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This year’s Brave New Works Festival is set to be a ‘place of convergence’ for Hamilton artists

iPhoto caption: Photos of Karen Ancheta and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard courtesy of Theatre Aquarius.
/By / Jun 3, 2024

Hamilton has a bustling arts scene, from spoken word to visual art — but, historically, up-and-coming theatre creators have often left town, opting to grow their craft in Toronto and beyond.

For that to one day change, Hamilton artists need stepping-stones: spaces in which to hone their craft and forge connections with audiences and fellow creatives. 

Enter Theatre Aquarius’ annual Brave New Works Festival, now in its third year. The festival brings together artists from a myriad of disciplines to present in-process projects and exchange ideas. Running from June 6 to 8 throughout the Aquarius building, this year’s lineup will feature 14 performances, discussions, and installations, all open to the public at pay-what-you-will prices. 

For Brave New Works co-curators Karen Ancheta and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, this year is partly about widening the festival’s lens — in terms of what’s presented, yes, but also where its creators are hailing from. In the past, Brave New Works’ primary purpose has been “to support Hamilton talent,” said Ancheta in a Zoom interview. “But this year it’s a little broader, which is super exciting.”

“We’re excited to be working with people who are in Brampton, or Brantford, or St. Catharines,” explained St. Bernard. “It’s that sort of ‘outside Toronto’ horseshoe where… there’s such a rich strata of talent that’s not necessarily on the mainstages.”

“So people are either coming home or coming from outside the city to explore what’s here,” said Ancheta. “And I think it’s exciting that this festival is about pieces that are growing. We’ve got 20-, 40-, and 60-plus- minute pieces, all at different stages of development. And people can come here to do that, when in the past, they [went] away.”

One of the festival’s most eclectic offerings is Sunshine – a VR Musical, written by Kath Haling and produced by Perfect Pitch and Global Musicals, a co-producer of Six. “People can put on a VR headset and experience a 13-minute musical that’s being developed in the U.K. right now,” said Ancheta. “And, in addition to that, [Sunshine director] Christopher Lane will be doing a talk on VR in our lobby. I think a lot of people have questions about VR, and he’s going to talk about… what’s happening across the pond, and answer all the questions about VR in theatre.”

There are a fair number of development opportunities available to Ontario playwrights, from programs run by local not-for-profits to grants. Less so for designers. That’s why Ancheta and St. Bernard have made an effort to showcase design in this year’s festival, including an installation by Josh Arcari called Trigger Based Lighting Networks, running in the theatre’s coat check.

“I think the design stuff is really important to bring into these in-progress spaces, because often design gets added on, or dresses up the play, but actually it’s a really strong creative force if it’s involved in development as well,” said St. Bernard. “I think it’s really stimulating to bring these different collaborative processes into the early stages of creation, and for artists in our community to be thinking ‘how would I write for this discipline?’ Or ‘how would I write a play that takes advantage of this design effect?’

“And that’s one of the reasons why… the work we’re presenting is brave and new,” she continued. “Like, I’m thinking about Jan Jennings doing comedic burlesque [in her piece Juicy XXL]. That’s not a shape that I conceived of as an option for me, in creating. So I’m excited about, both with the design and some of the content, how we’re all expanding what we perceive to be the limits of the container we’re pouring into.”

In addition to the full-length presentations, which run anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes, it’s become tradition for Brave New Works to involve a cabaret of 10-minute performances from a varied range of artists. 

The seven cabaret offerings this year include a presentation from “an Indigenous youth group called Piindigen, who’ve been working at Theatre Aquarius with Shane Pennells and Carly [Anna] Billings,” said Ancheta. “We also have a snippet, just a snippet, of a musical called Red Tide by Nam Nguyen and Wilfred Moeschter. And we’ve got Madeleine Brown, who has been exploring standup comedy and thinking about making it in a more theatrical form. So there’s all this experimentation that’s happening… I think it’s going to be a fantastic evening.”

“The cabaret is a real place of convergence,” added St. Bernard. “And that’s one of the values of it for me. When I meet artists, I like to meet them through their work, and then immediately with a drink. Seeing someone’s work, and then being in community with them: it’s a deeper engagement, for me. And less explaining, like: I’m not gonna explain what I do, I just did it, it was that. And I saw what you did, and I liked it. And now we’re going to talk about how the world could be better.”

On top of all the other exciting programming, play readings are still a pillar of Brave New Works. This year’s lineup features nine. 

One highlight is Open Heart Arts Theatre’s Show Home. “Carlyn Rhamey is a fantastic storyteller-artist-educator in Hamilton, and that play came out of her beautiful mind,” said Ancheta. “It focuses on art, and people living in congregate care. [Open Heart Arts] does beautiful work in the community, having professional artists and people in congregate care come [together] on a regular basis to create. So this will be a result of that.”

“I’m gonna mention Mariló Núñez’s Foxy: Tales of an Urban Zorra,” said St. Bernard. “It’s a really great play, bringing some of that magical realism excitement into the mix, with… a large cast of Latinx performers. I’m excited about that and Koli Kari, Ganesh Thava’s play. [It’s] heading for the Toronto Fringe, so there’s going to be a little more hoopla — it’s already in the process of lifting off the paper.”

St. Bernard said Show Home, Foxy, and Koli Kari, along with Brefny Caribou’s Savage is a Word in the English Dictionary, are “fuller offerings” that have been in development for a while. There will also be newer works from Jennifer Walton, Lili Robinson, Michael Kras, and Tommy Taylor.

Despite the uniqueness of each piece being shared, Ancheta and St. Bernard see an ambitious, forward-thinking spirit coursing through the whole lineup. “I’m excited for the performers and writers to share [their work] at whatever stage they’re at,” said Ancheta. “They’re brave, and they’re really hungry for the feedback that will help them push further, closer to the finish line.”

“With all of these pieces, there’s something really about perspective,” added St. Bernard. “There’s something about not just risk and performance, but risk and experience… These are stories that I could not know if you did not tell them to me. And I think that’s an important piece of broadening the voices in theatre.”

Brave New Works Festival runs June 6-8 at Theatre Aquarius. You can learn more here.

Liam Donovan

Liam Donovan

Liam is Intermission’s publishing and editorial assistant. Based in Toronto, his writing has appeared in Maisonneuve, This Magazine, NEXT Magazine, and more. He loves the original Super Mario game very much.



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