Organizing and improvising

Calgary’s other Rodeo is a well-thought out scramble

By necessity Michael Green curator of One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo is always a few years ahead of the eclectic festival’s lineup. Its wild esthetic might seem like something that explodes out of the ether but tour schedules need to be co-ordinated funding needs to be secured and the stars need to align to fill the Epcor Centre Vertigo Theatre Lunchbox Theatre and Theatre Junction Grand to name a few. With national and international successes such as returning musical spectacle Tubular Bells the Rodeo is full of work that has already proven its mettle.

“The High Performance Rodeo is really in the business of entertainment” says Green. “I don’t really want to sit in on a bunch of experiments. There are other places for that.”

One of those proven quantities will be the Vancouver-based Electric Company’s unconventional adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit the play that declared: “Hell is other people.” Not only has No Exit already been a critical success but The Electric Company’s last production in Calgary Studies In Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge took home three Betty Mitchell Awards for Alberta Theatre Projects.

In its current production co-produced with The Virtual Stage and co-presented at the festival with Theatre Calgary Sarte’s infernal hotel room is imagined as a box that hides its performers from the audience’s view. The entire performance is a live unedited film behind a screen for the audience to watch. The actors’ movements behind the screen are choreographed to play to the “hidden” cameras installed throughout the hotel room. Three large projected video feeds show the space’s interior while the hotel’s valet (played by Electric Company co-artistic director Jonathon Young) comments from the fringes on the play itself using cue cards and a ladder.

Originally a site-specific work that premièred in 2008 at an East Vancouver warehouse the production’s current design was influenced by the technical restrictions of touring. Adaptation of this clever and complex play continues with each new venue.

“It’s true that the room the characters are in is consistent touring with that set” says Kim Collier the play’s director and the company’s other co-artistic director “but the space around that room each space is different. The entire theatre has become a space the larger frame of the space that [the valet] inhabits.”

Adaptation over the course of a tour has long been a part of The Electric Company’s process. Its first appearance at the Rodeo in 1999 with Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla required nearly half an hour to be cut from the show’s run time. For Collier the energy and adaptation of touring coupled with the chances for seeing other artists’ work are what make the festival environment so dynamic.

“Not only will we get the chance to share the work” she says “but we as artists will be nourished as well in the other work we get to see.”

At the 24th annual Rodeo that work will include international productions such as White Cabin from Russia’s AKHE Theatre and the U.S.’s Pajama Men with Last Stand to Reason . Local companies and artists are also in the mix with previous favourites such as the nightly improvised Blind Date and the true story of Cal Cavendish in Buzz Job! . This is My City a series built using a year’s worth of collaboration with Calgary’s homeless as well as Two Bit Oper-eh?-Shun performed by the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble the Drop-In Centre Singers and others also draw on a body of local experience.

There’s another side to the festival however one that’s established in the weeks and even hours leading up to the events. Sometimes even with years of advance planning some of the Rodeo’s acts are flying by the seat of their pants.

“I know some festival directors who require that they see something before it comes to their festival” says Green. “And my sense of that is a policy that will only guarantee you a place on the trailing edge of what’s going on you won’t find yourself on the vanguard.”

The most obvious example of the festival’s last-minute sprint is its annual 10-Minute Play Festival produced by Ground Zero Theatre. Launching local companies into the creative stratosphere with only 24 hours to write and rehearse an original short play the entries run the gamut from comedic to poignant. This year also includes last-minute additions by local galleries TrepanierBaer ( The Puppet Collective II ) and Skew ( Staged ) whose self-curated offerings allow them to easily integrate into the festival without adding a new set of technical and logistical challenges.

Sacred Cows meanwhile got its shot at the Rodeo after a reading by the local writing co-operative Citizens of a Whimsy State in May. Noticed by the Rabbits’ co-artistic director Blake Brooker the collective was given the chance to showcase eight original 10-minute plays. The venue The Auburn Saloon offers few frills but it’s a chance for a group of emerging writers that include recognizable local faces like AJ Demers and Corey Mack to highlight their work.

“There are opportunities for emerging and established writers but a lot of us are in between” says group member Sean Bowie. “We’ve had a production maybe two but we’re not ‘emerging’ anymore. Quite often it’s difficult to get started. So what we’re trying to do collectively is to try and get Calgary artistic directors to look at us for a potential slot in their season.”

It isn’t only writers vying for audiences’ attentions. Like Sacred Cows Freak Show has been in development since September when the artists involved got their first look at the particular performing spaces. Swallow-a-Bicycle Performance Co-Op’s tour of curiosities is now in its third year offering guided walks in the bowels of the Epcore Centre populated with vignette performances by emerging artists. Three days of tours with names like “Museum of Oddities and Aberrations” (which takes place in a new venue the Glenbow) and a slew of artists as both exhibits and tour guides mean the show is a bizarre performance vehicle.

Julia Ain Burns the executive director of the Quickdraw Animation Society and a returning Freak Show artist has had three months to work on her seven-minute piece. What began as a showcase for her bullwhip skills has already morphed along with the character of the centre’s boiler room. But despite the relatively short time frame involved she feels confident that she won’t succumb to the pressures of the last minute.

“I want to avoid it because that crunch is a crutch for some people” she says. “But I think it’s a common habit for artists to have and especially wanting to have mutliple things on the go so we do adapt to be able to push it to the end.”

Not that the last minute is without its charms.

“It totally gets chemicals going” says Burns. “It totally gets sparks going. But I think three months is a really good amount of time. Three months go by for me really fast.”

Those three months have evaporated and a slate of works tested and untested are set to charge through the Rodeo gates. One of the festival’s newest untested commodities is Snowblower an outdoor dance party at Olympic Plaza featuring electronic musicians including Mr. Scruff Pretty Lights and Beats Antique. The Rodeo already has a history of launching micro festivals — the now-defunct Mutton Busting and the continuing International Festival of Animated Objects to name two — and Green is hopeful that this celebration will be the beginning of something lasting. Even the Rabbits’ own festival offering Kawasaki Exit is going right down to the wire. When asked what remains to be organized Green laughs and says: “Lights sound costume and set.”

But whether the development of the shows at the High Performance Rodeo are measured in years or minutes there’s no doubt that the result is a highlight of Calgary’s theatre season. After all it takes years to build energy that feels brand new every time.