Ignite! Festival of Emerging Artists continues to push boundaries

Now in its 12th year, the local multi-disciplinary event continues to showcases fresh artists with new perspectives and approaches, and help take them to the next level.

From a theatre company that strives to be “bold, intimate and thoughtful” comes a festival that rises to that challenge. Now into its 12th year, Sage Theatre’s Ignite! Festival for Emerging Artists continues to showcase those who are pushing the boundaries of performance and entertain audiences with their varied, eclectic approach.

Sage’s artistic director, Jason Mehmel, and Ignite! curator, Charles Netto, are both extremely excited about the upcoming festival which has gained much respect since its inception.

“Calgary’s arts community, they know the importance of this kind of festival in terms of creating a bridge for emerging artists and giving them opportunities,” says Netto of the event, which this year runs June 6 to 10 at Pumphouse Theatres.

Ignite! was originally imported from the Nextfest Festival out of Edmonton, and, according to Mehmel, retains some of the original concepts that initially drew the originators of Ignite! — Geoffrey Ewert, Adrienne Smook and Kelly Reay — to the NextFest idea.

“(Ignite! has) inherited a lot of the same ideas: emerging artists focussing on collaboration, often focussing on also bridging them from an emerging career — which is either because they came from school, or just that they’re fresh in their work in their field — into the realm of people who are doing it professionally or at least consistently,” he says.

Mehmel also goes on to mention how the festival has grown – especially since Netto came on board as curator for the past two years.

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#JustGirlyThings featured at this year’s Ignite! Festival

“I tend to just say we’re just gonna do this and I don’t think too much about the consequences,” explains Netto.

Mehmel adds, “I think Charles’ ambition has pushed the festival and it’s also pushed me, so I think that in that respect it’s helped immensely.”

One of Netto’s objectives in curating the theatre series for Ignite! is finding the artists and the work that he feels will flourish through the festival.

“I’m really looking for work that is going to benefit from being at the festival, so it’s not just a showcase opportunity, but it’s a chance to really take a project that (the artists) have in mind and take it to the next level and how can we support that. And in doing that we can hopefully be supporting the artist’s journey and development, as well.”

The festival itself will span the gamut of theatrical experiences, including theatre, an animated series curated by Quickdraw Animation Society, site-specific tours, dance, improv, an inter-disciplinary series, as well as an evening devoted to, well, Sleaze.

“The idea (behind Sleaze) is to create an art party. It’s not a cabaret where you sit and watch someone on the other end,” says Netto.

“There’s more of a tradition, it is inspired by an art party, so that if you go, you should have a different experience than anyone else there. The idea is also that you can choose to engage or not engage as much as you want — there will be aerials, pole dancers, bands, installations, roaming performers. At the beginning I had a handle of what was going on, I don’t know anymore. I am so excited to be surprised!”

And which performances are the pair most looking forward to?

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Body So Florescent

“That’s like asking me to choose between my children” Netto says. “Body so Fluorescent, (by) David di Giovanni and Amanda Cordner explores a lot of questions through the lens of a hangover the day after best friends have a fight at a club, using that to talk about the intersection of race, sexuality and different power dynamics. I’m excited for these guys to come out and share this production with the community.

“Harun by Makram Ayache — Makram’s a super talented artist from Edmonton who’s (both) performing and wrote an ensemble show that’s looking like a half-dream, half-real, post-apocalyptic view, and using that kind of story mechanism to examine his identity as a queer Arab living in Canada.”

Mehmel’s picks?

“The show that I am mentoring I think is doing something interesting, it’s called #JustGirlyThings and it’s part of a double bill with A Millennial’s Guide to Dating in the 21st Century. I think #JustGirlyThings is two women trying, through both dance and theatre, to explore what society doesn’t allow women to talk about, the things they have to kind of keep to themselves or speak only about in metaphor or euphemism. For me that’s fascinating, and they’re doing it with a very 21st century lens, and what it’s like to perform these lifestyles on Facebook and dating profiles.

“Also, there’s Harun, and All that’s Left which is like people in a nightclub during a shooting …”

Netto continues “(All That’s Left is) inspired by the Orlando shooting – it was (playwright Laura Couch’s) reaction to that incident and her wrestling with what that’s like. They did a production of it in Lethbridge and this is a whole new cast and I think it’s the kind of show that she’ll be able to grow with, rewrite it and revisit it with what it means to her.

“I am super excited for Functional, which is a site-specific show by Louise Casemore (with Defiance Theatre). This is her own project, her own voice — she did a piece that I loved in Edmonton called OCD, which is exactly what it sounds like, and I’m sure it made the audience really uncomfortable in a great way. I’m excited for her to take what I saw in Edmonton, that kind of aesthetic, and play with it in terms of a more intimate, 10-people boardroom setting.”

The festival doesn’t necessarily aim to find performances and work that will push buttons and make people uncomfortable necessarily. Mehmel says of the festival’s diverse content, “I feel like we’re going with the work that’s been presented to us, so this is what people want to talk about and that is actually why I’m so excited about (the festival) because it’s all these artists engaging with the world around them in a very present, now way. These are stories that are being created by artists that want to talk about what it is to be alive, and that’s been a big part of Sage.”

Netto adds, “I think a lot of emerging artists coming up are interested in seeing how they can push form further, and they’re still learning that … We definitely look for a diversity in voice, a diversity in art forms, so that you as an emerging artist can come to the festival, can kind of see a bit of a scope of what other artists are doing within your community and how they are approaching things with a different view of the same.”

With a roster of Ignite! alumni including Governor General Award-nominated Meg Braem, Chris Duthie, Catherine Hayward, Melissa Tuplin, Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, Major Matt Mason amongst many, many others, it’s not hard to imagine how ingrained in the arts community this festival is.

“We’re now at the point where Ignite! has been around long enough that its impact has become pretty prevalent” says Mehmel. “If we held an Ignite! party where we tried to get every alumni, we’d be tapping on a huge portion of the people who have worked in this city.”

Running June 6 to 10 at the Pumphouse Theatres, performances at Ignite! will be staggered, so there is little excuse to not take in as much of the festival’s offerings as possible. Full schedule and ticket information can be found on Sage Theatre’s website here.

Best interview outtake:

JM: We “ignite” careers if you will.

CN: Please let the record show that Jason did just do air quotes.

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her website, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at