A Brief History of Rhubarb

Our Research Intern Spencer has been very busy lately, compiling information on every single show that’s ever happened at Rhubarb. Not a small task to say the least.
Being the new expert on the subject, we invited him to share a little bit about what he’s learned about the festival and its 35 year history.

The Rhubarb Festival was born one snowy January evening inside The Dream Factory (Queen St. and Sumach St.) in 1979; it was in that same moment that Buddies and Bad Times Theatre entered the world. The festival and company were conceived by three York University grads – Sky Gilbert, Matt Walsh, and Jerry Ciccoritti – but, by 1981, Gilbert was the only remaining founder and it was he who began molding Rhubarb into what it is today.

After teaming up with Cynthia Grant and Nightwood Theatre – an equally young and sexually radical theatre company – the festival morphed into a platform for new and politically charged theatre. Artists from Toronto and across the country were drawn to Rhubarb because they felt free to ask questions, make mistakes, and play with artistic content and form. To this day, Rhubarb has remained a critic-free festival.

In 1986 Nightwood left Rhubarb to pursue their own theatre festival, Groundswell. Gilbert remained as the lead festival director for just under a decade, bringing Rhubarb to the Theatre Centre (666 King St.), the Poor Alex Theatre (296 Brunswick Ave.), and the Annex Theatre (730 Bathurst St.), before finally setting roots in the current home of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street. During that time, Rhubarb nurtured new work from hundreds of artists and was a launching pad for some of Canada’s most celebrated theatre artists, including Daniel MacIvor, Robin Fulford, Darren O’Donnell, and Moynan King.

When Gilbert left Buddies at the end of the 1995/1996 season, the Rhubarb Festival took a year long hiatus in order to readjust to the climate of contemporary theatre both in and outside of Toronto. In 1998 the festival returned with a succession of ambitious and thought-provoking festival directors: Franco Boni, Kelly Thorton, Naomi Campbell, and Moynan King.

In that time Rhubarb introduced us to artists such as Nina Arsenault, Claudia Dey, Evalyn Parry, and Hannah Moscovitch. In 2009, Erika Hennebury became Rhubarb’s lead director and guided the festival in what appeared to be an organic shift from exclusively LGBT themed theatre, to include a wider variety of alternative performance work. Postmodern movement, music, and interdisciplinary art began to fill the festival, with artists from all over the country and world – including Rae Spoon, Jess Dobkin, Neal Medlyn, Taylor Mac, and d’bi.young – showcasing their work.

Laura Nanni – Rhubarb’s current festival director – took hold of the Rhubarb reins in 2011  and it is clear that Nanni has stayed true to the efforts made by the festival directors before her, as she delves deeper into the universe of performance.

Since 1979, The Rhubarb Festival has been pushing limits and pushing buttons, critic-free and unapologetic, which is why it remains one of the world’s most raw and radical performance festivals.

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