SummerWorks 2023: theatre, community and Marxist dogs

Annual performance festival ran Aug. 3 to 13 in venues across the city

I TRIED TO SEE a SummerWorks Performance Festival show in 2021 but was foiled by God. First, I went to the wrong address. My fault, but solvable — I planned my dash to the correct one. Just as I was leaving, though, a violent tempest appeared, forcing me to retreat under a bridge and miss the play.I sense that SummerWorks is similarly elusive for many. The 11-day festival presents its eclectic slate of dance, theatre and performance art in only a handful of spaces around the city, so it can feel hidden. If the Toronto Fringe is a rambunctious youngster barreling down the road on a beat-up scooter, SummerWorks is its older sister reading critical theory in a dimly lit cafe.

But once you’re there, the festival has a definite buzz. Every time I arrived for a show at vital Queen West performance venue The Theatre Centre, I was greeted by the hum of an energetic crowd drinking and discussing art. This community vibe is core to SummerWorks — hence why it labels its shows “encounters.”

Two of this year’s encounters particularly embodied the festival’s rebellious spirit: We Quit Theatre’s remarkable i am your spaniel, or, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare by Gislina Patterson, and the improvised sound and movement piece LOOP.

i am your spaniel revolves around a fictional lecture on Shakespeare’s First Folio. Playwright Gislina Patterson plays the insecure scholar giving the disorganized address, which focuses on the punctuation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The character mumbles her way through the analysis, peeved that few people showed up. But eventually, the lecture disintegrates and the show morphs into a roving deconstruction of life under capitalism. (Director Dasha Plett is on stage too, offering dour narration.)

The show’s genius lies in its commitment to the lecture as a dramatic situation. Though the breakdown of A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t the play’s endpoint, Patterson and Plett don’t rush through it; rather, they embrace the scene’s duration. What makes this delightful and borderline experimental is the audience’s knowledge that the show is not actually about the lecture. A pre-show speech by Plett hints that Patterson will eventually transform into a dog — and, the whole time, there’s a collar on stage ready for action. The knowledge of this upcoming metamorphosis hangs over the half-hour lecture like a tease.

The show’s title refers to a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Helena asks Demetrius to beat her like a dog. When the lecturer reaches this point in the text, the words hit her like a Proustian madeleine and the show devolves into a string of associations. It’s stream of consciousness, or perhaps stream of internet: the show’s dramaturgy is grippingly digital, with projections of dog videos and other online goodies abound. The resulting odyssey is messy, highly theatrical and Marxist in both content and form. Of the many shots fired, my favourite is aimed at how Canada’s bourgeois theatre culture has historically acted as a gentrifying force.

Though there’s more to say about this essential show, I’ll stop and instead encourage you to see it when it returns next January at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

While i am your spaniel was a SummerWorks “Presentation,” a fully-rehearsed production, LOOP was part of the “Lab” programming stream, which spotlights works in development. Over five days, singer-songwriter Yarro and dance artist Nyda Kwasowsky created a piece at the intersection of their artistic practices.

The result is an improvised exploration of loops by way of movement and sound. After entering under a white sheet, Yarro and Kwasowsky make noises into a loop machine. Though at first they only use their bodies, they eventually start messing with the wide range of objects littering the ground: bricks, metal bowls, a roll of tape and the like.

They curate different sonic universes by layering loops. One might be ethereal and centre Yarro’s smooth singing voice. Another might be brutal and hard to watch, with screams and clattering pebbles. Kwasowsky’s movement mirrors these shifts, modulating vocabulary as the section demands.

LOOP is quintessential SummerWorks: it literally stages an encounter between different art forms. Though it’s still in process, this seemed to benefit the improvisation I saw: the show felt incredibly alive.

Both i am your spaniel and LOOP feature free-wheeling, exploratory structures. They luxuriate in expansiveness, liveness and imperfection — an approach ideal for SummerWorks and very welcome in an era of sleek, over-curated experiences that go down easy.

But everything I saw at the festival provoked thought. Neworld Theatre and Delinquent Theatre’s immersive audio experience The Seventh Fire invited audiences to lie down, take off their shoes and listen to an 85-minute-long soundscape riffing on Anishinaabe stories; the Deaf-led Lady M (Margaret), presented by 1s1 Theatre, was a Macbeth adaptation with stunningly textured lighting by Andre du Toit; Lilia Leon Arts’s DOUBLE embraced the Lab format by bringing the director on stage for a rehearsal; a double bill of dance works, 52 (navigation) and within sensation, gave two young choreographers the chance to share their patient work; and a sold-out reading of Graham Isador’s new play TRUCK approached questions about the relationship between AI and labour with a distinctly Canadian tone: its vision of apocalypse was soft and polite, not loud and violent.

This year’s SummerWorks festival proved refreshingly committed to exploring different methods of gathering around art as a community. I’m glad the rain kept away.