Preview: Ergo Pink Fest (Ergo Arts Theatre)

Ergo Pink Fest gathers women and non-binary theatre creatives for an intensive in Toronto

I sincerely hope that Ergo Pink Fest (Ergo Arts Theatre) becomes part of Toronto’s spring theatre tradition. If the collective spirit of the playwrights, dramaturges, and performers gathered at the kick-off reception is any indication, Toronto’s West End is in for a innovative and refreshingly off-beat weekend of incubator theatre by women and non-binary playwrights.

Gathered in the intimate Studio 101 theatre of Artscape Youngplace (180 Shaw Street), I had the opportunity to speak with 6 of the 8 writers whose works will be read this weekend. The storytelling ranges from the erosion of small town Ontario community, to coming out trans in Florence, to the tragic life of a 1916 circus elephant. Despite the diversity of content, the plays have a key theme in common: traditions of isolation versus forging new definitions of community. The plays are also set on backdrops of identity conflicts both internal and external, such as rural versus urban, diversity versus assimilation, and progressivism versus traditionalism.

According to festival director Anna Papas, the plays were not chosen with thematic unity in mind. Plays were selected based on their state of development and whether they could benefit from the festival’s workshop process. “Finished” works are not the focus of this festival. The goal is to create space for underrepresented theatre makers to grow and evolve ideas with the mentorship and support of experienced directors and dramaturges as well as actors who are ready to commit and contribute to an evolving piece. The thematic unity stems from what several playwrights described as the inability to be apolitical in the present climate.

The festival is in its second year and is supported by grants from the Arts Council at all three government levels. The festival was inspried by a theatre research report that found that fewer than 25% of Canadian playwrights are women, making playwrighting the theatre discipline in which women are most underrepresented. The festival puts out a call for submissions and plays are reviewed in a two-phase process by a panel. The final selections are made by consensus from a short list. The result was contributions from writers across the spectrum of career stages and diverse cultural backgrounds.

The festival opens on Friday night with Monkey Wrench by Shelly Hobbs and Duecentomila by Kai Taddei. I had the opportunity to speak with Kai at the reception. The artist identifies as trans-masculine and the play is based on their experiences visiting their conservative Italian-Catholic relative in Florence, Italy. There, it is not safe to be out as queer and trans, but their adolescent Italian cousins are inspired by their proudly queer Instagram presence. The play is about the close relationship between two cousins, one a cis-bisexual Satanist, and the other trying to fit their emerging identity as a male trans person into their devout Catholic identify. The cousins are separated by faith, distance and culture but united by their experiences as outsiders. The play explores the possibilities and challenges of ally-ship across cultural and social divides.

On Saturday there is How I Became a Tramp by Vicki Zhang and Mighty by Kit McKeown. In How I Became a Tramp and young woman born in Confucius’ home town strives for professional greatness inspite of the traditional understanding of womanhood that prevails in her community. Her plans are derailed by an arranged marriage and philanderer. Zhang, whose ancestors hail from Confucius’ home town of Qufu, says the play is inspired by the evolution of her mother’s understanding of womanhood as she builds a relationship with her modern daughter.

Mighty is a one-person show told from the perspective of a circus elephant who is convicted and executed by hanging for murder in 1916. True Story. McKeown says the play was inspired by a horrific photo of an elephant being hung that they stumbled across on Google. Believing the photo to be fake at first, McKeown did some digging and discovered that it is all too disturbingly real. Content for the play was drawn from newspaper articles of the day which interviewed townspeople about how they perceived and rationalised their actions. The play is informed by an animal justice and human rights ethos.

Saturday programming also features a daytime panel discussion moderated by Tanisha Taitt entitled Renovation/Reinvention: training the industry for 2020 and beyond. There is also a lectured demonstration of the Intimacy for the Stage method by Siobhan Richardson.

The festival closes on Sunday with Geologic Formations by Mia Susan Amir, Between a Wok and Hot Pot by Amanda Lin and Gash by Caitie Graham.

In Geologic Formations the discovery of old photos of Jewish-life in post-world war II Poland are the catalyst for a real and surreal journey of historical and personal discovery that the blurs the lines between past, present and future. The play is based on research Amir has conducted during visits to her ancestral hometown of Bialystok, Poland to explore the reason for the rise of fascism in the region. Ninety percent of Poland’s Jewish population was murdered by the Nazi occupation, facilitated by historical anti-semetic sentiment in the region. More than a half a century later, the author observes that there is simultaneously a deep inter-generational shame about Poland’s involvement and a huge taboo about discussing the war. Decades later,  this has led to a feeling of reverse-victimization in the younger generation, a profound fear that Jews will attempt to reclaim their homes and a desire to reclaim national pride and glory. This brine all adds up to fascism. The play explores the similarities and differences between the rise of fascism in Europe and the rise of the alt-right in North America.

In Between a Wok and Hot Pot, playwright and performer Amanda Lin serves the audience hot pot while exploring her mercurial relationship with her identity as Asian culture goes in and out of fashion. Lin’s goal is to take a naked look at her desire to assimilate or celebrate diversity based on external social pressures.

Sunday also features a panel on The Business of Playwriting and how to Talk about your Work moderated by Joanna Falck.

Suffice it to say, this is an ambitious range of programming over three days. A great opportunity for affordable, socially and politically aware theatre by diverse women and non-binary voices. Check it out and hope to put it on your annual festival schedule.


Photo of Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Catherine Fitch by Jorgas Photography rehearsing Mighty