Canada's oldest festival of new stage work has taken an unlikely pandemic pivot: it's become a book

The Rhubarb Festival has become a book with single print run of 888 copies — and no two are the same.

The Rhubarb Festival has become a book with single print run of 888 copies — and no two are the same

The Rhubarb book, designed by Monnet Design. (Buddies in Bad Times)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

When it came time to decide how The Rhubarb Festival — Canada's longest-running festival of new stage work — would turn 42 years old in the middle of a pandemic, the festival's director Clayton Lee was faced with an intersection of dilemmas — some more unexpected than others.

"At the start of the pandemic, my grandma moved in with me," Lee says. "So my daily routine was not only interrupted by the first lockdown, but it also meant that I suddenly became a full-time caretaker, cooking three meals a day, bathing her, checking her blood pressure, the whole gamut."

Lee didn't know how long she'd be staying with him, and it also started to become increasingly clear the pandemic wouldn't be over by Rhubarb's scheduled dates for February 2021. 

"It became a question, then, of how can we conceive a project that's COVID-proof, where I could potentially still look after my grandma and still make this Festival happen, in some form?"

Unlike the majority of festivals, Lee and his team conceived of a pivot that wasn't simply a version of the same festival but on Zoom.

Clayton Lee at the 2020 Rhubarb Festival. (Photo by Henry Chan.)

"We were seeing lots of arts organizations immediately transition into the online context — a relatively straightforward transposition of what they would've done in-person but with a camera and on the screen," he says. "Back in March and April, it felt like a kind of loss, where we had a moment to step back and reconsider the what, how, and why of the things we do. It was — and remains — a moment to disrupt the status quo and offer alternatives."

The alternative, in this case, became a limited edition book with single print run of 888 hand-numbered copies. No two copy is exactly alike, with two alternate covers and different "interventions" performed by artists within the pages. The format intends to "allow the audience to engage with the works however, whenever, and wherever they please." 

"Over 20 artists respond to the prompt to bring performances to the page, with some projects published in the festival publication itself, and other interventions performed on the book after printing," Lee explains. "Contributions range from colouring pages to a fever-dream drag performance; from a meal to music inspired by the turning of a page; and from choreographic scores to unearthed histories, real or imagined."

Some of the projects that will be featured in the book include an invitation from activist and artist Ravyn Wngz in conversation about her work with Black Lives Matter Toronto with Black Liberty; British-Carribean artist Ashanti Harris's History Haunts the Body, a text to be read aloud as a process of embodying and amplifying the quiet history of four Guyanese women in 18th and 19th century Scotland; drawings of past works by performance artist Louise Liliefeldt, who asks the audience to add to the work, presented here as colouring pages; and works from Aria Evans, Natasha "Courage" Bacchus and Gaitrie Persaud, [ field ], Sue Balint, Marshal Vielle, happy/accidents, Ashleigh-Rae Thomas, Nicholas Herd and Ishan Davé.

Ravyn Wngz is one of the artists involved in Rhubarb. (Jackie Brown)

"What was and still is super compelling about this book project is thinking about the audience's relationship to attention — and the artists' relationship to that attention," Lee says. "In the online context, we're used to a type of continuous partial attention, scrolling through Instagram while reading the news while chatting with friends. It's just the nature of the form. A book, however, resists this. So, what if, in this moment, we ask artists to create something that not only insists on, but demands and requires attention?"

"It's really about this exchange of ideas and imagining the possibilities," Lee says. "Within the Canadian performance ecology, we've become very good at making things in a certain way. While the artists have all individually and collectively experimented with this idea of live-ness, what lives between the pages is a multitude of proposals for alternate ways forward — for work that is rooted in process or demands engagement over time or that is purposely illegible."

In stark contrast to the way most other art is being consumed right now, The Rhubarb Festival book will not exist in digital form at all. The 888 physical copies are collectively its sole existence (although everyone who receives a copy of it will also be emailed an audiobook version).

The Rhubarb book, designed by Monnet Design. (Buddies in Bad Times)

Lee says he's excited about how this year's Festival will be received collectively.

"There are so many small details hidden within that I'm hoping folks who receive the book will talk about the festival with each other — not only about the works that may or may not have been included in their copy, but also about the ways in which they engaged with each project."

"It's in imagining these conversations that takes me into a perhaps romantic notion of what live performance is, was, or will be."

For more information on The Rhubarb Festival, visit the festival's website.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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