Communing with Theatre – Magnetic North Reflections by Artistic Director Hope McIntyre

Theatre in the bush, in a school, in an old railway station where a trolley now runs and rising out of the magical Yukon River. I’ve experienced that and more in the last five days. Now I’m sitting in the Calgary airport. It seems Whitehorse didn’t want to let us go as our departing flight was delayed meaning missed connections in terms of flights, but greater connections with colleagues as we sat at the gate discussing the shows and what it all means in the larger theatrical picture.

 

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For those who don’t know Magnetic North Theatre Festival is a national showcase of touring works produced in partnership with the National Arts Centre. Every second year it takes place in Ottawa, but in other years it travels to different regions in the country. As part of the festival, an Industry Series is offered so that those who present touring work can see all the offerings, in addition to panels, keynotes, one to one meetings and pitches. Over the years it has allowed me to explore shows and partnerships for FemFest in Halifax, St. Johns, Calgary, Vancouver and now Whitehorse.

As welcoming keynote speaker, Louise Profeit-Leblanc, wisely pointed out the festival has truly earned its name in finally coming to the real north! She also set the tone by using her storytelling skills to highlight the notion that art is about spirit, about healing and about humanity. Artistic practice is living and that was exemplified one evening as over a hundred artists, presenters and theatre lovers boarded buses in to the bush for Ramshackle Theatre’s immersive experience. We were welcomed onto Brian Fiddler’s property to see ten minute works by an array of artists. Six days earlier each had been given their location in the bush and had to create a work to take place there. We played a guitar tree, as the forage station blended tasty treats and were offered the most romantic outhouse we’d ever seen. It was magic and despite the midnight start and a wrap up at 2am, I felt energized. The sun setting as we began and hovering in a permanent state of dusk without twilight ever coming was part of this unique Whitehorse experience.

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After producing work by Artistic Director Patti Flather in one of our first FemFests, it was a real treat to finally see the work of her company Gwaandak Theatre in the flesh. Map of The Land, Map of the Stars had the actors enter from the river as the drum beat. It truly felt like we were connecting to the history of the land. It was a crucial reminder that stories go back to a very ancient time and it left me with a feeling of gratitude to be hosted on the land of the Taa’an Kwächän and the Kwanlin Dün.

The second keynote by Laurel Parry harkened back to the beginning of local theatre in Whitehorse when they weren’t allowed to flush the toilets backstage. She echoed the powerful message at the end of Jordan Tannahill’s Concord Floral – 10% of people are cruel, 10% merciful and the other 80% can be moved either way. Parry, and likely most of us working in theatre, believes theatre has a lot to do with moving that 80% towards mercy.

This also picked up on an important dialogue that was underlining this year’s festival. For the first time Magnetic North was offering a Pay What You Decide option for 20 of the 50 performances. It is part of a new model to make theatre accessible. I had really interesting discussions with Fusebox Festival’s Brad Carlin about this concept. It was also tackled in a panel with three other international presenters. Brad argues that since ticket prices don’t come close to covering the cost of producing a performance piece, why should we pretend that it does? Fusebox has made their art and events free to view and attend but has clarified that it is not free to make. Artists have been subsidizing work for centuries. They have switched their focus from marketing and making art a transaction to engagement. People do still pay for the art just not at the door, allowing those who can pay more to do so through donations and sponsorship, while having the actual presentation fully open to one and all. They have seen their attendance increase, along with revenue from other sources. I was left wondering how we make this work in Winnipeg? How do we create a real conversation about the value of art?

A few other highlights:

  • Live dogs on stage always steal the show, but audiences love it!
  • Tomboy Survival Guide – wow!
  • When you bring a ten-year-old on stage as part of audience participation, you have to be prepared for anything.
  • Offering food as part of a performance creates a sense of communion.
  • Jani Lauzon is a fabulous storyteller.
  • Unfortunately it is hard to take risks unless an audience is willing to also take risks.
  • There are so many amazing works I wish I could bring to Winnipeg.
  • There are fabulous companies doing important work across the country.
  • Borealis Soul aka BoSo blew me away.
  • Having a Jacuzzi in your hotel room isn’t such a big deal when you are in panels and shows from 9am to midnight every day!

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There is so much more I could speak about after seeing multiple shows, meeting so many fabulous artists and presenters and getting to experience the beauty of the Yukon. I’ve been able to start some great conversations and I expect our audiences will see the results in the FemFests to come.

A huge thank you to the amazing team at Magnetic North and in Whitehorse. Most shows I attended sold out and it was clear that this is a community that truly believes in the arts.

If you are in the area, the Magnetic North Theatre Festival goes until June 18!

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