Local theatre company looks forward to the next decade of pushing theatrical boundaries.
Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, known for its challenging, thought-provoking and innovative performances, is turning 10.
Founded in 2006 by Mark Hopkins and Charles Netto, the Calgary theatre company is now looking back at a decade of performances that helped to define them, as well as looking forward to the next 10 years of theatrical exploration, with, what else, a grand celebration to mark the occasion. I recently had a chance to chat with Hopkins about the history behind Swallow-a-Bicycle, and their upcoming party.
Q: To establish some background on Swallow-a-Bicycle, what was happening in the Calgary theatre community 10 years ago that inspired you, or made you and Charles think “We need to shake things up a bit here?”
A: Charles and I first met when I was the volunteer coordinator for Bubonic Tourist’s Mutton Busting Festival — he came down from Edmonton to check it (and the High Performance Rodeo) out, and we hit it off pretty quick. Shortly thereafter, Charles moved to Calgary and Bubonic Tourist shut down. We missed it, a lot, and felt its absence — a place for weird, boundary-pushing, genre-crossing, uncomfortable art. With that in mind, Charles kinda said, “Hey, I want to start an arts company and I think you should do it with me.” Seemed like a good idea to me, so we dove in!
Q: So just getting it all up and running must have been a monumental effort. Did you have an idea at that time of the kinds of performers that you wanted to include/showcase?
A: Haha, not really. We knew we didn’t want to limit ourselves to theatre, which is why we called ourselves the “Swallow-a-Bicycle Performance Co-op” in the early years. (I don’t think we really knew what a co-op was, we just liked the sound of it.) And we weren’t just interested in showcasing ourselves. In most of our early shows — December Lullaby, Freak Show, Pussy Sushi, Wanderlust — Charles and I weren’t the artistic leads, we were just two artists among many. We were super interested in providing a platform for folks who were experimenting, pushing their creative practice, trying new things.
Q: And unconventional performance spaces – you’re known for that as well. Is this just to keep things interesting, or more of a challenge to the theatre-goer’s idea of where performances happen?
A: Yeah! That actually came out of a conversation with (late One Yellow Rabbit founder) Michael Green. After our couple shows in 2007 — and after experiencing a High Performance Rodeo without Mutton Busting, which felt a little empty — we approached him to see if we could take over Motel for HPR 2008 and fill it with wild stuff. Because Michael was Michael, he actually took us seriously. At our first meeting at the Auburn, though, he gave us the sad news that Motel wasn’t available — they had to use it as the festival bar. We had already ordered our beers, though, so we kept talking and eventually Michael had a brainstorm. “If we can’t give you a theatre, what if you work in all the spaces that aren’t theatres?” He told us about a time the Green Fools had done stuff in the +15s and the boiler room … and it just so happened that the EPCOR CENTRE’s operations manager was sitting in the Auburn a couple tables over, so he walked over and introduced us. Freak Show, at the 2008 High Performance Rodeo, was our first time diving into site-specific work!
Since then, performing in unexpected places has kind of become our signature. Over the years, we’ve been super interested in taking art out of the formal art spaces and moving it into, say, your local coffee shop, or that building in your neighbourhood that’s been sitting empty for years. The idea is to break down barriers between “art” and “life”, to unlock the creative potential of everyday spaces… and also, as artists, to push ourselves to learn what it takes to create work in public or in spaces that aren’t custom-built for us!
Q: So here you are 10 years later and marking your longevity with a celebration which includes some performances and characters from past Swallow-a-Bicycle shows. How did you determine who made the cut? Fan favourites? What else can we expect to see?
A: When we realized it was our 10-year anniversary, we started looking through the archives and realized that we’ve worked with more than 350 artists over the past decade. We thought that was pretty rad, and wanted to showcase as many of them as possible, so we tried to choose at least a few pieces with large casts. Aside from that, we kinda looked at shows that had a big impact on the company, like Eavesdrop: The Coffee Shop Show, i-ROBOT Theatre and Super 8, and then tossed in a few of our personal favourites. Our former artistic associate, Léda Davies, is flying in from Montreal for the event, which was super important to us because she had a big hand in shaping Swallow-a-Bicycle in the early days.
On top of showcasing stuff from the past decade, we’ve also commissioned four artists to create new work for the event, which we’re super excited about. We’re in the midst of putting together some new guiding principles for the company, and we’ve asked these artists to create work with those principles in mind … so as we celebrate the past 10 years, hopefully we’re also laying the groundwork for the next 10!
Oh — and we also wanted to make sure the party had a touch of wild and weird, so folks can also expect some aerial acrobatics, burlesque, wandering mask characters and more surprises.
Q: I would also like to acknowledge your advocacy for safe spaces through Swallow-a-Bicycle, requesting respect of the space, the performer, of each other. Although it would seem to many to be a given, do you find that it’s difficult to facilitate this these days?
A: Creating safer spaces is super important for us, and is an ongoing learning journey. Working in unconventional spaces can present some safety concerns — audiences walking up and down stairs, sharp edges, steep hills, etc. We do our best to identify possible dangers, and block them off or point them out. At events like this party, we broadcast that we expect everyone to behave responsibly and with consent, and we have volunteers and staff who keep an eye out for anything dodgy.
Swallow-a-Bicycle: The 10 Year Party will take place Saturday at the Mamdani Opera Centre. Performances are at 8 p.m., dance party at 10 p.m., tickets and details are available on their website.
Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through her website, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at email@example.com.