MoT Profiles: The Rhubarb Festival (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre)

Photo of Rhubarb Festival cover

It’s week two of the 41st Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. I love that the festival has been running longer than a lot of the audience – and performers – have been alive.

I regret that this is the first time I’ve been to the festival. It won’t be the last. It’s the kind of theatre that I love: adventurous, experimental and entertaining. Young artists stretch their wings, and established artists step out of their comfort zones to try new things.

If you’re wondering why this was my first time… intimidation. For me, the intimidation factor was high. I’m an old straight white woman. I wasn’t sure that this was a space for me. Here’s the truth. No one cares. No one’s paying any attention to me as long as I’m respectful.

I was one of the older people in the audience. Most people seemed to be in their 30s and 40s. I also noticed most people in the audience were white.

Toronto’s stages are finally moving toward diversity and the festival this year is filled with BIPOC performers, but the very white audience felt conspicuous. It reminded me of the question that seems to be asked often – how do you spread the message that theatre is for everyone, that it’s not just a ‘white people thing’? Not just a Rhubarb Festival thing. And it’s not a topic to explore here. Another time, another place. But Wednesday did bring it to mind.

If you aren’t already familiar with the festival, Rhubarb is a festival of new works that runs for two weeks each year. It has a no-review policy to encourage a safe space for experimentation for artists. There are installations, theatre, dance, music, and performance art. There was a week one schedule, and this week it is running on a week two schedule.

On Wednesday, I saw three of the seven shows on offer that night (not including the three installations.) One was a solo piece that was performed in ASL with English interpretation, opposite of what we usually see.

The other two were ensemble pieces and were similar but very different. Both included music, dancing, song, and poetry.

One was the second iteration of a flamboyant piece featuring six trans women of colour on a girls’ night out.

Set at a dinner party, the performers in the other piece explored what sex and shame meant to them as queer men of colour.

Some of the pieces will go on and be developed further. Some of them won’t, but they may contain the seed of something else that will be developed. For me, that’s part of the joy of this kind of theatre, seeing things in their infancy.

As I mentioned, Rhubarb has a no review policy. That means artists can take risks without worrying that a critic is going to call them out on something that might not work. The audience expects experimentation here, not polish.

The festival runs for two weeks from Wednesday to Saturday with a different program each week. Performances happen in The Cabaret and The Chamber at the same time, so between 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm, there are always two different shows running. You pick which one you want to see so you might move back and forth between rooms.

At 10:00 pm there’s a special presentation in The Chamber each evening. There are also installations – lots to see.

If you’ve been wondering whether it would be ok for you to go to The Rhubarb Festival, it would be. Go.

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Image by Tanja Tiziana