English-language theatre in Montreal is alive and kicking; such is the message which Johanna Nutter, the curator of this year’s Wildside Theatre Festival, is hoping to convey. As a theatre enthusiast and creator, I most certainly felt otherwise when I first moved to Montreal two years ago. I’m interested in theatre that pushes boundaries, theatre that is innovative, immersive, physical, and undeniably human. I arrived in the city with the assumption that the French theatre scene had much more to offer in that regard than its English counterpart. And, unfortunately, nothing proved me wrong – nothing until I stumbled upon the Wildside Theatre Festival last year. Presented by the Centaur Theatre Company, Wildside is a festival that aims to put on out-of-the-box English-language creations from emerging artists and companies.
Curating the festival’s 18th year, Nutter is making the mission of pushing conventions in English theatre very clear with her eclectic lineup of shows. This year, the Wildside shows promise to shock curious attendees with mature content portrayed through not so mature perspectives. With shows ranging from an epic rock opera (Johnny Legdick: A Rock Opera) to hypnotic poetry and dance (Coming and Going), Wildside brings something new to the local scene.
The idea of community is key to Nutter’s vision of the festival. A theatre creator herself, she found while touring her work that in places as close as Winnipeg and as far as Brussels, there was not a knowledge of the English-speaking theatre scene in Montreal. It became a personal mission of hers to create a dialogue about this scene, first within Montreal itself and then at an international level.
“It was frustrating. […] I want to [create] bridges – have people from different arts and groups come together and get to know each other’s work and support each other,” Nutter explained to The Daily.
Wildside is showcasing many local talents with shows from comedy troupe Uncalled For, homegrown dance collective For Body and Light, local creator Leslie Baker, and up-and-coming production company Playwright Hero. Stéphanie Morin-Robert, choreographer of Coming and Going – For Body and Light’s blend of dance, light, and spoken word – emphasized the importance of collaborative opportunities within the festival. “My cross-disciplinary [and] cross-generational collaboration with spoken word artist and musician Ian Ferrier has been an extremely enriching experience. […] Our company aims to not only break the boundary between physical and verbal expression by colliding both into a show, but it also [attempts] to push the approachability of both disciplines by making them accessible to all types of audience members.”
Wildside is giving artists from local, national, and even international (UK’s The Way You Tell Them) levels a chance to get familiar with each other’s work. The sense of comraderie, both between the artists and between the artists themselves and the audience, was palpable on opening night last Wednesday. In the audience you feel as much a part of the event as the performers. Most of the seven shows at Wildside this year are also collective creations rather than plays, which means they are able to constantly evolve in a way that many plays written by a single writer cannot. As Nathan Howe, co-creator, director, and composer of Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Made Another told The Daily, “It is very refreshing to find different audiences in different centres. It really changes the show on the go.”
What the festival’s shows all have in common is that they invite us to join this community of artists in reflecting on our modern existence in strange and unexpected ways.
“I like to think of [the festival] as a banquet, or a big family dinner,” Nutter told The Daily.
A personal must-see is Coming and Going, which I caught at the Victoria Fringe over the summer. Morin-Robert described her poetry and dance show to The Daily as being “for anyone willing to set sail and float away on an unforgettable ocean dream. […] For anyone willing to just be.’” When I saw the show, I was sucked into the sensorial world of subtleties between light and darkness, sound and silence, movement and stillness.
While the plays are promising, the festival does not stop at theatre this year. The Offside Festival, now in its second year, is the wilder side of Wildside. It begins at 11 p.m. every night except for Sundays. Several young artists have been commissioned to create pieces in a limited amount of time, such as an improv slideshow. The Offside will also include an open mic night, and two Tom Waits tributes. Aside from the performances, The Offside provides a chance to connect with Montreal’s theatre community – to chat over drinks with other theatre-makers and theatre-lovers.
Lastly, the Wildside Art Exhibit, a ‘first-come-first-serve’ gallery, keeps true to the theme of unconventionality. For all ten days of the festival, Centaur’s Seagram’s Gallery will be filled to the brim with as much art as it can handle. All name-dropping is pushed aside in a defiance of general gallery convention. The first people to sign up in December now have their art on the walls, no fancy credentials required.
Under Nutter’s direction, Wildside is again fulfilling its vision of cultivating homegrown theatre in Montreal. However, we should keep in mind that there is perhaps too much comedy in the lineup to full-heartedly back the festival’s claim of producing all ‘risky’ theatre – some of the shows may go for the laughs above innovation. But even if not all performances are challenging boundaries, they are uniquely theatrical. The shows won’t let you sit back comfortably and tune out, pushing the audience to be active participants. In the age of Netflix, theatre has been given up by some as a dead art. But by supporting emerging artists who revitalize archaic conventions, Wildside is helping to bring the art form back to life.
Wildside Theatre Festival runs from January 7 to 11 and 13 to 17. at the Centaur Theatre (453 rue Saint Francois-Xavier). Student tickets are $12.50 and a Student Superpass offers 4 shows for $40.