Arts

Staging a new chapter: How SummerWorks is growing their mission by scaling back

For Canada's largest juried performance festival, it's quality over quantity as they begin their 2017 edition.

For Canada's largest juried performance festival, it's quality over quantity

Who Runs The World? with Girls Rock Camp Toronto runs at SummerWorks on August 4th. (SummerWorks)

In the arts, bigger is almost always considered better. Larger venues, higher budgets and expanding audiences are often the main barometers of success. It's a formula that Toronto's SummerWorks has followed in the past, dramatically expanding their program in recent years to become the country's largest juried performance festival.

But for 2017, the organization is doing an administrative 180. Under the hand of artistic and managing director Laura Nanni — who took the reins from outgoing head Michael Rubenfeld in May 2016 — the fest has reduced the number of shows on offer for the first time in many years, dropping from 69 to 51, and put a temporary pause on their winter edition Progress, which is slated to return in 2018.

The move was partly made to address a funding gap that Nanni inherited when she took the job. But reducing the number of shows also enables her to give individual projects the attention she feels they deserve. Curators in new works festivals rarely have the time to even see all of the shows they've programmed — but Nanni goes above and beyond what most artists expect, frequently sitting in on rehearsals, offering practical advice and, when needed, emotional support.

Reality Theatre, running at SummerWorks from August 3-13. (Bryanna Reilly)

"Sometimes it's just a matter of watching a run and giving notes," Nanni says on a break between rehearsals. "In a lot of cases though, it's much more tailored to their needs. It might be sitting down with them to talk about presenters they should connect with. Or it might be some last minute dramaturgy to help fix something in a piece that needs a fresh set of eyes. As much as possible, I'm trying to give the artist whatever it is that they need."

At the same time the festival is paring down the number of projects, it's also expanding in other areas. Nanni has beefed up late night programming with more weekend parties, including collaborations with Girls Rock Camp and the Toronto dance organization Love-In.

We're still currently framed as the largest curated performance festival in the country, but that isn't a guiding principle for me. My priorities are about improving the experiences of artists and audiences, and raising the quality of the work.- Laura Nanni, SummerWorks artistic and managing director

As part of forging new relationships between artists and audiences, the festival is also experimenting with Long Table Discussions at two shows (Bobby Del Rio's Professionally Ethnic and Jivesh Parasram's The Only Good Indian). Developed by artist and academic Lois Weaver, the experimental format has been used in the art world since 2003 as a space to discuss complex topics and uncover uncomfortable truths.

Keen to capture the public through a variety of platforms, the festival has also launched a new wave of programming with a series of app-based works by artists like Jordan Tannahill and Darls Contois.

Bobby Del Rio's Professionally Ethnic. (SummerWorks)

As Nanni finishes her first full year of leadership, the festival is in a relatively stable place. The financial woes are gradually settling, in part because sponsors and members of the public have stepped up to help out. Advance tickets sale for this year are already exceeding expectations. And international presenters are descending en masse to see what Canadian artists have been cooking up. So with all the pieces falling into place, is Nanni hoping to swell the festival back to its former size next year?

"We're still currently framed as the largest curated performance festival in the country, but that isn't a guiding principle for me," she says. "My priorities are about improving the experiences of artists and audiences, and raising the quality of the work. Size doesn't need to be our defining feature — so I'd be very prepared for another slogan."

SummerWorks. August 3-13. Toronto. www.summerworks.ca

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