For many years, the SummerWorks Festival was one of the two pillars of Toronto summer theatre. In July, the Fringe offers up two weeks of scrappy indie shows, their blind lottery system resulting in a wild range of quality and style. Then, in August: SummerWorks, a much more heavily curated festival that upped the polish but matched the Fringe’s independent spirit by focusing on boundary-pushing, multi-disciplinary work mostly from emerging artists. Though SummerWorks was always smaller, it used to be a lot more like Fringe in its construction- dozens of shows programmed generously in rep over two weeks in multiple venues spread across downtown Toronto. I loved that era of SummerWorks, even if the work was rarely aimed at my taste. The sheer amount of programming was wild, unwieldy, and thrilling, and critics were invited to all of it. Many of the most inspiring artists I’ve ever seen, I saw them first at SummerWorks. I wrote about them because I saw them at SummerWorks.
The current festival is massively scaled down. Fleshed out with a live art series, a staged reading, some parties, and a workshop series not available for review, SummerWorks 2023 featured only three pieces of theatre marketed as fully completed works, one of which only played for the first weekend of the festival. While I was happy to find the festival’s curatorial identity as rewardingly forward-thinking as ever, and the standard of the work is admittedly fairly high, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss in this current format. It’s not just that less work is getting stage time (though I will always argue that unpolished prolificity breeds greater creativity than one or two perfect offerings), it’s the segmentation that takes away from the “heaping spoonfuls of art” feeling that I most joyously associate with festival season. Critics were only welcome at three performances- the most complete and recognizably “theatrical” offerings this year- and to be honest it felt a little like pulling teeth just to score a single ticket to two of those shows. I once slept on the floor of the Drake Underground to review a one-night-only performance art slumber party as part of SummerWorks; this year, I took the streetcar to the Theatre Centre for two plays and a chocolate chip cookie (cookie not included but highly recommended).
Nothing about my SummerWorks experience this year suggested that critical voices were particularly welcome. It is nonetheless my duty to say that Lady M (Margaret) is visually compelling but dramaturgically frustrating, fighting the confines of Macbeth in order to tell a mostly original story while holding on to the word “adaptation”. Far more compelling is the Midsummer-adjacent work i am your spaniel that serves as Lady M‘s bardly counterpoint and the only other reviewable production to run the entire SummerWorks schedule. Not quite a solo show but pretty close, i am your spaniel takes the form of a university lecture before spiralling into something far more abstract. Playing an eponymous but fictitious Shakespeare scholar, Winnipeg’s Gislina Patterson is utterly compelling. Somehow brilliantly dynamic when diving deep into micro deconstruction of Shakespearean text then inversely subtle and tender during the play’s most bombastic sequences, the experience of Patterson’s unforgettable performance perfectly captures the thrill of discovery that used to make SummerWorks so special.