‘Almost every other major city in Canada has a curated theatre festival, or performance festival, or performing arts festival. But we don’t.”
Vern Thiessen, artistic director of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre, is seeking to fill this void with the Chinook Series: a three-headed chimera which brings together Workshop West’s Canoe Festival, Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival and a winter micro-edition of the Edmonton International Fringe Festival.
Describing his vision for the mega-festival as “the Mardi Gras of theatre in Edmonton in the middle of winter,” Thiessen hopes that the Chinook Series will one day attain the heights of the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary and the PuSh Festival in Vancouver.
“In a dream world … we would like to have something that’s bigger and flashier and rivals High Performance Rodeo and PuSh—those are the two main ones in Western Canada—that creates a little circuit or a tour during this time period,” he says. “They all run in January and February, as well as Pivot in Whitehorse, which is a smaller festival, obviously, because of the size of the city. I think Edmonton is ready for this and we just need to see what it looks like.”
Thiessen is working with Murray Utas (Fringe) and Kristi Hansen (Azimuth) to organize Chinook. Each director is taking a different approach with the shows they select rather than trying to fit them in under one united theme.
“We all basically are just running our own festival, but we’re doing it under one umbrella and literally under one roof at the Fringe [arts barns],” he explains.
For Canoe Festival’s contribution, Thiessen is excited to be bringing in some shows from outside of Edmonton. He mentions Pamela Mala Sinha’s Crash as well as Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava’s Mouthpiece, both from Toronto, as examples of the themes that Canoe is exploring this year.
“Last year I focused a lot more on experiential pieces—people having very unique theatrical experiences that they may not normally have, Thiessen notes. “And this year what came to the fore for me was much more performer/writer-driven work. And so I’ve really focused on people who have written some very dark, disturbing, yet hopeful pieces that they are then performing. In every case the artists who are performing the piece are also the creators of the piece.”
Rounding out Canoe’s programming are Love in the Margins, Ursa Major, and Fringe favourite Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable by Elena Belyea, which is currently playing in Montréal.
“All of our shows this year are female-driven, which I’m very proud of,” Thiessen says. “And so we’re really trying to support that. [It’s] also a diverse group of artists, both racially and ability-wise.”
Murray Utas has also embraced the idea of bringing in outside talent, recruiting Edgar Allan out of Brooklyn. But the Fringe’s contributions will be more practical than theatrical.
“Fringe is bringing the infrastructure and the labour—you know, our building and all the venues and the festival know-how,” Utas says. “And [we’re] also bringing some programming to the table. And then we’re sewing in all the spaces in-between to create a larger event.”
Those in-between spaces will be filled with roving performers, like the Lobbyists and a stilt-walking Snow Queen, as well as masterclasses and workshops from visiting artists, including Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor.
“I wanted to make sure that if I’m inviting artists from around the world to come and perform,” Utas says “I want them also to share their knowledge with us and leave it with our community.”
If all goes well, Utas hopes that the Chinook Series will become an Edmonton institution in the same vein as the 35-year-old Fringe Festival.
“One of the things that we’re talking about is the idea of Fringing year-round … So this is now another extension of [the question]: ‘How do we pull the festival throughout the year, so that people know that we’ve got a couple stops along the way before getting back to August?'”
As for the question of why a major Edmonton festival should be named after a climate phenomenon most often seen in our rival to the south, Utas and Thiessen have a fascinating answer.
“Chinook is the original name of Fringe Theatre Adventures,” Utas says. “Where the new Varscona is being built, that building was originally the home of Chinook Theatre, which then became Fringe Theatre, the founder of the Fringe Theatre Festival.”
“Also, even if we only get the tail ends of them up here, it’s nice to have something that we consider to be hot in the middle of winter,” Thiessen notes. “I think our dream is that down the line people will be really looking forward to this programming and make it part of their winter. That it’s an important part of staying warm in the depths of an Edmonton winter.”
“Our chinooks are a little more rare, which I also think makes them cooler,” Utas continues. “It does not happen as often, but it does happen. And when those westerly winds blow in, it’s quite beautiful.”
Until Sun, Feb 7
ATB Financial Arts Barns, $25 single ticket, $50 evening pass, $75 five-pack festival pass
Schedule at chinookseries.ca