Street Theatre Festival is the mother of all godzilla work-hard, play-hard,
feel-good festivals in North America for the simple reason that the whole endeavor
is shrouded in a deep respect for the performers and their work.
It's a ten day festival, now in its 16th year, held mainly in Winston Churchhill Square, which, when at its busiest, has 6 circle shows and three or four roving acts all working at once. There are also outreach programs where performers visit the elderly and hospitals and the obligatory revenue boosting shopping center appearances.
An army of volunteers are everpresent on the pitches, providing hospitality back in the lounge, cooking, pouring drinks, picking up litter, driving etc. We all stay at the Sheraton and party pretty hard and it's one festival that has the luxury of selecting from some of the best street performers there are; some of whom participate for far less than their usual commercial rate simply because of the society that forms over the 10 days.
Additionally to the outdoor performances, the entire cast of performers are split into two groups who are each given the opportunity to produce a collaborative stage show for one night each on the last weekend of the festival. These are called "Late Night Madness" and some of the work cobbled together over two days rehearsal is a brilliant testament to the caliber of talent collected.
Mention must also be made of the stage management that takes place over these two nights. The tireless, professional, yet unpaid efforts of a small group of people who find props, set up lighting and stage manage on the nights themselves leaves nothing for the performers to do but create comedy and perform. This also extends to the ground management crews whose abilities in crisis aversion and premanagement are legendary while for the most part being invisible.
This years line-up included acts from all over with a cunning mixture of both the hard hitting and the whimsical. It rained for a couple of days and the big circle acts waited for the crowds to arrive while the rovers went about their business and it was great to see what, in the absence of the circle acts, takes place all around them in the form of strange characters wandering around engaging individuals and small groups.
Forgive me as I paraphrase talent:
Two roving characters, the shadow and the wishing well, one cute, the other cute and creepy, can sometimes be heard under her breath muttering "I am not a bunny."
The stern uncle of veteran street performers. The words taut, rigid and successful are all understatements. Its a toss-up as to which is longer, his show or his hair. Still immensely successful with a show involving juggling found objects and a pie in the face. Also has a unique combative style and brings fathers and sons closer together using only light violence and pastries.
From Australia, Andy brought a new show to the festival that was a cabaret hybrid, involving music dance and juggling. Used to good effect both in the opening nights indoor performance and on the street. One of the heavy sweaters.
Hula hoop goddess and bulldozing sprite, Annie pulled off show after show dispute the high levels of competitive volume that surrounded her.
(The only criticism from time to time was that there was sometimes too many performers working on site. Still overall I think its a balance issue and programming re: volume is becoming more of an issue as everyone amps up simply because they can.)
Guy and Richard Berg-
With a show thats been around the world multiple times and already having appeared at the Edmonton fest more than once, Checkerboard guy knew that the only way in this year was to come up with an entirely new act. That he and Richard Berg did with consummate ease, performing a king kong spoof that drew and held large crowds.
/Cindi-lou / Jacquie Paul/ Lucie Brouillard-
I apologize for clumping all the face and body painters together as I know each has their own style. The evidence of their efforts were the multicolored children that added to the carnival atmosphere and like the rovers, it's all a matter of the smaller things raising the overall energy of the festival and not relying on big shows to pump the audience for their own ends.
"Blunt aussie charm" a multi skilled interactive clown/buffoon, Christof's energy and quicksilver changes of direction make him adaptive and entertaining in any situation presenting itself.
Mariann Sinkovics and Joanna Wright create moving installations of canned pork and fish, there may have been canned beef also but my mind becomes clouded as I was hardly a passive observer at this festival. They would roam the grounds forming an abstract and obscure counterpoint to many of the other self explanatory acts. It's efforts like this that give this festival its unique richness.
40 years playing traditional Chinese music added a further multicultural aspect to the festival. Unassuming and able to work under all the conditions the festival presented. The only challenge to his formidable composure came on the multiple occasions where his chair would get stolen between sets.
A multi-character rover, Heather strode purposely hither and thither and was one of the more vocally interactive performers, contributing significantly to the background roaming atmosphere that shone at this particular festival.
A brilliant marionettist, he ignored his doctors orders to not participate in the festival. An unfortunate side effect of using your fingers and limbs with precision over long periods of time is a kind of repetitive strain condition where joints become painful and inflamed. After a couple of days Guillermo had to stop, just too painful. It's a credit to both him and the pull of this festival that he gave all he could for as long as he could and the performers all wish him a speedy and full recovery.
Lynette has been a longtime Board member of the fest, past President, and is the prop mistress par excellence. She devised, found, or invented most of the props used in the Late Nights, and is a formidable clown in her own right.
Lynette was in charge of the childrens area which was a zone in which children tried stilts, bounced on inflatables, got painted up and participated in workshops on circus/clowning skills, in conjunction with Michael Charrois as well as a host of other activities designed to soak up the sugar their parents had inadvertently overdosed them with. It was always a hive of energy and popular.
A soft spoken Irishman resident in Los Angeles, his chalk art spoke for him.
Deep in texture and subtext his work is beautiful, serene and striking with his chosen medium poetic in its impermanence. Non substantial- much like all street theatre
Peter Boulanger, Ninon Parent, Darren Adams and Robyn Fox started the festival with their act of high level gymnastics, teeterboard, movement and balance. Unfortunately, early in the festival Robyn Fox injured her leg in performance and then had the added misfortune of having her foot gnawed off by a passing squirrel. Such are the challenges of the modern street gymnast. Still the battle against gravity continued, and the humans put on large show after large show with an adapted format. While Robyn spent the rest of the festival being pushed round in a wheelbarrow collecting charity.
What impeccable class, what pristine grace, how uncommon. The Queen shone as only royalty can, accompanied by her mono-dimensional corgies, she shared elevators, pickup trucks, opening ceremonies and various other events with us, the common people. And we became better people for it, if only as a byproduct of the mirth that flowed effortlessly in her presence. (Can you tell I'm greasing for a knighthood?)
Dave and Rick are grown men with families and responsibilities, yet have constructed careers out of remaining highly articulate 8 year olds. They are veterans of improvisation and produced circle shows and roved in unison throughout the festival as well as directing the first Late Night Madness show.
An interactive rover, Julie performed as 'Game show Gertie' a character addicted to games of chance and arcane knowledge. She helped, along with the other rovers, to keep the festival percolating while the larger acts were unable to work due to rain and it was characters like herself who constantly provided the public with interaction and entertainment throughout the festival
The Yo Yo Guy-
Poe faced yo yo poetry with just a hint of manic disorder. John Higby combines high skill with high energy performance to consistently produce shows of any length that all have in common the audience being picked up swept along and deposited gently at the other end.
A voice far older than his years and lyrics ranging from deep pathos to dark humor. Quietly spoken but gravelly harsh and guttural while performing, his street music is unashameably uncompromising. He wrings what he needs from his accordion and invites his audiences to not so much sing but grunt and bellow along.
Humble, yet deeply sexual, Lee Zimmerman is what can only be called borderline casual. His act consists of dangling inorganic matter from stings attached to what look like extremely painful marital aids that he wraps his hands around while waving his arms about to simulate a rock and roll lifestyle.
Then he goes back to his real one.
A viler practitioner of mock buffoonery I have yet to have the displeasure to see. His vain efforts to disguise his transparent vacuousness with attempts at being vague took what small vestige of dignity was left to him as a professional pantomime.
A diminutive Scot with a large show full of danger, risk, balance and an array of calculated stupidity, Mark has evolved his show over the past years to the point now where he can put himself in any situation and create a success of it. This season seems to be the celebration of his talent that he has been working towards the last few years and his enthusiasm was apparent as he bounded out in all weathers to take advantage of the milling crowds.
The Big Mammoth
Dave Lawrence and Ken Gardner are Gorg and Nog and are improvisational Neanderthals who, with clubs and wearing furs, create a show from the confusion of being thrust into the 21st century. They would come up with new material regularly and while their show was a work in progress, the audiences had no reason to suspect it wasn't a polished, rehearsed show.
Sabrina Samuel provided another cultural layer to the festival by providing an invitation to the public to become canvases for the ancient tradition of Mendhi body painting, traditionally used to adorn East Indian brides.
A strange deadpan clown, his twisted interpretation of cause and effect shone in the moments where he tethered children to himself while he wore rollerskates and dangled folded money on a stick in front of them thus giving himself a means of propulsion around the site.
A tight circle show containing all the elements: juggling, unicycle and patter.
It was easy to see he had a successful background in both street and corporate theatre. Still we can't all be unsuccessful romantic masochists.
Joani Bye and Linda Kidder are a duo with a mass of experience both as session vocalists and in their own right as performers, they dubbed themselves the wandering menstruals and worked well at the opening ceremony and other indoor venues but found the outdoor environment quite difficult as they work best with a certain degree of preset focus. Creating this in an outdoor setting surrounded by distraction and volume bleeding from adjacent shows proved difficult as the street environment was entirely new for them. They would of learnt lots in a short period but I don't think it was the most fun they've ever had.
A bearded old fisherman, Patti roved the site displaying her catch and improvising with the public, she's a respected and talented improviser and proved her worth as well as being the only character who had a raincoat built into her character so surviving the rain that fell heavily over a couple of days.
A warm, comfy street magic show, Ron has heaps of experience and constructs a well paced entertaining show. I don't forgive thumbtips easily but forgive his, which is a measure of his ability to engage even sad old crusty cynics like myself.
A tent with a barker outside touting the wonders within, this show was a tribute to the carnival sideshow, featuring an illusion of Sirena the living mermaid, it preyed on peoples curiosity and received a steady stream of patrons.
Sharon provided lots of conversations amongst various people as to whether shaking your money-maker in the faces of men was exploitive or post- feminist. Still at the end of the day people were entertained, donations flowed and the boob-tube held up under the strain.
Two rocker blokes so talented they should be compost. Not content with the outer fringes of society, they found each other. A seamless comic musical review, the cd I still use to make me smile on cue. Lines like "Come to Australia....You might accidentally get killed" and longwinded quickwitted absurdity concerning inflammable koalas, the flag and womball. Their show was a guaranteed laughfest and their audiences were treated to new material that had yet to be released, however they just so happened to have more than a few prerelease cd's which I'm sure they sold out of.
Or "Special Bend," Eugene and Jessica disappear into their movement pieces which are short and extreme. Awesome flexibility is their foundation but the pieces themselves are so much more than that, movement metaphors form in the audiences heads as they move together and work apart with what amounts to an extremely disciplined simplicity.
Peewee and Em deftly use ironic manic enthusiasm as a comic device and are one of the few acts that are funny everytime you watch them. (Bear in mind that as performers we get to watch -if we want to- acts as many times as we wish, and that over time, very few acts cannot be digested as formula.) Formula aside, no one deals with energy levels like Stickleback. The Don Kings of ballroom dancing.
A world traveling balloon artist based in Edmonton, Steven provided mementos for hundreds, if not thousands of people throughout the festival and also created an unshakable horny balloon man that provided one of the most successful running gags of one of the Late Night Madnesses.
A pelvic thrusting CD vending machine, Tupahn plays guitar through a sequencer. Playing the guitar is his show and selling cds is his livelihood. The "I'm playing the guitar like I'd make love on a hot summers afternoon" school of performance. Post coital public wander off with disks held in their sweaty palms.
Two members of Humans Against Gravity doubled their output and worked as a duo, producing a movement piece on a giant sparse spiky thing that they climbed on and moved via momentum. The spiky thing is itself a Tesseract. My dictionary was no help but apparently its a representation of the axis x-y-z from 3 dimensional graphs. It's difficult to infuse grace into something only capable of staggering but they succeeded.
Sister Wendy is a roving nun, sort of like a creepy clown but with all the archetypical subtextual baggage of nundom you can't help but want to trust her, she evokes faith while creating comedy from the fact that you cannot really tell how eccentric a nun has to get before you know it's a performance. She wandered the main venue as well as shopping centers and a harrowing walkabout in the terminal ward of the hospital.
Well known in Canada for researching environments for site specific roving performances and creating hilarious characters, Zandra roved as Shirley Best, the high priestess of polyester. A bulletproof character who barreled round the site ricocheting verbally off gaggles of public, she proved her reputation well founded. Also roved as Estelle, the Goddess of Grooming, providing free fashion advice and coloured hair mascara.
An accomplished Canadian stage actor, John Ullyatt successfully stretched his comfort zone by donning the guise of a dungbeatle and rolling a ball on which people wrote the figurative shit in their lives. When it rained all night and day it was John who celebrated his buggyness by running, jumping and cheerfully wallowing in every sodden puddle on site. A barren pitch with a madman gleefully sliding and flapping from puddle to puddle was one of my personal highlights.
Kan Tazuka is a Japanese modern pantomime who flew at his own expense to this festival for no other reason than its reputation and the opportunity to perform. Proving that you can survive as an extremely strange individual in Japan just as long as you remain polite. He was out there with an oriental punctuality, popping his elbows in and out of joint and mincing about wearing a gold wig and fruit skin as dentures.
This is one of the Highlights of the festival and seems to be being incorporated into more festivals in Canada as its popularity with performers and public grows. Essentially a free for all with a couple of days notice, a designated director or directors and a stage provided for a late night group performance containing improvised pieces with people who haven't worked together before or specific pieces people bring to the program that may not be suitable for the daytime family audiences.
There were two different nights in Edmonton, each with different direction and casts and both nights highlighted the wealth of talent for stagework otherwise untapped. The audiences paid $10 and certainly laughed harder than they had probably since the year before.The stage management was excellent and props were found as needed by volunteers.
I could see this being the potential start of a traveling stage piece. The quality of material would survive repetition and was stronger than say University revue pieces I've seen in the past that worked in part because of sympathetic and bipartisan audiences. A lot of this stuff stood on its own and audience and performers alike were suitably proud of the madness.
The Directing of the festival changed hands this year from Dick Finkle to Shelley Switzer, who cast and produced and oversaw and ran the whole thing. As administrators go, Shelley runs the festival like she's driving a big Mack down the highway with the breeze blowing through the cab and her arm slung casually out the window. Which is a rare and exceptional thing given the potential stress there is to surf with something this big with its own momentum.
Thats all I have to say and please remember these opinions are my own and I have had more than my share of head injuries.