Meet the young queer artists pushing boundaries at Canada's oldest festival of new work

For 39 years, Rhubarb has proven itself unlike any arts festival out there, transforming Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre into an arena for experimentation.

The Rhubarb festival has been turning a Toronto theatre into an arena for experimentation for 39 years

From left: Kwaku Okyere. Heath V Salazar, Rhiannon Collett and Erum Khan. (Tanja Tiziana)

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

For 39 years, Rhubarb has proven itself unlike any arts festival out there, transforming Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times theatre into a platform of experimentation that allows artists to push the boundaries of theatre, dance, music and performance art. And among the annual highlights of what is now Canada's longest-running new works festival is the Emerging Creators Unit, which showcases original work created and developed by four young artists as part of Buddies' Queer Youth Arts Program

Erum Khan, Heath V Salazar, Rhiannon Collett and Kwaku Okyere make up the quartet of this year's ECU. Okyere will not be doing a public presentation of his work, but CBC Arts spoke to Khan, Salazar and Collett about what to expect from theirs, and why Rhubarb's program has been so essential to their development.

So how about we start off by introducing ourselves?

RC: My name is Rhiannon Collett. I'm a non-binary queer femme originally from unceded Coast Salish Territory, Vancouver. I was artistically born during a four year stint on Mohawk territory, Montreal, and I recently moved here, to Tkaronto!

EK: My name is Erum Khan and I'm from Mississauga, Ontario. I'm a 23-year-old South-Asian film and theatre maker.

HVS: I'm Heath V. Salazar. My family is Colombian and I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario. I'm Latinx, trans non-binary/agender. My pronouns are they/them.

Queerness is a garden, not a ladder.- Rhiannon Collett, artist

Who or what inspires you as artists?

RC: Right now I am SO inspired by drag performers and visual artists: drag queen Sasha Velour, London-based non-binary queen Victoria Sin, the gender-fuck royalty that is Dickie Beau...photographers Laurence Philomene and Parker Day...the magical painterly makeup of Kelsey Fitzpatrick. I am obsessed with the occult — tarot readings, moon cycles, astrology...crystals. Big colours, bright textures, and endlessly imaginative worlds. If there's a mystery: I'm in.

EK: It's difficult to pin down a list of inspirations. There is always a constant flux of who or what I'm drawn to and the ways in which these elements end up manifesting in my own artwork. Often a lot of my work comes from my own personal response to the social and political climate within Canada or the rest of the world. Growing up in a society where the culture is mainly shaped and catered around whiteness and narratives that uphold/re-instate specific homogenous identities (even within queer communities) has led me to create the kind of work I always hoped to see.

HVS: I'm inspired by rebels who've challenged the norms of society whether they be from history books or pop culture. I'm inspired by the people I love and the ways in which they move through the world. I'm inspired by mountains. I'm inspired by human connection. I'm inspired by science. I'm inspired by physiological responses. I'm inspired by oceans. I'm inspired by the sanctity of the soil upon which I'm grateful to be a guest.

Rhiannon Collett. (Buddies in Bad Times)

Talk a bit about work you'll be showing at Rhubarb.

RC: There Are No Rats in Alberta is a wild dream-romp about rats, gender identity, trauma and power. It follows the exploits of Phil, a chocolate-milk swigging family man who also happens to be a shotgun wielding employee of the Alberta Rat Control Commission, Ricky, his eager apprentice, and Stella, a genderless, high-femme dream jumper negotiating her identity as a rat, and her relationship with dissociation, sex and men. What does it mean to be a rat in a place that denies you exist? I am exploring the idea of "rats" being a third gender — an identity that is invisible and denied by an old order, but that is actually thriving, and running parallel to mainstream society. Yeah, it's gonna be weird.

EK: The piece I created is called Becoming. It revolves around a woman who is confined in purgatory. As she navigates this subliminal space, she is confronted with various fractured memories of her life that she cannot remember if they are actually her own or not. A major inspiration for the piece came from multidisciplinary artist Maya Deren, whose films embody the notion of how our identities are in constant motion and a state of becomingness. I'm also super grateful to have Liz Peterson direct the piece. I have so much admiration for her as an artist and to get to collaborate alongside her has been one of the most incredible experiences to be part of.

HVK: This Rhubarb Festival, I'll be a part of two productions: Boiband the Boyband and Virgen. Boiband the Boyband is your Latinx drag king experience and will be kicking off the second week of the festival.  The show consists of a live concert dissecting themes of toxic masculinity and the reclamation of identity. Virgen opens the second weekend of Rhubarb and is a multidisciplinary solo show that I've been developing as a part of the Emerging Creators Unit. The piece explores the compounded impact of past experience on the present day through the lens of queer sexuality. Both shows, though they differ in form, work toward the importance of healing and celebrate the strength it takes to actively choose the ways in which we wish to grow.

Erum Khan. (Buddies in Bad Times)

What have you learned about yourself or your work through the process of this program?

RC: Everything is connected. Failing is interesting. Trust your instincts. Say no. Say yes. Take notes. Stick with the mystery. It's okay to not know what you're doing because it'll show up somewhere, sometime. Queerness is a garden, not a ladder.

EK: What's been so great is that I was given the space to do exactly what I wanted to do during my time in ECU. So I really tried to step out of my comfort zone during this program, both artistically and as my human self, to try something new and different than how I've always been inclined to work. What I found was that because of such a supportive environment that held basically no boundaries in the kind of work we wanted to explore and how we chose to explore it, I was able to craft my work in a way that felt quite different and exhilarating. This has really impacted my work ethic and allowed me to just trust myself and use that vulnerability of unknowingness to just keep writing even if I have no idea where I'm going with something. That trust has allowed me to recognize that sometimes the most interesting parts of your work — or what your work ends up becoming — can come from thoughts or inspirations you had no idea/inclinations going in.

HVK: One of the biggest things I've learned throughout my time in the Emerging Creators Unit has been finding the balance between jumping into the unfamiliar and listening to your gut. It was difficult to give myself the permission to trust my own curiosity, but it's a lesson I'm very grateful to have learned.

Heath V Salazar. (Buddies in Bad Times)

Any advice for participants in next year's program?

RC: Don't ever limit yourself because you don't know what's going on — you have an amazing creative impulse and your job is to follow it. Bring a sweater cause the Cabaret gets cold, and a snack because being hungry isn't conducive to creativity. Love your cohorts — it's a magical thing to get to grow alongside such incredible people.

EK: Go in with the mindset that the writing or ideas you have can instantly change from one week to another — and that that's totally great and necessary! This is the place to try out new things and let yourself grow in the best possible way.

HVK: If I were to offer any advice to next year's participants in the Emerging Creators Unit, I would tell them to go all in. This program is overflowing with folx that want you to succeed and who are eager to share their wisdom with you. I think allowing yourself to plunge into your work as deeply as you can allows for that wisdom to come through and be put into practice, helping your grow and develop your artistic practice while developing some profound connections with some truly genius human beings.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Rhubarb Emerging Creators Unit. Created and performed by Erum Khan, Heath V Salazar and Rhiannon Collett. Feb 16-24. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto.


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 spearheading 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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