our national theatre-makers, producers, presenters, and audiences. So much beautiful dialogue and artistic growth has happened between artists through this festival.”

      Now that the organization’s books are balanced, the new board—rather than an artistic director—is acting as the organization’s administrative and managerial team. The spirit of collaboration is at the fest’s heart.

      “The impulse these past two years, all the work that’s been done during that time, is to get us financially to zero, to pay off outstanding debt, and get a festival on its feet here in Vancouver so that we can gather as a national community of artists, audiences, producers, and presenters and decide, together, what we do next,” Strilchuk says. “It won’t be a board decision only; our whole community will decide what we’re going to do with the festival.”

      In the past, Magnetic North took place in Ottawa every other year, going to a different city the other years. Strilchuk says that while the future model is up for community discussion, what’s continuing for certain is advocating for independent Canadian artists and companies and providing a strong platform that best serves their needs for creation and dissemination.

      To that end, the fest will serve as a symposium or conference of sorts for the theatre and artistic communities.

      The through line of the symposium portion will be: what’s next? “There will be roundtables and potentially debates to create a playful atmosphere and fun container for us to explore this big question; for, what we want to do and ways to shift the style of the festival and how it functions,” Strilchuk says. “Our hope, our plan, is to have all members vote about whether we move forward with the festival.” 

      In this spirit, the new Magnetic North won’t replicate the presentation model of past festivals. In previous years, Magnetic North brought in large productions that had been a hit in other parts of Canada to whatever city it was taking place in. Instead, this year’s Magnetic North is hosting projects from Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec that have new works in creation that will be developed and shared with Vancouver audiences.

      That’s not to say the festival won’t program large shows. This year’s festival is proudly presenting a handful of local productions that are either receiving their Vancouver premiere or a reworking of existing material. 

      Straight Jacket Winter

      One is these finished productions is the world premiere the bilingual version of Straight Jacket Winter, Gilles Poulin-Denis and Esther Duquette’s autobiographical tale of moving from Montreal to Vancouver. They share what it’s like to be Francophones living in a city known for its miserable rainy winters and even chillier vibe.

      “The board knew the piece well—many of us previously saw the French version at Theatre la Seizieme—so we were thrilled that the artists wanted to utilize Magnetic North to present a new bilingual version of it,” Strilchuk stays. “So many Vancouverites, theatre artists or not, will relate to this show. How many new Vancouverites say how hard it is to make friends in this city?   Interestingly, the festival is about bursting through isolation or not feeling separate, so it’s pretty apropos that Straight Jacket Winter dramatizes the true story of two vibrant, charming theatre practitioners having challenges building new friendships when they move cities.”

      Straight Jacket Winter
      Renaud Philippe

      Magnetic North will also partner with some shows that are already running, such as Fight With a Stick’s Oh What a Beautiful Morning at the Russian Hall—a playful, sensory experience of the Oklahoma! The Musical in a sing-along approach—and rice and beans theatre’s Chicken Girl at the Annex. Strilchuk describes the latter’s artistic director Derek Chan as an “exciting new voice”.

      To kick off the festival, Full Circle: First Nations Performance will mount a 90-minute experimental musical set by Indigenous artists. It’s just one way the fest hopes to be a place for performance artists to tinker.

      Other evening performances will showcase works in development—works that make up the bulk of Magnetic North’s 2019 programming.

      Some artists will open up their studios to the public, for instance, with artists giving short talks on what they’ve been working on, their creative process, and what unfinished looks and feels like.

      “All our partner venues provided their spaces to us in the spirit of supporting creative exploration,” says Strilchuk. “From North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre to the gem of East Van—the Cultch—to the Shadbolt in Burnaby, they all offered up their homes for our artists to play.”

      Most evenings will have happy hour (5 to 7 p.m.) studio presentations at CBC Studio 700 for Touchstone Theatre’s In Tune: New Musicals in Development. Festival passholders can drop by, have some wine and cheese, and sample musical performances in an open-studio setting.

      The festival opens with crossover dates with the rEvolver Festival and International Children’s Festival. Passholders will get a discount for certain shows at those events.

      “We want to advocate for seeing other works,” Strilchuk says. “We want to encourage our participants to go check those out, especially since rEvolver is all about exciting emerging artists.  And theatre for all-ages is important. Family-friendly shows are part of our performing arts ecology, so we’re inviting all Magnetic North delegates to check out work at our ‘sister festivals’ sharing overlap dates with us.”

      The $160 Festival Pass includes all-access to full festival activities and select shows. The $60 Festival Pass Concession offers the same all-access to full festival activities and select shows but at a lowered amount for anyone who needs or appreciates it. The addition of $40 or more to either pass and comes with a tax receipt.

      For more information, to see the full festival lineup, or to purchase passes . Stay tuned for more coverage from the Georgia Straight.