After an epic pivot, the Next Stage Festival shifts online

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At the turn of the new year, the Toronto Fringe Festival was within weeks of having live audiences at shows for the first time two years.

Six performances in its wintertime Next Stage Festival were to be in-person offerings at Ada Slaight Hall in Regent Park, and four shows were set to debut online.

Then the Jan. 5 provincial announcement of renewed lockdowns hit the festival hard. But there was a glimmer of hope: though no live performances can happen under the current guidelines, rehearsals are allowed, as are livestreaming and videos of performances.

An epic pivot ensued and all six of the companies planning in-person shows took up the Fringe’s offer to videotape their shows as part of the now completely digital Next Stage Festival. (One of those shows, “Bremen Town” by Gregory Prest, has since had to cancel its planned video capture; its artists plan to offer the show in another format in the months to come.)

The nine-show Next Stage kicks off online on Wednesday, with recordings of shows dropping into early February.

Members of three companies told the Star about some of the choices they’re making and the challenges they face in turning their live shows into virtual ones for Next Stage.

“Ursa: A Folk Musical” by the Uncommon Folk Collective was entirely conceived and created during the pandemic. Co-creators Jake Schindler and Sam Boer started working on it in January 2020 and recorded an online excerpt for the Watershed Festival at Queen’s University in March 2021, with members of the band and vocalists each Zooming from home.

Rehearsing the show together for Next Stage was “the most heartening experience,” said Boer. “Harmonies that were written in isolation finally came to life.”

“Ursa” is the story of a young girl (played by Belinda Corpuz) who runs off into the forest and encounters an anxious bear in the midst of an identity crisis (Stephen Ingram).

The intention, said Boer, is “a show that felt like our favourite concerts, blending the worlds of live music and theatre,” and the plan has always been to present it in different environments, from bars to theatre spaces. Director Margot Greve and videographer Patrick Hodgson are crafting the Next Stage version to create “a record of the show at this singular, critical moment in its existence,” said Boer, knowing that other versions are to come.

Mohammad Yaghoubi of Nowadays Theatre has directed “Heart of a Dog,” his comical adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel of the same name, twice before in his native Iran and not without challenges. Each time “I faced heavy censorship laws and restraints from government officials,” said Yaghoubi. “Now, in Canada, I have the freedom to explore my creative vision without any restriction.”

As written by Bulgakov, “Heart of a Dog” is the story of a stray dog who’s turned into a human by a surgeon and tries to navigate life in the Soviet state in his human form. It can be interpreted as a critique of eugenics, says the company, as well as a critique of any society in which individuals are exploited by their governments.

The new twist in this production is that the dog is played by a female actor, Aida Keykhaii, which couldn’t happen in Iran, “where a woman’s body is a political matter,” said the company.

While grateful to Next Stage for helping them capture a performance in a theatrical venue, “needless to say, we prefer it with live audiences,” said Yaghoubi. The company has incorporated a number of Brechtian techniques into their video version to remind viewers that this was never intended to be a close simulation of reality, such as having an actor mime a gun with their fingers rather than using a prop gun.

Fatuma Adar’s solo show “She’s Not Special” combines musical theatre and comedy to explore the pressures of Black excellence. Adar’s goal with director Graham Isador is to make the filmed version not just an archival video: they will keep the camera active and “do things onscreen that we otherwise couldn’t do onstage,” said Adar.

They’re also using post-production editing to “elevate the digital experience,” said Adar: “If you’ve ever heard a group of people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on Zoom, you’ll be grateful.” Adar, whose music has been praised by Bo Burnham, promises a cameo from “a certain female pop-punk rock Canadian icon” in the filmed version of “She’s Not Special.”

All three companies are unanimous about some major benefits of presenting their shows online: access and reach. “Our project can now be accessible to our followers and potential new audience members around the world,” said Yaghoubi.

“It is enormously rewarding to be able to share the show with our friends across the country and around the world,” echoed Boer.

“It also doesn’t hurt to have an incredibly filmed piece of work when pitching the show in the future,” said Adar.

The Next Stage Festival runs online from Jan. 19. See fringetoronto.com for information.





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