PuSh International Performing Arts Festival celebrates a decade of theatrical daring

The PuSh festival has brought the cutting-edge here and thrust our artists onto a world stage

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      For anyone who’s ever experienced the genre-mashing blowout that is the 10-year-old PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, the memories of shows come back in surreal flashes. There was the man crawling across Water Street, his spilled motorcycle nearby, while text projected onto the road’s bricks told us about the life passing before his eyes. Or the thousands of tiny, grey puppets that brought a concentration camp to tragic life. Or the stage full of dancers, standing still, staring down viewers for an awkward eternity while a DJ spun the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”.

      For a decade now, the festival has been pushing this city’s ideas of what performance can be—of who an actor is and what a stage should look like. It’s fused art forms, prodded local groups to collaborate with each other and international troupes, and put Vancouver’s interdisciplinary scene on the world map.

      “We found not only that it was needed but that it was wanted,” says Norman Armour, the fest’s cofounder and artistic and executive director, seated with new associate curator Joyce Rosario in the organization’s buzzing upstairs West Broadway space. “PuSh raised the game, raised the sense of horizon and possibility, but also challenged presenters about what might be worthy.

      “We were not certain that we would get to this place,” he says, and adds of PuSh’s 10th anniversary: “It’s an opportunity to celebrate and a chance to really, seriously think about what we want to be.”

      The festival started as a small series with a $400,000 budget and has grown to a citywide, $1.8-million international happening that attracts 25,000 to 30,000 people every year.

      PuSh’s effects have reverberated across the city’s cultural scene and had a big influence on what kind of art is made here, and where it tours. The series, along with its industry-oriented PuSh Assembly, brings cutting-edge international presenters into town to check out new work.

      “It’s provided us with an international platform to have conversations with artists around the world,” says James Long, whose Theatre Replacement is also celebrating 10 years, and has grown hand in hand with PuSh. Its successes include the 2006 premiere of Sexual Practices of the Japanese, which got picked up in Seattle and Toronto, and 2009’s That Night Follows Day, in which it got the chance to work with renegade British artist and writer Tim Etchells on a groundbreaking work for schoolchildren.

      “It’s enormous promotion that that man is out there in the world talking about the Vancouver scene,” Long says of Armour, speaking to the Straight over the phone. “We’ve been able to build an international presence through PuSh. We are very much PuSh babies and have really benefited. And I guess they’ve benefited from us, too.”

      Armour takes Vancouver culture out on the road, but also brings international culture here. This means not only offering Vancouver arts fans shows from Europe and elsewhere that would never otherwise have a chance to tour here, but pairing visiting artists up with like-minded local troupes—to “feed and challenge” those groups, as Armour puts it. For 2011’s memorable La Marea, he helped match Buenos Aires artist Mariano Pensotti with local troupe Boca del Lupo (along with SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Studio 58, and Theatre at UBC) for an almost unthinkable feat: staging nine simultaneous, constantly looping 10-minute pieces in the storefront windows, balconies, and streets along a closed-down block of Water Street. About 7,000 people showed up for the experiment—one of the fest’s first signs that audiences would venture outside in January. For Boca, it was a hugely memorable project: “I remember going down there and couldn’t believe how into it the performers were,” says artistic director Sherry J Yoon over the phone.

      Another major symbol of how much PuSh has done to “push” local performance out into the world is Winners and Losers: the Theatre Replacement/Neworld Theatre production sold out shows at last year’s PuSh, and has gone on to travel as far as Iceland, Ireland, and Italy.

      Marcus Youssef starred with Long in the piece, which is essentially a debating game where they name people, places, and things, and argue whether each one qualifies as a winner or loser. “I spent last year touring around the world. That would not have been possible without PuSh,” the playwright, performer, and Neworld Theatre artistic director tells the Straight over the phone.

      “I don’t think you can overestimate the significance of PuSh on the performance scene in the city,” he adds. “It has 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.”

      Youssef feels that theatre here, as a result, has become less and less traditional over the past decade. “It’s less narrative, and more experimental,” he says. “Norman’s done a good job bringing audiences along with us.”

      To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the festival is continuing to press forward. As Armour puts it, “PuSh fest at the end of a decade is an institution. Now the question is how do we continue to be proud of that.…We don’t have the budget that Paris or Berlin or Toronto or Montreal has, but we are respected for what we do as much as organizations with five times our budget.”

      With this year’s roster (which runs till February 2), the fest has attempted, he says, to “push into all corners” of what the event has come to represent. On the politically minded front, it has strong works like Seeds, a play that looks at the legal fight between a Saskatchewan farmer and the Monsanto corporation. Interdisciplinary highlights include L.A. Party/An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, two hilarious melds of performance and video clips. And as far as site-specific work goes, there’s the return of Human Library, in which visitors check out human “books”, at the VPL downtown branch.

      New this year is a free film series that matches movies with shows at the fest. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner complements a concert version of the Inuit quasi-documentary Nanook of the North, while Andy Warhol’s Kitchen reveals the inspiration for a show by Gob Squad. Rosario points out there are many ways to experience PuSh: a viewer might do a film and theatre series; another might attend the breakfast talks by artists and then check out their shows; another might attend workshops with artists before seeing their productions.

      There are also two artists in residence this year. Etchells returns with an installation at the Contemporary Art Gallery, two performances, and the keynote address at the PuSh Assembly, while Lebanon’s Rabih Mroué exhibits at the grunt gallery and performs.

      And, as ever, the organization wants to ramp up its young audience, this year launching a pilot Youth Program that brings 16- to 24-year-olds deeper into the fest and its workshops. Interestingly, Armour sees drawing young people as a way not only to build audiences, but to access a more multicultural fan base. “They are the future,” he says. “Diversity and reflecting the nature of the city have always been important to the festival. And the simplest way to tackle diversity is to get young people involved; just look at a high-school class or university class.”

      Over the next five years, PuSh will aim to keep on thrusting forward. Armour has an ambitious plan to bring in more work from South America, and to present the fest’s first pieces from Africa and the former Eastern Bloc. Expect to see more work by women, and a move into bigger venues. This year’s opening show, Super Night Shot, on January 14, debuted at the Vancouver Playhouse. “We’ll use it year to year. And there’s no reason why we can’t use the Orpheum or QE,” Armour stresses.

      No one’s saying there won’t be challenges. In the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, there was more funding for commissions—and Armour is looking hard for a replacement for that additional support now that it’s dried up. “It’s important for the role of a festival. It’s a role that the fest played in the past in a significant way,” he says of commissioning new work. “We want to do that again. We just need to find investments for that.…There are great amounts of wealth in this city and it should find its way to the arts. We want to push more of a role in that agenda.”

      The other big challenge, in clear view on the day the Straight visits the PuSh headquarters, is space. The festival has clearly outgrown its cramped offices. The eventual goal is to join forces with Touchstone Theatre, DOXA, and Music on Main to share an arts hub—with hopes to win a spot in the new CBC building amenities space. Regardless of whether the group secures that location, it’s committed to finding a solution over the next decade. “Being in a space with contemporaries—that will really raise the game,” says Armour optimistically, pointing out his board of 19 people can’t even meet in the current offices.

      But these goals are easier to measure than the less tangible legacies of PuSh. Part of PuSh’s growth has been in the definition of its identity—and every year its offbeat, genre-busting meld of hard-to-describe works becomes a little clearer, to both the public and the programmers. Rosario remembers hearing people talk about a show at the PuSh fest last year in a grocery-store lineup—a sign that the event has edged over from the avant-garde fringes to the mainstream of the city’s cultural life.

      “As hard-core and edgy as the festival can be, the impulse is still very populist,” Armour says.

      For her part, Rosario puts it this way: “There’s a little bit of risk. But this is not work for experts. It’s work for the curious looking for something out of the normal that doesn’t fit formulaic notions of a genre.”

      Much of what we’ll see from PuSh in the next decade will be a surprise. But Armour assures us there’s one thing we won’t see. “We’ll never have a tag that says ‘dance’ or ‘theatre’,” he says with a smile before heading back into the buzz of prefestival activity. “We don’t label.”