How the Edinburgh Fringe’s CanadaHub is putting the country’s theatre on the map
With six projects under one roof, the CanadaHub at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe presents the country’s best new work while providing a platform for its indigenous artists. The venue’s producer and director tell Nick Awde how it provides an effective springboard for Canada’s theatremakers to tour Europe and the world
An immersive show about Ukraine’s Orange Revolution may seem an unusual beginning for a Canadian theatre showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It seems even more unusual, given the fringe’s increasingly labyrinthine ecosystem, when you consider that CanadaHub actually plies its trade from its own venue.
“We’re the only nation-based spotlight or showcase that’s also venue-based. No one else has their own venue. And that all came about because of Counting Sheep,” says Michael Rubenfeld of the left-field Edinburgh hit from 2016.
“I wanted to bring the show to Edinburgh and found a church [King’s Hall] and convinced them to rent it. One show, one venue. Right from the beginning, I also knew that if I wanted to cut through anything I needed to be connected with certain types of brands and so we partnered with Summerhall.”
Rubenfeld is executive artistic producer of Selfconscious Productions, the Toronto-based company behind CanadaHub, now in its second year at King’s Hall in South Clerk Street. Of course, the goal for bringing the show to Edinburgh was to get it touring around the world (mission accomplished) but there was far more riding on the venture, says Rubenfeld.
“There’s not enough money or venues in Canada for a show like Counting Sheep to have a long life there. But I knew that it had international appeal and so, it became an unconscious pilot project for what CanadaHub has become. In 2016 the Canada Council, which had given me a bit of funding for Counting Sheep, came over to Edinburgh to check out how things were going. They saw the show was doing well and I pitched them to partner with me again on many more shows.”
The timing couldn’t have been better since the following August fell in 2017, when the Canada 150 programme celebrated a century and a half of independence. As part of this programme, the government packaged every Canadian act performing at the Edinburgh Fringe in a single brochure alongside a series of events. Like the other major anglophone countries, Canadian acts have long represented a significant presence at Edinburgh, but it’s often unsung.
Politics also added to the celebratory national momentum in a particularly positive way. “We had just had a shift in our government,” explains Rubenfeld. “It went from rather conservative and not putting any money into the export of Canadian art to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, which decided with the Canada Council to mandate the export of Canadian art again, to present our thinking and talking about Canada abroad. There was a desire to find specific contact events to help export Canadian work.”
Since the Canada Council is a funding body not a producer, Rubenfeld stepped up to the mark to set up the first CanadaHub: same church, same team, this time with six projects from across the country – interestingly, four to six shows seems to hit the magic number for foreign seasons. Mindful of the other foreign programmes that continue to struggle with cracking the Edinburgh code, Canada appears to have hit the ground running. It’s worth noting for the record that three of the 2017 crop did especially well in minting new tours: Foreign Radical, Old Stock and Mouthpiece.
The pressure to expand seems to be de rigueur for anyone with a repeat Edinburgh agenda, but Rubenfeld has a very different concept of growth for CanadaHub. “From the beginning, CanadaHub has also been mandated to showcase indigenous voices in Canada, so we’re hoping to leverage the connections we have made to showcase this by expanding over multiple festivals – books, art, international if possible – and then different venues. For example, next year we want to partner with Emilie Monnet, who runs the Indigenous Contemporary Scene festival in Canada.”
Very much the centrepiece of this year’s roster is Huff by Cliff Cardinal, an indigenous theatremaker. Probably the most successful indigenous show in the last 10 years in Canada, it’s a hard look at how bad life can get on reserves, told through the straightforward but brutal perspective of two young brothers.
The politics of gender also takes centre stage with a brace of shows. Daughter, which has also had success back home, is a solo show by Adam Lazarus that deals with toxicity masculinity, and its dark confrontational humour has proved triggering for many audiences. Conversely, in Ming Hon’s Chase Scenes, Hon, Hilary Anne Crist and Alexandra Elliott wickedly dissect movie pursuits, more often than not perpetrated by men, and recreate over 60 classic chase sequences in 60 minutes.
Edinburgh therefore provides an international springboard for what’s a very local showcase. “That’s exactly it,” says Rubenfeld. “Canada is so geographically awkward for theatre. We’re close to the US but our theatre is very difficult to move into America – except of course for things like Come from Away [the Broadway musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein]. And American theatre often doesn’t work well in Canada either.”
“The Canadian sensibility operates much more comfortably in a European context,” adds managing producer Clayton Lee. “But that’s very difficult to set up and very expensive. So we explored this at Edinburgh with Counting Sheep and then last year at the first CanadaHub. There’s been a lot of touring for the first companies that have come out of it.”
An intercontinental partnership opportunity comes in the shape of First Snow/Premiere Neige, the premiere of a piece in English and French co-produced by Montreal companies Theatre Pap and Hotel-Motel and the National Theatre of Scotland. Written by Scots Davey Anderson and Linda McLean and Canadian Philippe Ducros, it’s a play that uses the odd symmetry in the separatist politics of Scotland and Quebec as the backdrop for a family drama.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes is a puppet show from Old Trout Puppet Workshop. This is the most successful show from a company that regularly tours overseas and makes its first appearance in Edinburgh. In surreal parallel to Chase Scenes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a series of tragic and very adult puppet deaths, over and over and over again. And puppet nudity.
The sixth show is a fixed slot for a regular showcase night for the Canadian talent likely to be already at the fringe. “That kind of connects back to this notion of what it means to run CanadaHub, how do we create space for more than just our five [theatre] companies?” says Lee.
1. Inspired by Edinburgh, CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) now also covers US fringes such as Indianapolis and Chicago. North of the border, fringes range from the big Edmonton International Fringe Festival to the small, but perfectly formed, Island Fringe Festival in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. fringefestivals.com; fringetheatre.ca; islandfringe.com
2. The voices of Canada’s indigenous communities have rapidly gained national and international prominence through the arts in recent years. Increasingly interdisciplinary, festivals include Indigenous Contemporary Scene, now in its fourth year and run by Montreal-based Onishka, which also works to bridge the country’s English and French-speaking communities. onishka.org
3. The growth of LGBT-focused theatre companies such as Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times has worked towards building a significant presence for Canadian shows in festivals overseas. Back home, celebrating its first decade, the Queer Arts Festival is an annual artist-run professional multidisciplinary arts festival at Vancouver’s Roundhouse. buddiesinbadtimes.com; queerartsfestival.com
4. In terms of classic theatre festivals, the Stratford Festival is an annual repertory theatre festival noted for its Shakespeare productions, running April-October in Stratford, Ontario. Over in Niagara-on-the-Lake, also in Ontario and running for the same period, you’ll find the Shaw Festival, a repertory theatre festival that presents plays by or in the spirit of George Bernard Shaw. stratfordfestival.ca; shawfest.com
5. Edinburgh may have the world’s largest number of comedy acts but the world’s largest international comedy festival is officially Montreal’s Just for Laughs. Held each July, the festival also organises events and tours nationwide through the year, including Toronto’s Comedy Festival. hahaha.com
“So there’s a lot of Canadian comedy, a lot of Canadian cabaret, there are lots of artists who are doing work in other areas who we haven’t previously been able to create space for, so now we are.”
Rubenfeld adds: “We’re evolving, coming back and moving on to the next stage. We’re also thinking about the idea of the evolution of our colonial heritage. Most obviously, it’s interesting to bring stories about what has happened to the indigenous people in our country as a result of colonisation.
Theatre is therefore a powerful export for Canada in more ways than one. “Well, Counting Sheep is about what’s happening in the Ukraine, a war that most people don’t give a shit about. But if you connect emotionally via that theatrical contact, you start to care in a way that is different from you just reading the newspaper unless it’s shocking, like Weinstein shocking.
“That transformation, achieving understanding, comes from the connection of the emotional and the intellectual. Authentically. And when theatre’s working at its best, it’s possible for that transformation to happen.”
Selfconscious Productions profile
Artistic director: Michael Rubenfeld
Location: Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
Theatre space: King’s Hall, Edinburgh
Capacity: 150 seats
Productions (2017): 6
Staff: 2 permanent, 14 seasonal
Key contacts: Clayton Lee, managing producer, email@example.com