Those of us living in Ottawa understand just how cruel these winter months can be. Despite having a relatively mild and easy December and January this year, these past few weeks in February have given us good reminder that we’re not through it yet. However, no amount of inclement weather could keep Ottawa audiences away during the 2016 undercurrents theatre festival. With record-breaking attendance, a number of sold out performances, and the inclusion of topical panel discussions, it is clear that undercurrents, in its sixth year, is reaching new and exciting heights here in the capital city.
Undercurrents, as a whole, looks to showcase the “best, original contemporary theatre being created by Ottawa performers and visiting artists” and this year Artistic Director Patrick Gauthier’s programming specifically looked to “[highlight] women’s voices and stories” (festival program). Furthermore, the festival boasted three world premieres all from relatively prominent Ottawa theatre artists: Arthur Milner, Sarah Waiswisz, and Kristina Watt. All this to say, given the resonant feedback from both audience and critics alike, Gauthier’s astute selections provided the real drive behind this year’s festival.
There was much and more to discuss about the nine shows, each of which brought something completely different to the undercurrents’ table. There appeared to be more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’, as it were, with more than a few shows receiving rave reviews. Shows Mouthpiece, by Quote Unquote Collective; A Man Walks Into a Bar, by Rachel Blair; and Getting to Room Temperature, by Arthur Milner, broke festival records by having the most-attended shows in all six years. Overall, the Ottawa Fringe reports that the 2016 year brought in more than 2,500 ticket buyers (the second year breaking its own attendance record) which is a great indicator of how healthy and alive the Ottawa theatre scene is.
This is further evidenced by both the number of reviews and the amount of discussion happening about the festival’s programming amidst the festival itself. Checking out the undercurrents blog, you will see that each show has at least 2 to 3 reviews from different outlets with a total of over 30 reviews written for the festival over its ten day run. Not to mention the brand new theatre podcast Just Another Gala, hosted by Kat Fournier and Jessica Ruano, which launched its inaugural episode mid-festival. And, of course, all of this was supplemented by the enthusiastic buzzing that was taking place on #undercurrents via Twitter.
Strong artistic material is more than enough to keep patrons coming back to see more shows, but what about encouraging audiences to stick around the venue for an entire evening experience? Well, safe to say, undercurrents had this covered this year as well. From the Pay What You Can interim programming, to the different panel discussions and the parties in between, undercurrents succeeded in creating a more accessible and inclusive event for their patrons.
Taking place in the Arts Court Studio Lobby, Listen to Me, Forstner & Fillister, and Macbeth Muet took to the stage either in the middle of the two mainstage pieces (as was the case for Listen to Me) or after the final mainstage show of the evening. Credit has to go out to the performers in Listen to Me, an immersive and interactive show focused around the event of speed-dating, who performed their thirty minute piece every night of the festival looking to make genuine connections with eight individuals whilst the rest of the event swirls on around them. Forstner & Fillister, a short comedy about the breakdown of a relationship between two brothers using woodworking as both metaphorically and aesthetically, was funny, if not a tad rough around the edges and could have benefitted from a slightly longer run. The same could also be said of Macbeth Muet (both shows only ran for two nights), which was supremely creative though still needs a little more finesse to be truly exceptional.
The incorporation of three different panels and an evening showcasing new plays (“New Play Tuesday”) is an excellent way of extending the life of the festival. Each panel discussion had an important topic that is relevant to the discussion of Ottawa theatre and, though I personally missed the discussion on Indigenous performance reaching critical mass, were all well attended. There were many points of interest brought up (i.e. “how do we grow our audience? By individual show or by season?” and “Is there a difference or conflict between the desire to create work and the desire to be hired?”), though it’s hard to conclude whether anything of huge significance was discovered in the mere hour dedicated to these discussions. The panels could easily benefit from another hour, and if they’re kept free of charge with the promise of $2 beers, they’ll stay well-attended.
I should also briefly mention the event that was New Play Tuesday. It’s hard not to feel pride in the local theatre scene when the number of individuals who decided to brave the most snow Ottawa’s seen since 1915 just to listen to staged readings of three new pieces of work by local artists nearly filled all the seats in the Studio Lobby. Moreover, the works presented by Lawrence Aronovich, Madeleine Boyes-Manseau and Norah Paton were all very different and thought-provoking, speaking out to their own experiences and creative processes. It’s a great opportunity, and a special privilege, as an audience member to witness a piece so early on in its development and being given a platform upon which to voice one’s initial thoughts and feelings.
Last but certainly not least, how can you forget the parties? Any good theatre festival needs ways for both artists and audiences to cut loose, relax, and (ultimately) mingle. Free food, good tunes, and a seemingly endless supply of decently priced Dominion City beers (not to mention the sheer variety for a cash bar) all foster this feeling of community and create the experience a ‘shared event’. You often hear theatre-goers talk about the “magic” of Ottawa Fringe, and its becoming evident that undercurrents is attempting to (and arguably becoming increasingly successful at) tapping into this energy.
Overall, there are an abundance of reasons why 2016 can be considered undercurrents’ best year to date. Though I briefly elucidate on only some of these factors, the sense that undercurrents continues on a positive and upwards trajectory is undeniable. Given the strong artistic programming and the supplementary events taking place around this year’s festival, I can hardly wait to see what 2017 brings.