Author’s Note: Last edited on
October 16th, October 20th November 2, 2017. This article has been edited from a previous version to better articulate some critical analysis of Fresh Meat’s mandate for diversity. These conversations are important to have and it’s important to choose our words carefully. These edits reflect the author’s development in thinking and analysis and may continue to be edited as this thinking continues to evolve.
The Fresh Meat Theatre Festival has a very special place in our hearts here at the New Ottawa Critics. About six years ago at Pressed Cafe, while a handful of local artists were preparing to premiere brand new work at a brand new festival, I made my own debut into the world of theatre criticism. Originally branded as ‘From the Cheap Seats’ and offering only bite-sized tweet reviews, both the festival and the NOC have come a long way from that first year. Now in the festival’s sixth iteration, the team behind Fresh Meat is striving to make good on their promises to diversify their programming and allot more opportunities to underserved and underrepresented communities. If the first weekend was any evidence of this, they are off to a good start.
To give a bit of context, I switched my opening night tickets for Friday evening because I wanted to check out the screening of Jonah Allingham’s short film ‘Theatre Outlaws’- thus why this review is coming on the last day of weekend one. For those who may not know, Allingham is the founder of the Fresh Meat DIY Theatre Festival and was a producer in its early years. This brief documentary (the running time is under 30 minutes) focuses on a few Fresh Meat alumni (Mitchel Rose, Madeleine Hall, and Will Somers) and their struggles with labelling themselves as an ‘artist’. The interviewees also talk about the various risks and rewards that come along with being a contract worker in the arts.
Somers in particular talks about how in a span of a year he went from almost always having a project on the go to literally nothing. This sentiment should ring true to almost every young person, regardless of their status as an artist: Millennials have the highest percentage of contract workers than any previous generation (I genuinely apologize for the “click-bait” title of the linked Forbes article). Essentially, a lot of us can’t always guarantee where our next paycheck is coming from and that’s stressful, to say the least. ‘Theatre Outlaws’ focuses on the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival as an avenue where individuals can find their voices as emerging local artists and where they can meet like-minded people with whom they can create new opportunities in the future. For example, we’ve seen the collaboration of Rose and Hall in the creation of their company Aplombusrhombus to great acclaim. The documentary is certainly worth the watch (and will be screening twice again on Friday October 19th at 6pm and 6:30pm) and will no doubt inspire the warm fuzzies in your heart if you’ve been following this crowd since Fresh Meat 1. And even if you’re new to the festival it’s a really lovely capsule piece about some of the artists who have gone through the festival over the past few years.
Now to get back to the actual shows being offered this week: five new pieces plus an optional performance in the ‘little black box’ makes for a jampacked evening of theatre that’s only rivaled by spending an entire Saturday at the Ottawa Fringe Festival (I think my record is seven shows?). Even if the shows are only 20 minutes each, those 20 minutes are chock-full of ideas and creative choices that have the potential to inspire robust conversation.
In regards to diversity and inclusivity, this first weekend is moderately successful: Honey Dew Me, presented by theatre decentred, offers a snapshot of the double life many LGBTQIA+ individuals had to lead in the 60s and 70s in Canada when police crackdowns on queer people were an all too real occurrence; La disparition (She’s gone), created and performed by Marc-André Charette and Anie Richer, is a francophone production featuring English surtitles that focuses on the slow deterioration of a beloved parent and poses the question, “what happens when your mother isn’t your mother anymore?” ; Beer Buddies, written and performed by Michaela Steven, looks at our oftentimes complicated relationship with alcohol; Badges, presented by Toasted Theatre, is a humorous comment on the achievements(i.e. Love, Career, and Friendship) in a woman’s life and how society often places an undue amount of expectation on women to obtain these ‘badges’ within a certain timeframe; and Le Crip Bleu is a burlesque show that features two performers who use power wheelchairs.
While admirable for its focus on diversity, the programming for weekend one still has farther to go if the festival wants to diversify in ways which haven’t already been paved by other companies in Ottawa. As it stands currently, there are already a few local companies who are dedicated to programming work from the LGBTQIA+ community and those living with disabilities. The most obvious examples of this come from TotoToo Theatre and Propeller Dance company. Even though a dedicated theatre company in no way guarantees a complete representation of a specific community given that intersectionality is an area we are just beginning to navigate, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ and/or those living with disabilities do have the opportunity to see themselves and their stories represented on stage. This isn’t to take away from the fact that it is incredibly important to keep staging these stories and voices but we need to continue to amplify voices that have yet to be heard on Ottawa stages.
Unfortunately, the voices of local BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) artists in this city remain mostly unheard on stage and perhaps this is where a blind jury doesn’t go far enough. Perhaps the problem begins not in the selection process but when an artist decides whether or not to apply. If a festival has never programmed stories from artists who are like you, then it becomes easy to think that this festival is not for you or your voice.
Given the current socio-political climate in Canada, where there are Indigenous communities living in literal squalor; the Black Lives Matter Canada movement is being painted as “shit-disturbers” due to their frequent protests at Gay Pride Parades; and the most recent controversial passing of Bill 62 in Quebec we need artists from these communities if we are going to be able to speak not only to these issues but to their own personal experiences as BIPoC. This not only important but necessary to the health of an intersectional arts community.
With the exception of one show (In-between ) scheduled on weekend two, At first blush, however, the festival still appears to be dominated by white artists or at least dominated With this in mind it still appears as though the first weekend of Fresh Meat is dominated by stories and voices that we’ve become more than familiar with on stage. there is still a distinct lack of voices from both people of colour and Indigenous communities. Looking at the ‘Shows’ page on the Fresh Meat website reveals a line up of artists who are, by the majority, white- from my count there are, in fact, only two people of colour performing in this entire festival . Only the artists themselves can report on their identity and I can’t (and shouldn’t) be in the business of assuming any artist’s identity but after the first weekend of Fresh Meat, the festival seems to still be amplifying voices and stories that already have the privilege of being produced locally. Excluding Le Crip Bleu, which is undoubtedly centres the voices and stories of people living with disabilities and their sexuality and sexual desires, the rest of the content offered this weekend feels neither new nor exciting. I am curious to see where are the rest of the voices from “underrepresented communities” that Outreach Coordinator Mahalia Tahririha talks about in her article for Apt613.? If a your festival is going to claim to make “space for people where there isn’t, usually” then you have to tirelessly make that space for all people. It won’t be easy and the festival organizers you will have already to started the groundwork, however, we you must continue to expand the space that you are making beyond making space just for a few artists. The inclusion of pieces like Le Crip Bleu and Honey Dew Me in is an excellent first step. I wonder what the second step will be and if we will see it even more exemplified in the second weekend of the festival?
(After a series of conversations with Outreach Coordinator Mahalia Tahririha, I have come to realize the problematic and hurtful insinuation of my original phrasing in the above paragraph. I got too caught up in seeing whether I could fact check a percentile, that I never asked myself whether I should #whiteprivilege. Race cannot [and should not] be determined on optics alone and I apologize for suggesting otherwise)
Since this is a festival dedicated to premiering new work, there are going to be some understandable quirks and kinks within each piece as they are all very much still in development. Some of the stories like those of Beer Buddies and La disparation (She’s gone) need to be fleshed out a little more. The former feeling very convoluted and a little directionless at times (I’m not even sure I can tell you what even happens in that piece- I suppose at its most basic it’s about about a woman who has confusing feelings about her drinking buddy) and the latter still needs to develop a sense of universality (as in: why should the audience care about this story in the grand scheme of things in the here and now? Especially because we’ve seen shows about ailing parents over and over and over). Other pieces, like Honey Dew Me and Badges, have packed a lot of content into 20 minutes, but you can definitely see the potential for these two pieces in particular to expand into full-length productions.
I do want to talk a little more extensively about Le Crip Bleu, though, because in all honesty I am still feeling the aftershocks of that performance. I cannot stress enough that if you haven’t already been, get out to Arts Court tonight and see this show. It will blow away any and all conceptions you might have about disability and sexuality: making it an incredibly significant theatrical experience particularly for those of us who exist in a bubble of privilege. Created and performed by Frank Hull and Alan Shain with original concept by Michele Decottignies, Le Crip Bleu is very much your traditional burlesque show complete with the cheesy soundtrack and the performers removing more articles of clothes the more the audience cheers for it. The strongest element in this production is the unabashed showcase of disability on stage and that it doesn’t ignore or have the performers hide behind their wheelchairs. Instead, the chairs become tools for creating arousal – think like how an able-bodied burlesque performer might use a necktie as a seductive prop – with the performers simulating oral sex on the chairs’ joysticks for example (Tbh don’t think I will ever look at a power wheelchair the same way again, dear lord).
Not only are we afforded the opportunity to see bodies on stage that don’t fit the “Hollywood” mould (like a lot of us) in a fearless and positive manner, these bodies are living with disabilities and proving to everyone without a shadow of a doubt that they are still sexy and sexual individuals. This isn’t a question of potential or suggesting that in certain situations disability can be sexy, these performers shout from the figurative rooftops while swinging their tear-away underwear over their heads in victory that disability IS sexy. The confidence and energy coming from these two performer-creators is incredible and, honestly, the Ottawa Burlesque Festival (also happening right now) should seriously consider booking them for next year.
All in all, as usual, I had a really great time at the Fresh Meat Festival and I’m brimming with anticipation for the second weekend. So far, so good in regards to creating a more inclusive festival, I’m looking forward to seeing what the next batch of artists bring to the stage.