Gravitating westward

Magnetic North attracts stellar stagecraft to city playhouses

By now everyone knows that Calgary has been named one of the “Cultural Capitals” of Canada for 2012 (it shares the honour with the Niagara region). What is less obvious however is how that title materially changes the city’s arts and cultural landscape.

Enter the Magnetic North Theatre Festival: “Canada’s national festival of contemporary Canadian theatre in English.”

While the festival’s home base is in Ottawa every second year it travels to a different Canadian city. This year for the first time it will be in Calgary to correspond with the city’s cultural capital designation.

Ann Connors Magnetic North’s managing director says part of the mandate of the festival is to showcase the diversity of theatre in Canada.

“Canada is a big country. Where we come from is a large part of where our art comes from” she says.

The second part of the festival’s mandate also deals with geography.

“Magnetic North is a showcase and a springboard for artists to take their work beyond their own city or province” says Magnetic North artistic director Brenda Leadlay.

There are eight mainstage plays at this year’s festival. With a few exceptions Magnetic North is not a festival of new work. Almost all of the shows have already received professional productions.

“One of the things I’m really keen on is a representation of all different peoples in Canada” says Leadlay.

That’s not to say however that quotas are a part of the programming picture. In other words Connors says the festival does not predetermine how many shows must be from the West or how many must come from the East.

The festival’s opening production comes from Newfoundland. Titled Oil & Water the play by Governor General’s Award-winner Robert Chafe is a theatrical retelling of the story of Lanier Phillips an African-American sailor who was shipwrecked aboard the USS Truxtun in 1942. Accustomed to racial segregation at home in Georgia he didn’t anticipate the kindness he received from the citizens of St. Lawrence Newfoundland. The play incorporates both Newfoundland folk music and African-American spirituals.

Another “must-see” according to Leadlay is White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour; prohibited from leaving his home in Iran the playwright shares his voice through actors worldwide who perform his script without any rehearsal.

“The actors are in a position where they don’t know what they are about to do — they are doing it on pure courage. That is a form of oppression for the actor who is used to having a script in advance and knowing what is going on” Leadlay says explaining the parallels between the actors’ experience and that of the playwright.

In Calgary four actors — Daniel MacIvor Rebecca Northan Sheldon Elter and Denise Clark — will perform White Rabbit Red Rabbit on different nights.

Coincidentally there’s another show with Iranian roots on the mainstage bill: One/Un . Written performed and directed by Iranian-Canadian Mani Soleymanlou the one-man autobiographical tale explores the question of identity.

Blue Box by Carmen Aguirre another autobiographical journey is about Aguirre’s years as a revolutionary fighter in Chile; incidentally Aguirre recently won CBC’s Canada Reads contest for her memoir Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter .

As festival curator Leadlay says it’s particularly important to her that Canada’s aboriginal voice is represented. Fulfilling that mandate is Christopher Morris’ Night which looks at what happens when an outsider enters a northern aboriginal community to return the bones of one of the community’s ancestors.

“It looks at this epidemic of aboriginal youth suicide but it’s not all doom and gloom. It sounds so heavy but it’s a beautiful and important piece” Leadlay says.

Mainstage offerings also include: David Yee’s Paper Series — a series of six vignettes about how paper informs our lives in different ways whether it be through a fortune cookie a taxi licence or a “Dear John” letter; and Raoul Bhaneja’s celebrated solo performance of Hamlet .

“It’s like watching an actor run a marathon every night. I’m championing this actor’s accomplishment” says Leadlay.

The only local company on the festival mainstage is Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop (look left and read about them). Connors describes them as “festival favourites” as they have appeared five times at Magnetic North.

Alongside the mainstage series Magnetic North offers an “Encounters Series” curated by Downstage’s Simon Mallett.

“When we go to a host city we want to leave behind a legacy for local theatre” says Leadlay and so Magnetic North is partnering with Downstage to co-produce its Uprising Festival as one aspect of the Encounters Series.

Shows that have previously been seen on Calgary stages make up the Uprising Festival including Raunch about the hypersexualization society has imposed upon female youth; In the Wake a performance-creation piece about the impact of an oceanic oxygen-deprived dead zone; and Marg Szkaluba (Pissy’s Wife) starring Sharon Pollock in a tale about a woman escaping an abusive marriage to pursue life as a country blues singer.

Rounding out the Uprising Festival is an event called “The Council of Community Conveyors.” It involves the “audience” going door-to-door in a Calgary neighbourhood asking questions of its inhabitants to stimulate community discussion.

There are also separate “Industry Series” under the Magnetic North banner for theatre professionals and post-secondary theatre students and as part of a fundraiser for the festival Rick Mercer will make an appearance at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on June 22.

“The Calgary community has been absolutely fabulous to work with. It’s one of the best experiences we’ve ever had” says Leadlay.