Experiments and new shows find success as RISER theatre event fills a gap

Experiments and new shows find success as RISER theatre event fills a gap | The Star

This month marks the start of the 2019 summer theatre festival season, with the Stratford and Shaw festivals officially opening, and Luminato, the Toronto Fringe Festival and the SummerWorks Performance Festival close on their heels.

But, opening this week, Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project is decidedly #NotaFestival.

Jessica Carmichael, Mina James, Cole Lewis and Montserrat Videla perform Lewis’s multimedia stage show 1991, a coming-of-age story told through projected shadows and photographs. It’s part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project.  (courtesy Why Not Theatre)

“It’s not a festival, this year is the first time we actually have #notafestival as a thing,” says Why Not Theatre executive producer Kelly Read. “The idea is to give everyone as close to what they would have if they produced independently. They don’t have a whole week of tech, but instead of four hours of tech (at a festival), they have a loading day, two days on stage, notes and a preview.”

Festivals like the Fringe and SummerWorks have long been considered development opportunities for works-in-progress, or for young, emerging artists to have their work seen for little investment. That function of summer festivals has only grown in importance over the last few years, with SummerWorks now creating an entirely separate stream — the SummerWorks “Lab.” But that’s not how Why Not Theatre’s artistic director Ravi Jain envisioned the RISER Project when it first premiered in 2014.

“For me, it was that there are so much inefficiencies in producing. How do we streamline and just do it better? When we first set out, I was frustrated because I thought, there are all these two- or three-year residency programs, but when I was in residency I had a million ideas. And there are a lot of people who, first time out, you’re not going to get that two-year residency because nobody knows what you can do. Where’s the shotgun residency? How do you just put up work fast, for low risk, low cost, to know even if I’m any good?” he says.

For Why Not Theatre, the RISER Project was an experiment in a new model of producing — one that shared resources between four productions by new artists or established artists working on an experimental project, and offered Why Not along with a number of partners (including The Theatre Centre, Factor Theatre and more non-venued companies) offering producing money and abilities to significantly lower the risk that these artists need to take on in order to have their work seen.

Six years later, the Why Not’s RISER Project has some impressive results: over 260 artists involved in 23 new productions, earning 46 awards and nominations. But most importantly, two-thirds of the project’s productions went on to longer lives after RISER.

“That to me was the biggest surprising statistic because it’s so rare for Canadian work to get a second life in any kind of iteration, whether it’s continued development or a second production. Especially for work that is creative, and not necessarily playwright-driven,” Jain says.

One production that has seen a life extend far beyond its RISER debut was Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, created and performed by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. After premiering in the second RISER in 2015, it was swiftly picked up by Nightwood Theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and a subsequent international tour. It was even turned into a film directed by Patricia Rozema, which premiered at last year’s TIFF. Only last week, Why Not and Quote Unquote had an official retirement party for Mouthpiece, after four years of consistent touring.

“It’s been really incredible,” Read says, about watching Mouthpiece’s journey, which Why Not continued to administratively support while ensuring Nostbakken and Sadava maintained ownership of the show. “Not only is it the quintessential example of what Riser should be in this community, but it has also been formative for us in terms of finalizing the ethos of the company and how we want to be able to lift up independent artists that don’t have the infrastructure but has the work that is good, and risky, and high quality and deserves to be seen all around the world.”

Six years of RISER has also seen an intense period of growth for Why Not itself, expanding from a staff of three to nine and a new office space in Parkdale. As one of the fastest-growing independent theatre companies in Toronto, they’ve adopted the resource-sharing values of RISER into other areas: connecting artists with unused or underused spaces, diversifying audiences, and increasing affordable childcare opportunities within Toronto’s theatre industry. Over the past six years, there have been times where RISER was almost cut due to staff capacity and budgets, but according to Jain, Read was its major champion.

“She said, ‘That’s why we’re a company now.’ Sharing is the thing, RISER is the thing.”

Now that Why Not has more staff power behind it, they’re now looking at RISER again to see how it can function even better.

“For a long time we all wanted to expand it, and maybe now as we’re growing our team there is potential for that to happen. The dream was always, though, to create something we can hand off, so people could do it on their own. Like could four companies on their own just do this somewhere, could a Vancouver company take it over,” Jain says.

Starting this week, the sixth RISER Project gets underway, featuring a group of four eclectic productions: Amanda Cordner and David di Giovanni’s Wring the Roses (the creators of last year’s SummerWorks hit Body So Fluorescent), opening May 7; Bilal Baig and Sadie Epstein-Fine’s immersive production Eraser (the first RISER production for young audiences); opening May 8; Cole Lewis’s multimedia coming-of-age story 1991, opening May 23; and Samson Bonkeabantu Brown’s solo performance 11:11 directed by d’bi.young anatafrika, opening May 27.

Credit: Experiments and new shows find success as RISER theatre event fills a gap | The Star

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