Experimental theatre performers of the world unite for this year's Rhubarb Festival

With guest artists from Switzerland, Scotland and the Netherlands, Canada's longest-running festival of new work is celebrating its 44th edition at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Canada's longest-running festival of new work is celebrating its 44th edition at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

A promotional image for this year's Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. It features a beaver in human clothes standing over the word "RHUBARB" in a big pink font.
A promotional image for this year's Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. (Buddies in Bad Times)

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

Over the four years that Clayton Lee has been at the helm of Rhubarb — Canada's longest-running performance festival of new work — every edition has offered an entirely different experience for its audience.

"I've done a lot of formal experiments," Lee says. "My first edition was on the cusp of the pandemic and was a typical Rhubarb, as we've come to know and love. And then we did the book two years ago. Then last year had this installation  by Andrea Shin Ling and performances built around it."

This year? It returns to the shape of a performance art festival — except that the entire event is a series of one-off encounters. 

"Every night you'll see two or three performances, plus the installation in the cabaret," Lee says. "And that would be the only chance you have to see the work."

Over four nights, the festival will present 11 different performances, all exactly one time. For Lee, this offers a unique opportunity for audiences to reset how they approach the experience of theatrical performance.

"For me, it was a really intentional way of thinking about the repeatability of the theatrical form, and resisting that a bit and instead just encouraging people to come see what's happening instead of relying on word of mouth or whatever. Just to be open to this notion of not knowing what to suspect, but actually indulging in that kind of unknown."

Artist Laura Fisher lays on the ground, embracing a photo of herself.
Artist Laura Fisher, who attending Rhubarb via the BUZZCUT Festival in Glasgow, UK and performing her work "FORGED (in the tender heat of your embrace)." (Emily Nicholl)

The other major difference between this iteration of Rhubarb and its predecessors is that it's expanding its scope internationally through a "curatorial exchange" with three live art festivals in Europe: FLAM in Amsterdam, Les Urbaines in Lausanne, Switzerland, and BUZZCUT in Glasgow. As part of this multi-year exchange, Rhubarb will invite artists from each festival and send Canadian artists abroad to perform.

"The deal was that we'd send artists to each other and receive artists, just as a way to really think of the kind of encounters that we have within the festival — and, again, of the belief that the international mix is actually beneficial to the performance ecology," Lee says. "So this is the large focus of this year and hopefully into the future."

This year, the artists representing that exchange are Bastien Hippocrate (Les Urbaines), Laura Fisher (BUZZCUT), and Publik Universal Frxnd (fka Richard John Jones) & Louwrien Wijers (FLAM).

Hippocrate will present "LoveLettersOrNot," a work of autofiction that examines "the impact of intrafamilial sexual violence on its victims, collateral victims, and perpetrators." BUZZCUT's Fisher will perform "an intimate, choreographic collaboration" between her and sheets of copper metal in "FORGED (in the tender heat of your embrace," which aims to use Fisher's own body heat "to create a relationship of co-dependency and intimacy." And the duo from FLAM, meanwhile, will be offering "Not Yet," a performance which uses textual artworks by Wijers in combination with Frxnd's spoken word "to punctuate moments in time and evoke past conversations about the future."

Artist Bastien Hippocrate performs their show "LoveLettersOrNot"
Artist Bastien Hippocrate is attending Rhubarb via the festival Les Urbaines in Lausanne, Switzerland and is seen here performing the show LoveLettersOrNot. (Cynthia Mai Ammann)

Lee says that one of the major question he's been trying to answer since he started at Rhubarb is, "How do we make practice better?"

"I talked to so many artists who are frustrated by what's happening in Toronto and the kind of work that's being made and the way it's being made," he says. "And I'm always interested in strategies to unlock that. And it feels like with these international partners, we're able to introduce new artists into the mix that can potentially unlock ways of making work that are new and interesting and exciting."

The exchange obviously works both ways, and Lee is just as excited for the artists that Rhubarb will be sending around the world.

"I'm really interested in what it means to give Canadian artists the opportunity to can go outside of Canada and present work," Lee says. "Because the kind of work that's being made around the world is very different, right?"

"I am of the belief that exposing your work to new audiences outside of what's familiar can actually change it in an interesting way or a productive way or generative way."

Rhubarb runs February 8-11, 2023 at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. More info and tickets can be found here.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk 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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