The Magic of Rhubarb

September 4, 2011, 9:00pm, I hopped on a Greyhound bus in Thunder Bay to move to Toronto to become a professional actor. I was alone. I was terrified. But I was also determined to find my place in the big city and add my voice to the already active and thriving theatre community. On my arrival, the first thing I did was head straight to Buddies in Bad Times to volunteer. It was the only theatre I knew about, coming from a small city. I knew that it was a queer-positive space, and being bisexual/pansexual/queer myself, I knew or at least hoped that “finding my place” could start there.

And it did.

I was given the opportunity to see incredible pieces that opened my eyes to different ways stories could be told. I watched bodies and hearts open in space. I saw people weep in their seats. I was in a space where I could be whatever, I wanted to be, and it didn’t matter that I was fat, brown, queer, lost. I was accepted at Buddies, and that provided me with a comfort that I believe allowed me to take those steps forward that I needed to, to get me where I am now.

So, fast-forward to 2015. I had just graduated from theatre school with a solo show in my hands that I didn’t know what to do with. I applied for and was accepted into Native Earth’s Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival with the piece, and I had heard about Rhubarb while I was in school, so I decided to apply. I invited Evalyn Parry and Mel Hague to the Weesageechak showing and shortly after made it to the second level of the application process. Now, at this time, I had never actually been to Rhubarb. I had volunteered for ArtAttack and, you know, been in the Cabaret space, but Rhubarb. Rhubarb was something else.

I remember the phone interview with Mel and how nervous I was. I pitched my show and myself as an artist as best I could. Mel didn’t seem to need much convincing because the next thing I knew, I was bounding down the stairs, yelling, “I’M IN THE RHUBARB FESTIVAL!”

For anyone who has never been to The Rhubarb Festival – firstly, for shame, and secondly, you are missing a wonderful and beautiful, weird, experimental, performance art party. Rhubarb takes place over the course of two snow-filled weeks in February. It’s a combination of mixed media, visual arts, theatre, music, dancing, and so much more. You get different programming each week with the addition of special presentations. A night of Rhubarb would include the option of a performance in either the fun, open Cabaret space or the traditional black-box beauty of the Chamber. For one price, you can see up to three performances and potentially a special presentation, depending on the night.

(and Buddies itself) was founded by Sky Gilbert, Matt Walsh, and Jerry Ciccoritti in 1979. Buddies was just a wee babe back then, and there was a strong need in the community to present new and cutting-edge works in development. The name itself came from a combination of “to rhubarb,” which was to complain, and “rhubarb, rhubarb” as background noise onstage. While there may have been some changes over the years, the Rhubarb Festival has remained a staple of raw, experimental, wild theatre in the queer theatre community, and I’ve talked to many artists who say that their first shows in Toronto were at the festival, proving that it acts as a gateway to furthering careers.

So there I was, dragging more snow and slush into the Cabaret on orientation night with a room full of excited creators, collaborators, actors, dancers… Some folks I knew, most I didn’t, but as usual at Buddies, that didn’t seem to matter. We each had to do an “elevator pitch” of our shows – which I’m terrible at – but I sat there, listening to everyone’s pitches and was blown away by what was going to be presented.

And let me just say, the staff and techs at Buddies are nothing short of amazing! They are some of the hardest working, supportive folks in the biz and made teching my shows super comfortable. I was really nervous performing that first year, but those audiences… The audiences that attend this festival are like no other audience I know. Supportive and lovely, and trust me, they will cheer for you no matter what. They are an audience that wants to support you – even if you fuck up. Even if you “fail.” They will WOO the loudest and let you know that you can do it.

During my time at Rhubarb, I have seen folks strain under the weight of kitchen sinks full of books, watched menstrual readings, seen an incredible solo nude dance piece, seen clowns simulate sex with balloons (hella hot), and watched some of the most jaw-dropping performance art. I’ve walked through a giant vagina with a cute girl and witnessed some important, political solo and collaborative shows. My pieces wouldn’t be where there are now without this platform, and one of the things I love, as an Indigenous artist, is that there is always Indigenous content being programmed.

There is a strong sense of home at Buddies, I find. During Rhubarb, that feeling is amplified with the number of familiar faces coming through – everyone sharing space and feeling safe and comfortable. The dressing rooms themselves act as a museum for shows past, with old posters covering – and I mean covering – every inch of the walls. Queer icons looking down on us as we slap on makeup and strange costumes, sending us love as we go out to change people’s views on what theatre and art could be.

It is like nothing I’ve ever been a part of before.

It is magic.

Full on, change your life, magic.

photo by Tanja-Tiziana

Yolanda Bonnell

Yolanda Bonnell (She/Her) is a Queer, 2 Spirit Ojibwe/South Asian Dora nominated performer, playwright and poet from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay, ON. She is co-artistic leader of manidoons collective, that she runs with Cole Alvis. www.yolandabonnell.com, www.manidoons.com

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