Magnetic North Festival pulls the curtain open on creative process

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      When Heather Redfern and a small, dedicated team set about reviving Canada’s only national theatre festival, they held a series of cross-country town-hall meetings to see what needed to happen.

      The Magnetic North Theatre Festival had always alternated between Ottawa and another Canadian city each year, staging works from across the country. But in 2017, it was forced to cancel its event in the capital. The board of directors was shutting down operations after 15 years due to an accumulated deficit of $224,000.

      “The question was, ‘Is this just a board with a financial problem or is there any reason to continue the fest?’” Redfern, executive director of the Cultch and the chair of Magnetic North, tells the Straight over the phone. “Is there still a need for the festival that would evolve to meet the needs of 2019, not 2003?”

      When the board took those questions out to the country’s theatre scene, one resounding need came through. “People said, ‘We want to hear from the audience way sooner,’” Redfern relates. “The audience has evolved for artists into being very much a relationship—and it’s really hard to create a relationship if one party isn’t present. It’s especially hard for artists who are independent and don’t create in an established company. They need and they want that sounding board.”

      The result is a Magnetic North Festival that celebrates all the new work being made across Canada, in various states of completion. Based out of the Cultch site, the event will act as a giant test kitchen that lets audiences in on the creative process. There will be fully staged shows but also open studios and showcase readings.

      Take local francophone company 2par4’s Straight Jacket Winter, which runs June 6 to 8 at the Historic Theatre. Esther Duquette and Gilles Poulin-Denis’s semiautobiographical story about moving to Vancouver from Montreal has shown across the country and here at Théâtre la Seizième, but Magnetic North will mark a new step: its first bilingual presentation.

      Tara Cheyenne Performance, on the other hand, presents a piece much earlier in its evolution. The dance-theatre artist will present a 20-minute work in progress called The Body Project at the intimate Jim Green Studio on June 4, then hosts a small symposium around the theme of female body image. Similarly, on June 8 at CBC Studio 700, Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, the creators of the hit touring musical Onegin, will offer audiences a sneak peek at early experiments on their new Songs for Lifeboats (in a copro with Touchstone Theatre’s In Tune series).

      “We’ve been calling it a potluck, where everybody’s bringing something to the table,” Redfern explains. “This is very much an experiment—a gathering of information and a chance to hang out and talk about it.

      Heather Redfern works to revive the Magnetic North Festival after a shutdown in 2017
      Amanda Siebert

      “The thing about Magnetic North is everybody’s invited; it’s not an exclusive club,” she stresses, zeroing in on what sets Magnetic North apart from other fests or industry conferences. “It’s not just producing companies, it’s not just students: everybody is welcome and everybody is part of the conversation. So if you buy a pass, whether you’re a theatre person or an audience person, you’re invited to all those events.”


      For the music and interdisciplinary showcase Indigenous Vibrations, Magnetic North means music programmer Rob Thomson can experiment with a new format in a new kind of venue, with artists at various stages of their careers.

      The Full Circle First Nations Performance music curator who puts together the Múyuntsut Ta Slúlum Live Concert Series will be able to mix performance styles like never before. The roster of Indigenous talent includes electronic songwriter and sampling artist Edzi’u; hip-hop and spoken-word artist JB the First Lady; slam poet Tawahum; and singer-songwriter Tara Laronge. Squamish Nation elder Dennis Joseph hosts what has become a multimedia, interdisciplinary affair, which takes place Monday (June 3) at the Cultch Historic Theatre—a contrast to the clubs, cafés, and galleries Thomson is used to programming.

      “It’s hip-hop, soundscapes, projections, adult contemporary, traditional songs, spoken word, and how it all blends together,” enthuses Thomson, an electric bassist who’s one half of the Haida-Tsimshian sibling indie-pop duo Sister Says. “We’ve never done a lineup like this in a theatre setting. Here the audience can get a taste of all the different kinds of music. And we wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to do this without Magnetic North.”

      Indigenous Vibrations tries to capture a wave of creativity that’s happening in the community, and see how a wider audience responds to a format that pushes beyond a traditional, genre-specific concert.

      “Indigenous music is one of the most exciting things happening in the arts scene right now,” Thomson comments. “It’s amazing when you see what [rap act] Snotty Nose Rez Kids and [Indigenous opera star] Jeremy Dutcher have done, but there’s a whole new group coming up. And this will get them new audiences and new eyes. There’s so much talent waiting to come out and be consumed by music lovers.”


      Magnetic North will also allow for HIVE 2019—a microperformance, site-specific event in which 10 emerging B.C. artists and companies bring alive the nooks and crannies of Presentation House Theatre on June 8.

      It’s inspired by the show of the same name launched by Progress Lab in 2006, with many similarities to the original. The idea is that 10 short performances will run simultaneously, and small audience groups will be able to roam between them. Each group works with a shared piece of text. The intimate shows include a work inspired by the philosophy of home-organizing maven Marie Kondo; another that cooks up Ukrainian perogies; and one prompted by the recent abortion laws in Alabama.

      True to its name, HIVE will feature a central hive or hub where audience members can congregate and socialize before they head to what theatre artist Brian Postalian calls the “different cells or little colonies, performances, or installations and then return back at certain points”.

      The spaces available in the more-than-century-old venue, which has served as everything from a school to a police station over its history, have offered ample inspiration. “Presentation House is particularly labyrinthlike,” he says. “It has these incredibly interesting, creepy spaces—it even has three bank vaults.”

      The historic Presentation House Theatre opens its nooks and crannies to HIVE 2019.

      Postalian helped oversee the resurrection of HIVE as a way of involving indie artists and companies in Magnetic North: “In particular, I wanted to make sure there was an opportunity for artists who don’t have operating budgets, and who are doing things project to project, to take part.”

      The list of participants includes some so new to the scene you may not have heard from them, including Postalian’s own Re:Current Theatre, the Troika Collective, Little Thief Theatre, and Caroline Sniatynski.

      In keeping with Magnetic North’s goals, the artists have been encouraged to collaborate and visit each other’s work; many are trying out new ideas they might develop into bigger, longer shows.

      In other words, HIVE will offer a full-day microcosm of Magnetic North’s test-kitchen approach—only this time, with many cooks and kitchens.

      As to whether that strategy succeeds, and whether Magnetic North moves forward, Redfern’s questions still need to be answered at this fest. There’s even a symposium hosted by the executive board on Monday afternoon (June 3) at Progress Lab 1422 called What Happened?.

      It’s fitting, then, that like so many of the shows it’s hosting, the Magnetic North Festival is still very much a work in progress.

      The Magnetic North Festival runs at the Cultch and other venues from this Saturday to next Sunday (June 1 to 9).