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Memories Of MNTF

Memories of MNTF

PACT staff member Dylan On shares some personal memories from the Magnetic North Theatre Festival.

Yesterday evening, the Magnetic North Theatre Festival announced the cancellation of its 2017 festival. A few hours later, it was confirmed that MNTF is shutting down completely.

While I haven’t attended the festival recently, the announcement struck a chord with me.

I grew up in Ottawa, and discovered Magnetic North in the summer of 2009 (Disclaimer: I’m the youngest person in the PACT office). I’d been devouring the NAC’s programming – I was an avid Live Rush-er ($10 tickets!) and a member of their student club (yes, I’m young). I was so inspired by the productions I saw at the NAC around that time, under Peter Hinton’s artistic direction. But the few shows I saw at Magnetic North that summer were special somehow. They really were unlike anything I had seen before, and they left me with some incredibly vivid memories.

I squirmed my way through the delightfully dirty The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan from the Old Trouts (who knew erogenous zones would make great puppets?). Artistic Fraud’s Fear of Flight stunned me into breathlessness with its a capella score. I was enthralled by Catalyst’s gothic dreamworld in Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, and the production also opened my mind to what musical theatre or theatre with music could be (and hey, it could be Canadian!). My jaw dropped watching actors soar through the air in countless configurations in Realwheel’s Skydive – and I haven’t seen anything like it since.

Two actors fly through the air in Realwheels' production of Skydive.

James Sanders and Bob Frazer in Realwheels’ production of “Skydive” by Kevin Kerr. Directed by Roy Surette and Stephen Drover. Set Design by Yvan Morissette. Lighting Design by Adrian Muir. Sound Design by Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe. Costume Design by Keith A. Parent.

In 2011 when MNTF rolled back into town there was no chance I was going to miss it. I remember walking into uOttawa’s Academic Hall, being handed a small white kippah, and dancing hand in hand with a bunch of “wedding guests” before Yichud (Seclusion) from Convergence Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille – I think that was one of my first participatory experiences. I caught Daniel MacIvor in his This Is What Happens Next with Necessary Angel before realizing that he’s kind of a big deal. One Yellow Rabbit’s Kawasaki Exit puzzled and entranced me with its incredibly precise technical execution in English and Japanese, forwards and backwards. I think Five Easy Steps (To the End of the World) from Zuppa Theatre Co. was the only show I brought a friend to. They left scratching their head about just what we had seen, and we both learned first-hand about how vulnerable shaking up something as simple as seating can make an audience.

The significance of what I was seeing – theatre companies from across the country showcasing some of Canada’s top performances – didn’t fully occur to me at the time, but I was invigorated by the work, mostly because every piece had a different flavour. We have such a diversity of artistic practice across the country, and seeing a sampling of it all in a festival setting, where the ideas compress and collide in your mind because you’re seeing so much so fast was a gift I wasn’t really aware of at the time. I didn’t yet have the bird’s eye view and peripheral vision I’m fortunate to be developing in my work at PACT. I couldn’t quite grasp what it was about these shows that so excited and enthralled me.

After 2011 my priorities shifted. I was in the thick of my undergraduate studies in theatre, I’d moved away from Ottawa, I was spending all my time on student productions, and I didn’t make the time to come back for the festival in 2013 or 2015.

I didn’t really realize what I was missing. But yesterday evening I did.

I got the e-mails. I should have donated. We all should have donated.

I really didn’t spend much time at the festival and I can’t pretend to understand everything it meant to the wider Canadian theatre and performance community, but I certainly feel the loss. Theatre and performance festivals across Canada are not only places to showcase extraordinary work to a wider audience, but are also hotbeds of inspiration for emerging artists, administrators, curators, designers, playwrights, technicians, and citizens of the world. They leave an unmistakeable mark on the young and impressionable (what’s a laser disc, anyway?) and they help propel the industry forward. The loss of MNTF as a mobile festival bringing performances to a variety of Canadian cities and to a variety of young Canadian theatre geeks is tough to swallow.

But MNTF is not all Canadian theatre has going for it. There’s a whole community out there doing incredible work, at PACT Member theatres and beyond. In light of these developments, after World Day of Theatre for Children & Young People and coming up on World Theatre Day, I think we all should consider: What are we doing to inspire young minds? What more can we do? And how do we maximize the benefit to young people across the country?


Dylan On is Member Services Coordinator at PACT – an arts administrator, sometimes indie theatre producer, and more frequent theatre tweeter.

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